Leaders can transform culture & behaviour by uncovering & shifting the frequent unconscious decisions made by groups every moment

As an advocate of ‘appreciative inquiry’, I don’t believe in spending too much time analysing the problems (what is going wrong) in an organisation’s current state. However, I do believe that effective transformation requires a good understanding (without judgement) of the subject you are trying to change. Secondly, it requires identification of the ‘key creative forces’ that occurred in the past to bring the subject into being in its current form. Both these steps apply to the transformation of organisational cultures.

So if organisational culture is the subject, what is culture? There are many definitions of culture in management literature. For me, culture is that attribute of a group of people which illustrates the group’s purpose, what it actually values, and its ‘war wounds’ (i.e. the group’s history together, including its multiple shared experiences related to collective problem solving). Schein defines culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group has learned as it solved problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and therefore to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems”. These assumptions are the unconscious decisions made by a group, affecting how they: (1)  perceive the world, (2) define success; and (3) solve existential challenges to be successful.

Early in a group’s formation, conscious decisions are made to solve specific problems. Decisions leading to success are repeated by the group, and if further success is achieved, they become increasingly automatic, forming an ongoing and often unconscious part of the way the group behaves going forward. If a new member joins the group, that member is most likely to build rapport by behaving in similar ways as the established members (in particular modelling the behaviours of specific influential members), thus perpetuating the culture.

However, a group’s external world is becoming increasingly complex, and the pace of change continues to increase. As Beck & Cowan share in their book ‘Spiral Dynamics’, tomorrow’s problems won’t be solved by today’s solutions. The challenge for any leader/group/organisation is that the “pattern of shared assumptions” that led to past successes may not do so in the future. As existential challenges change, so must the decisions and behaviour of the leader and group seeking to address them. Thus, a critical enabler of future success is a leader’s/groups ability to review and shift entrenched “patterns of shared assumptions”. To do this, they must understand the ‘key creative forces’ that occurred in the past to create the organisation’s culture in its current form.

When faced with changing organisational culture, what can leaders/groups do? Shift to conscious decision making and behavioural choices. Here are some suggestions for consideration:

1.       Adopt the 3rd/observer position. As an immediate quick win, this technique involves the ability to both be in a situation, as well as be an impartial observer of the situation. If executed well, it enables an individual/leader to be: (1) actively involved in the milieu; (2) evaluating the responses of other parties as well as their own; and (3) identifying the deeper/unconscious assumptions/processes shaping individual/collective perceptions and outcomes within the milieu. Learnings from this technique can enable the group to surface and test key assumptions, stop unproductive behaviours, and shift the group toward a more productive outcome.

2.       Turn the ‘unconscious’ into the ‘conscious’. Another quick win involves leaders and/or groups challenging existing decision processes/behaviour for fit and utility with the challenges of today. Ask questions like: What is different about today compared to last week, and what is our response? What needs to be different as a result of this meeting? What are we really trying to achieve from our time together? What could we do differently together to shake things up? What new approaches to problem solving and/or ‘solutioning’ can we apply? What questions should be asking right now? What did we just assume in making that decision – are those assumptions valid in this instance?

3.       Become a ‘part-time anthropologist’. Without living/getting caught in the past (hence ‘part-time’), seek to understand key formation/development moments in a group’s history. Ask questions like: What problems has the group typically had to solve? What decisions have they made in the past? Which decisions led to success/failure? What barriers did the group overcome to get to ‘today’? What tipping points/moments of greatness exist in the groups historical timeline? What is the group’s story so far?

4.       Explore organisational strategy implications. Having established the tasks/problems which gave rise to the existing culture, a leader must then understand what tasks/problems are to be addressed by the group in the future. The degree to which these future activities (and how they can be tackled) differ from those of the past will provide the leader with insights into the scope and scale of the culture change required to deliver success. Clearly articulating the barriers, enablers and activities related to strategy execution will provide the leader and group members with crucial information for affecting cultural change.

5.       Focus on the ‘Right Few’. Schein, Katzenbach and others advocate that successful culture change involves not attempting to change the culture directly,  but rather it involves focussing on the few critical behaviours which matters most in key populations. If this position is linked to the previous review of organisational strategy, then future success involves leaders and groups: (1) identifying the critical few elements/initiatives of the strategy which deliver the biggest/most immediate benefits; (2) applying focussed attention to implement the few key organisational capabilities (people, process, technology) required to deliver prioritised strategy elements; and (3) changing and managing the few critical behaviours aligned to prioritised strategy and capability execution in key employee populations.

Keen to hear your thoughts…

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2 thoughts on “Leaders can transform culture & behaviour by uncovering & shifting the frequent unconscious decisions made by groups every moment

  1. Dr.Phil hi – great article and very practical indeed in assisting teams and individuals get "on the bus".Despite yours and Schein’s culture definition, I make the assumption that an organisation or team’s culture is the behaviour/(s) an organisation accepts – or what can be "got away with" at any time. ‘Culture’s friend is the modelling, rewarding and challenging the right behaviour. Leadership his brother. Great teams and great companies will all have a combination of two things: (1) they work at (and don’t ignore) the dedication to building strong, professional relationships and (2) they work to an agreed behavioural framework, i.e. what are the non-negotiable behaviours and flush out the counter productive behaviours.For those reasons, I think 5#5 is your most practical as a change agent, but I suspect they all have their place.CheersCharlie

  2. Great comments! Organisations accept behaviour on the basis that it has resulted in some successful problem solving. However, what worked previously may not be helpful now. Also, organisations can continue to reward out-dated behaviours – particularly if those behaviours made leaders successful early in their careers. More to come – thanks for the feedback.

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