Beyond the foosball table

For so many major high profile failings within corporations, one culprit comes up time and again – culture. From attempts at scaling small start ups to mature organisations, to the failure of major banking institutions implicated in the financial crash of 2008, “the way things get done around here” gets rightly scrutinised as an underlying cause of undesirable business outcomes.  Similarly, for 21st century hero organisations that boast huge successes, culture is often the first thing to be heralded in the list of secret sauce ingredients, leading to foosball tables being trotted out in staff canteens across the globe, despite culture not being something you can pick up from a student union yard sale.

Whilst it is important and necessary that a company’s culture is viewed as a strategic asset, and that trying to cultivate the most effective one for your organisation should be high on the radar of any executive leadership team; the seemingly ubiquitous foosball table, now a cliche in its own right, is a symptom of what is going wrong with so many culture change efforts. There are many definitions of culture, but at its most basic it is the behaviours that take place in an organisation, and it is extraordinary how many culture change efforts don’t seek to address the underlying causes of behaviour. Open communication in any change initiative is critical, but there are still too many culture change efforts that operate on the basis that you can simply tell people to behave a different way and they will oblige. If this was true, the diet and fitness industry would be in serious trouble as we’d only need to be told once how to get in shape! Perhaps it is because implementation of a communications plan is tangible and therefore easy to measure and prove it has been ‘done’ – it feels like an outcome even if it is not. This is also perhaps why engagement, satisfaction and even happiness scores are commonly (and misguidedly) put forward as part of culture change metrics, as they can be temporarily influenced by a well-executed comms campaign, as Celine Schillinger pointed out in recent blog post. But to focus solely on this is complete folly as it ignores the root cause of behaviour and the wider ecosystem that contributes to this, and will rarely lead to deep sustainable behavioural change.

Get to the root cause of culture

Deep down, we all know that people don’t behave in certain ways simply because they have been told to. Information, we are told, is one of a complex blend of factors that make up how we view the world, influenced by how we have grown up, what sort of life experience we have had, the people we have met and the conclusions we have drawn. These have all boiled down into a set of things we value, believe or hold as important principles – this is our mindset. And based on what we value or prioritise, we behave and act in different ways. A very simple example of this is to look at how you spend your free time. Time is a finite resource, so we have to make decisions as to what is important to us to spend our time on. People who have a deep passion for animal welfare, may spend their free time volunteering in animal shelters, for example. Interestingly this may even be different from what we say is important to us. How many times have you told everyone (even yourself) that you’re going to prioritise fitness this year and make time to go to the gym, only for it never to materialise in your behaviour? Yeah, me too. Even at an individual level, we cannot simply rely on empty words and communications. Behavioural change must come from changing your mindset, and therefore what you value and believe.

So, the million dollar question is how do you go about changing a mindset? The factors that make up a mindset are many and vast.

Dave Gray has a great animal metaphor to boil this down into something easier to understand, involving your monkey brain (conscious mind), elephant brain (unconscious mind) and lizard brain (autonomous, instinctive mind), of which the main takeaway for me is that most of your mindset is either completely unconscious or instinctive. Therefore the first step in changing this, should be to work on increasing awareness of behaviour such that the connections between the conscious and unconscious brain become stronger. This starts to strengthen a key trait needed for behaviour change, which is accountability. This is one of the most enabling traits for changing behaviour. After all, if you aren’t taking responsibility for changing your behaviour, who else will? Simple habit-forming practices work best, as if it is too complex to fit into daily life, it will not become embedded. A tool I used a few years ago in my last organisation was the Accountability Ladder, which took on a life of its own as people started to hold each other to account; having honest discussions about where on the ladder they were in difficult situations. Dave has also created some practices on how to strengthen your conscious and unconscious connection, in his Liminal Thinking work, and we’re really excited to be hosting him next month at Post*Shift as he talks about what he has developed – see here for tickets if you are interested in coming along to hear his insights.

From individuals to many

However, we are still talking at an individual level, and if that sounds daunting enough, how do you even attempt to go about changing the mindset of an organisation? For me, a good starting point is to take a two-pronged approach.

First, is the individual in the organisation. Distribute responsibility for changing the organisational mindset and company culture down as far as possible. Utilise change agent networks to help co-create and exemplify the desired mindset and culture where possible, and to spread communication of why the organisational mindset needs to change. Find simple techniques and tools for employees to use, such as the accountability ladder or liminal thinking practices, to empower and support employees in strengthening their own and their teams self-awareness and accountability for the desired mindset change.

Secondly, consider the aspects of the organisational ecosystem that send messages to employees about what is important or valued in the company. This will have formed the basis of the current mindset and therefore behaviours of the organisation, and so should be reviewed to make sure they are aligned to the new desired mindset. Failure to do so will send mixed messages to the employee, and in times of confusion or stress, we will always go back to what we ‘know’ or what is safe – i.e. revert back to old behaviour. As Dave talks about, individuals create their own ‘self sealing logic’ and the organisation as an entity will have contributed towards this. It will be impossible and unrealistic to try to change everything – so prioritising those with the most influence on mindset will be key. Organisational messages can come from:

  • The environment the organisation creates – the discordance of many traditional organisations claiming to value ‘collaboration’ and then still operating in cubicles, offices and locked floors is a classic example
  • The people who influence the organisation – this includes both explicit messages (what is said) but also more importantly implicit messages (what is done). Individuals in organisations will take cues on what is important or valued in the organisation from influencers (not just leaders), and many of these cues are from actions rather than words
  • The systems and processes the organisation operates by – larger processes (budgeting, strategy, resource planning) send big signals to employees about what is valued, and this will contribute towards the prevailing mindset, however smaller systems can sometimes have undue influence (dress code, parking space priority)

Sure, it’s easier to stick some words on a wall, but we all know how that goes. Culture change is not easy, but the best prizes never are. But it is achievable with commitment, prioritisation and focus on the right things, and leveraging the power of the individual.