In most leaders’ careers, there will be at least one moment in which company culture comes roaring to the top of business priorities. Issues that had been annoyances for months – such as projects with slipping timelines, upticks in employee absenteeism, and grumbling that was becoming ever-present – give way to fully-formed problems with material impact to the business.
When these moments of reckoning arrive, it’s not uncommon for company executives to be taken completely off-guard by both the scale and impact of the problem. What was perhaps an annoyance previously suddenly swells into a serious issue, and one demanding immediate action.
The easiest action to take in these moments is one of reaction, and that can set the organisation even further back, as reactivity very rarely finds and resolves the complex underlying issues that combine to create a cultural crisis.
Over the years, I have identified what I call “The Four Stages of Cultural Change” that are necessary for leaders to work through if they hope to effectively resolve the problems, regain employee trust, and rebuild a strong, healthy, successful culture for their company. As you’ll see, the four stages aren’t just an approach. They’re the basis of a structure and framework that can help leaders leverage the “Kaizen” approach of continuous improvements to deliver significant degrees of change over time.
Acceptance: First and foremost, a leader needs to be willing to accept the scope of the problem and its relationship with company culture. Issues that are arising within teams are rarely one-off situations with easy, one-size-fits-all solutions.
Understanding: Progress starts with understanding the truth, and to what extent issues are prevalent within the organisation. Every company and situation will have its own truth, and that truth can vary between teams and departments. Fearless pursuit of the truth will arm a leader with insights that will frame the solution.
Communication: Developing an open and ongoing communication loop with employees is crucial: leaders need to share what’s important, and they also need to invite regular employee feedback. The best way is an anonymous, non-threatening approach that assures employees of their confidentiality.
Committing to improved communication not only extends an olive branch to employees during trying moments – but it also makes them an ally. Transparency will build trust and is likely to aid the flow of crucial information to the leadership team, as well.
Action: Equipped with a clear understanding of the situation, the leader can chart his or her course and take focused action. Using a systematic approach and taking repeated actions (and backing those up with clear communication and feedback) a leader will be able to work through and resolve issues with efficiency.
Taken together, the four stages enable leaders to create “listening organisations” that harness intelligence and feedback into powerful contributors to improvements for the business, and relationships with employees. As leaders and organisations improve their habits of gathering truth, communicating transparently, and taking focused action to deliver improvements,
One last observation: in my experience, by the time culture issues garner the attention of the executive suite, it’s often too late. The horse, as they say, is well out of the barn. In fact, to continue the analogy, it’s not just out of the barn, it’s running amok in the neighbor’s garden, trampling the shrubbery, and eating the roses.
Establishing a framework using the four steps outlined above are even more valuable in preventing issues from growing into the kinds of cultural problems that impact the bottom line.