How to embed leadership / cultural innovation in 5 moves

1. Talk about why more than how

Are your leaders promoting what to do, and how to do it, rather than why it should be done, “your why” as Simon Sinek calls it? People won’t authenticate their leaders, ie won’t accept their leadership, unless they believe in their reasons.

Major General Peter Chiswell, eminent former British special services commander, once put this very bluntly to me.  “You can’t ask a man to die for you unless he knows you love him and you love the Regiment”. When I asked him to put that into a business context he told me that leadership in one word is “love”.  In commercial leadership terms we think of it this way. You can’t ask a person to give you their discretionary effort unless they know you care about their outcomes and care about the company’s people.  I believe this is increasingly becoming the reality at the heart of employee engagement.

If people do not accept leadership’s motivations and values they will not engage. With increasingly mobile knowledge-worker populations the risks of people moving on in search of shared values are escalating. And the associated costs are soaring.  The benefits of a values congruent corporate purpose are enormous.  Think Apple and Google.


2. Don’t empower, emancipate

Another retired senior military officer, US Navy Captain David Marquet, has similar advice.  In his approach, which he calls leader-leader, he focuses on going beyond empowerment all the way to emancipation.  Everybody at all levels in an organisation is a leader. He baulks at the very idea that people in organisations only have the power to act if it is given to them by their bosses.  He calls that sort of culture leader-follower, a set-up where leaders take all the decisions and followers just to do as they’re told.  He says don’t empower, emancipate.

Are your people showing less initiative than you’d like?  Are they reluctant to act proactively? Are they so afraid to act without permission that if you’re not there to say “OK” things don’t get done?  This can happen when an organisation’s attempts to empower people inadvertently reinforce the message that people only have power to act because their boss gives it to them.  So people don’t feel they have permission to act at all.  If their boss gave it, he/she can just as easily take it away again.  So fundamentally there is no universal right to take action.  It’s not in the organisation’s DNA.

People are acutely aware of the inherent hypocrisy in initiatives that seek to install a bottom-up culture in a top-down way.  They simply don’t believe in them nor trust the intentions of the people behind them.


3. From C level to sea level it’s just “us”, there’s no “them”

I remember working on a cultural initiative handed down from Group with the UK CEO of a global pharma.  He was explaining to his extended management team what the new values meant in practise.  I’ll never forget him walking up to the screen on which one of the new values “License to make mistakes” was being projected.  He place his hand over the “s” in the word “mistakes” while turning round and literally glaring at the room while he said “Clear?”.  It was indeed very clear – and the values initiative collapsed right there.  This became one of the many organisations I know where senior middle management and below show admirably resonant leadership values in their behaviour, the impact of which is undermined by C-Suite members who think they are above it all.  Unless the target values manifest in the Board room, no-one will respect leadership’s motives.


4. Crossing the chasm

The diffusion of innovations process is in play here.  Not everyone is equally pre-disposed to adopting a new culture or leadership ethos.  You’re probably more familiar with the model as it applies to new technology, but the five adopter groups are the same.

  • Innovators jump right in, they probably had a hand in creating the new initiative
  • Early adopters, adventurous and often enjoying change for it’s own sake, come on board quickly, happy to take quite a lot on faith.

These two groups probably represent less than 20% of your population.  What we are really interested in is the next two groups representing the vast majority:

  • Early majority: open to change once they’ve heard the full argument, active in influencing others
  • Late majority: less active and more conservative.

The challenge we have is the gap between early adopters and the early majority, what George Moore calls the chasm.  It results from the conservative early majority being more sceptical than early adopters.  They need more information, even a complete business case, before they get on board.  If you’re stuck in the chasm, take a look at your messaging and its information content.  Go back to point 1 – talk more about the why than the how.

Once the early majority is on board the late majority will follow, being persuaded by the same information, just more slowly, so long as you maintain your messaging.

The final group, known as laggards or phobics, may never fully come on board – these will probably be 5-20% of the people we are concerned with.  If you have a substantial laggard group you probably need an external intervention to change their mindset.


5. Teach people how to change

So you’ve won the debate, the majority are on board, but still there are more than a few individuals whose behaviour is conspicuously at odds with the new leadership / cultural values.  Particularly when they are under pressure, old style unwanted behaviours manifest.  They talk a good game, are persuaded as to the merits of the argument, they just don’t do it consistently.  The challenge with this is that it gives other people who might be wavering an excuse not to keep trying.  Furthermore, unless leadership do something about it, it calls their commitment to the whole process into question.

What’s going on here is nothing new and I’ve blogged about it before.  There’s all the difference in the world between knowing what to do and always doing it.  Yo-yo dieting for example.  And the world is full of people who have been wanting to change something about themselves for years or even decades without success.

People try to change by being strong – and that always fails.  We need to teach people how to change themselves through cognitive restructuring, which works and sustains. It’s one factor behind John Carr’s famous success with smokers (30 million stopped & counting!),  It’s at the core of CBT which has revolutionised our success in treating a wide range of psychopathologies. And it’s behind Positive Psychology’s transformational 94% success rate with serious depression.

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