Sustaining the culture journey when times get tough

perspectives Jul 13, 2017

In a recent conversation, a CEO shared his exasperation of how slow his executive team was, in consistently demonstrating behaviours they had all agreed to.

This was despite significant investment of time, a substantial shift in the behaviour and expectations of the CEO and a couple of team members taking genuine steps forward in their own behaviours. “Why,” he lamented, “is it so difficult for people to do what is obviously right? “

Many of us have been on journeys of behavioural change or personal development in our lives, and it is a very rare person that can claim to have seamlessly and effortlessly achieved each development goal they have set. In fact, we might ponder the truth of such a proclamation, or wonder how big of a stretch a person set themselves if this is really the case.

Sustainable behaviour change and personal development is a long and at times challenging journey that requires deep transformation to be traversed.

Knowing how hard it is for individuals to do their own personal work, let’s throw in some wildly different perspectives and beliefs, called our teammates, and endeavour to deliver a strategy in the face of chaotic market conditions while we courageously challenge each other.

Businesswoman with briefcase standing on the edge of rock gap

On the cold face of it, we are so immensely different and unique as human beings that it can sometimes appear a complete miracle that we can work together at all. The more we become aware of what we are trying to create, the greater the gap or chasm may appear.

And just when you thought that was enough bad news, this one seals the deal:

People are guided by perceptions and unconsciously look for reinforcing information to validate their current beliefs. If they believe that there is a culture of favourites, then they become finally attuned to ‘a favourite child’ being given resources, rather than to any evidence to the contrary.

This means, you can shift the actual behaviours and actions of a group of people over a short period of time, but unless that new norm is reinforced, celebrated and paid attention to, reversion to the old norm happens faster than a Donald Trump tweet.

Concept of risk and crisis in business

Sound bleak? Sound familiar? Sound evenly vaguely personal? If it is, then you are reading the right blog. One of the biggest inhibitors we have found in culture change work is the energy required to genuinely shift beliefs and mindsets until such a time that a new norm is so strongly in place that it becomes the default mindset and behaviours. How do you hang tough until perceptions catch up with emerging norms?

If you are in the unenviable position of holding the space for a new way of being to emerge in your organisation, then take some solace in the words of the late, great Leonard Cohen “there is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”.

It is through the struggle that a new way is forged. For organisations to truly adapt and evolve when facing into this ever-widening gap between intention and reality, we invite you and your organisation to consider the following:

Harnessing the energy for change

  • The pain you experience when there is a gap between aspirational culture and current culture is a necessary (albeit uncomfortable) pain which has as its positive intent a constant reminder to move forward.
  • Deep levels of empathy are required to understand that even the best-intentioned people will fall and stumble. And deep accountability is also required to remind people that each time they fall and stumble (as will happen), it is not an excuse to turn back, but a responsibility to learn how to move forward more gracefully and skillfully.
  • While accountability and pain are to stop us from going back or staying where we are, a positive aspiration is required to provide energy to move forward. Take very opportunity to remind the organisation of why the aspirational culture is important, and celebrate the benefits with tenacity.

Everything is a learning AND a supporting opportunity

  • In-the-moment-leadership is critical. Each moment of poor behaviour or excuse that you let slip past will shape the culture. Every conversation that pays attention to the shortfalls and the triumphs of change is a cultural intervention. It is in the smallest shifts and changes that the emerging culture will be forged.
  • This is a tough journey. It requires patience and acknowledgement of small steps of progress and support from each other.
  • When someone trips and falls, the first question may be “what did they learn?”. The second question must be “what could those around them have done differently to better support that person?”

Business person look at arrows, makes decision concept 

Personal responsibility

  • When people are truly lost and do not know what they need to do differently, projection and the blame game become prevalent – your role is to kindly ask them, “in the face of these challenges, how can you choose to respond?” or “Imagine that everyone has the tiniest pebble of responsibility in a situation – you, others, the environment. The one thing you control is how you respond – what is your part of the mess?”
  • If you want people to be on board with the change, you will need to be a role model. Your role modelling helps them to see it is possible to change, it provides examples of what to do and it takes away the excuse of “if you aren’t living up to cultural expectations, then how do you expect me to?”

If adapting and evolving were easy, the history of mankind would be entirely different! While we cannot read the mind of the maker, the blueprint of human development includes the moments of facing into our hardest challenges. It is often called the dark night of the soul. From the darkest caves, we face our opposition and it is always the same person – ourselves. Yet when we truly face into those moments, we free our souls and release an enormous amount of energy.

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