Creating a winning culture in your organisation

How would you describe your organisation’s culture, or the culture in your own team?

It may be just a seven letter word, but it has a huge impact on how we experience work and the success of an organisation.

Culture impacts how effective our work relationships are, what we achieve as individuals and as a team. It can also impact our wellbeing, resilience and the extent we feel loyal or want to ‘get out’.

Our experience at work also influences our sense of life satisfaction and how we show up at home as well as work. The impacts of culture can clearly be far reaching.

Gary McEwan

Most leaders would also agree that it is a key differentiator and sets the most successful organisations apart, providing a unique identity and a clear competitive advantage.

I wonder what words or images are conjured up as you reflect on your current work culture, and the impact it has on you, your colleagues, and the wider organisation.

“Maintaining an effective culture is so important that it trumps even strategy”.

— Howard Stevenson, Professor at Harvard University

In this article, I am sharing five key insights followed by three tips. I have used my lived experience of more than two decades in leadership roles for large corporates. As an Executive and Team Development Coach for Developing Talent, we have experience of working with diverse cultures such as Amazon Studios, Citi, Microsoft and Cognizant.

Key insight 1. Senior Leader behaviours are the single biggest influence on culture.

Whilst it is the collective behaviours and beliefs of everyone that ultimately creates a culture, the most significant influence comes from those in the most senior leadership positions. Their behaviours are often modelled by others. This is why the real culture can feel very different to the communicated and promoted values of an organisation. All leaders need to be an integral part of creating a winning culture.

Key insight 2. Many leaders struggle with vulnerability and (inadvertently) create a culture that lacks trust, accountability, and commitment.

I have seen this time and time again when coaching leaders. The paradox is that often leaders are focused on getting results in a demanding environment. They are doing what they think is right but can inadvertently be limiting performance and growth. Often, they haven’t been given the opportunity to rethink leadership or be supported to develop themselves into a more productive leader.

I’ve simplified this into two types of leaders. Perhaps you see this in leaders around you, or as a leader, this resonates with you?

  • ‘The invulnerable Leader’: this type of leader tends to believe that they need to have the answers, or the most knowledge and that successful leadership is about authority and control. They don’t easily let down their guard or admit to mistakes. This often results in a more directive style of leadership underpinned by a fear of failure. The risk is that the leader is often exhausted. There is often low levels of discretionary effort from their teams who feel less accountable and experience limited opportunities for development and growth.
  • ‘The authentic leader’: this type of leader has learnt that their role is not to have all the answers themselves, but to develop leadership within their teams. They work with their team to overcome issues and challenges or identify opportunities. They tend to create a culture where people think for themselves, which builds healthy accountability. They recognise their success is dependent on the success of others.

Of course, in reality the most successful leaders adapt their style based on the situation. In my experience, these two styles above however, can be at the core of the leader’s beliefs about leadership and the role of a leader.

Key insight 3. Healthy, high-performance cultures have to be underpinned by Psychological Safety.

Psychological Safety is the number one factor differentiating high performing teams. It is not a ‘nice to have’. It is necessary for teams to develop a culture where they can support one another, share concerns, challenge productively, learn from mistakes and ultimately perform well as a team.

Harvard Professor Amy Edmondson has conducted almost 30 years of research into this, outlined in her book The Fearless Organisation. Her findings are supported and reinforced by an extensive two-year research program by Google (Project Aristotle) among 15,000 employees.

If we want to develop a positive culture of high performance, we know that this has to be done on a bedrock of trust and psychological safety.

Key insight 4. Successful organisations focus on the behaviours that build an effective culture.

One of the most watched Ted Talk of all time is from Simon Sinek and is called ‘Start with Why’. You may well have watched this at some point. In his talk, Simon explains why we, as humans, are biased towards the ‘what’. It’s easier and more tangible to focus on the ‘what’, and isn’t high performance all about the outcomes in any case?

I’ve often seen examples of leaders turning a blind eye to the negative behaviours of an individual because they are delivering results, or promoting people despite their behaviours and creating bigger issue with culture. Often, the ‘what’ in many cultures is more important than the ‘how’ and this needs to be addressed if we want to build a positive culture.
Simon Sinek contends that the most successful organisations start with their purpose (the ‘why’) then develop the ‘how’ and finally, the ‘what’:

  • The ‘Why’: The purpose of the organisation, department, or team. It is a motivating purpose that engages hearts as well as minds and provides meaning to what people do.
  • The ‘How’: This is the organisation’s approach to delivering their purpose. This includes the norms and behaviours of an organisation, the culture that people recognise and buy into.
  • The ‘What’: For most organisations, this tends to be clear. It is the objectives and KPI’s that get measured and tend for form part of 1 to 1’s and appraisals.

Assuming there is a clear purpose, focusing on the ‘how’ as much as the ‘what’ will help organisations to strive for best outcomes, but also leverage the benefits of a positive culture.

Key insight 5. Improving culture doesn’t need to be as complex as you might think.

This needn’t sit in the ‘too difficult to do’ pile. Yes, changing culture is about changing behaviours, which is not easy. It takes time, effort, and the right approach, but it doesn’t have to be complex. In fact, if we over complicate it then it becomes far more difficult to develop clear behaviours and expectations across multiple groups of people. Focusing on a clear, straightforward approach and gaining buy in from leaders is going to help deliver sustainable improvements.

Creating a ‘win win’ culture for your organisation

There is a saying that ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’. Organisations could have the best strategy, the most talented people, superior technology and products, yet none of this will be leveraged if they haven’t developed a winning culture.

This article is designed to give you some key points to reflect on and if you are considering developing your culture, here are my three top tips:

Tip 1. Define your aims and scope:

If you are looking to address and improve culture, leadership at the most senior levels need to be bought in and not ‘watching from the sidelines’. What it looks like for different groups may be different in scope, but it needs to involve everyone. Budget will influence scope but be creative and consider upskilling leaders to develop their own teams. If you are a large organisation, consider testing the approach in a specific area, learning and adapting before broadening it out. This helps to create momentum and buy in.

Tip 2. Keep it simple:

Don’t over engineer the approach. You don’t always need complex analysis or measurement tools on culture. You likely know what the issues are. Focus on the behaviours that you want to see changed or developed. In our experience, an insights tool can be effective as it can create a common language and help to deliver behavioural change. As long as it is simple, relatable and can be applied to the real world of work

Tip 3. Keep it live:

Consider how to develop an approach where leaders and teams continue to discuss their behaviours, hold one another accountable and embed the behaviours over time. Leaders’ role modelling the behaviours is key to culture. Whether it’s a leadership development programme, one to one coaching, or setting up ‘coaching circles’ for leaders, ongoing support can make the difference.

Culture is clearly critical to the success of organisations and can have a profound impact on people (positively or negatively). Wherever you feel you are, I hope the shared insights are useful and help you reflect on what this means to you.

This is a subject I am particularly passionate. If you want to discuss and consider how you might approach improving culture within your organisation, then feel free to get in touch.

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