Philip Houghton: Culture Development & the Road Less Travelled

While there are a number of foundational practices – such as explicit culture leadership from the CEO and the top team (see our top 10 culture development foundations here) – there are also a number of ‘deeper’ practices that are needed to build on these foundations.

These are practices where leaders have traditionally engaged less effectively. Yet, get them right and there is the opportunity to have an even more profound impact on organisational performance while helping to shape a culture that can adapt and flex to meet ever-changing market conditions.

The power of six

Here are six ‘deeper’ practices that leaders can use to drive a more dynamic, adaptive and ultimately successful business culture:

1. Own the culture

According to Edgar Schein¹, culture is a result of the considerable and ongoing learning an organisation has accumulated about what works and doesn’t work in its particular context. Over time we absorb the culture; starting as witnesses to it, engaging with it and ultimately becoming it through myriad conversations, meetings and our close observation of organisational life. Culture evolution, therefore, starts with the understanding that culture fundamentally exists ‘within us’ rather than outside of us. To own the culture as residing within us gives us choice and empowers us to act. No longer is the culture ‘out there’ or a problem with ‘them’, but is something we can all influence and shape through a new level of commitment.

2. Be aware

It can help to look at leadership and culture though the lens of ‘conversations’. Given the majority of the leader’s time is engaged in conversations² on specific business issues and challenges (i.e. through meetings, emails, workshops, presentations, business reviews, investor briefings, etc) – and that the culture lives within us – it’s very likely that when in dialogue on business topics the culture will show up too.

With an awareness that culture lives within us and shows up in business conversations, we can start to become more conscious of how the culture impacts our (and subsequently others’) thinking, behaviours, decision-making and energy. In psychological language, this is called mindfulness³. It generally starts with an internal ‘awareness’ of what is happening before becoming an internal ‘inquiry’. For example, “I notice the energy just dropped through the floor in this meeting…” (Internal awareness), “I wonder what caused that to happen…?” (Internal inquiry).

3. Choose your mindset

Fundamental to the process of engaging effectively from our awareness is what Carol Dweck⁴ has termed a ‘growth mind-set’. When we are growth-minded we engage with the world as ‘learners’ – curious about what is happening and open to how we can adapt and grow to become even more effective. We have the confident humility to say “I don’t know yet”.

In contrast, when we are ‘fixed-minded’, we engage much less with curiosity and more with certainty. We may assert our point of view because ‘that’s how we’ve always done it’, or because ‘that’s my area of expertise’. But in doing so we also lose our openness to other perspectives, or to finding the best solutions.

4. Surface the culture dynamics

So, going back to our meeting example in ‘Be aware’, the energy has dropped through the floor. You conduct an internal inquiry and start to explore your internal awareness and perceptions of what happened. You’re reminded that you can choose your mindset – i.e. to be inquisitive (growth-minded) or to be certain (fixed-minded). Instead of insisting everyone ‘just gets on board’ – as would be your usual style – you smile and calmly ask a question:

“I notice the energy just abruptly left the room; I think perhaps because I just closed the conversation down! Tell me what you’re thinking right now…”

Now you have started to surface the culture dynamics because they are showing up in your conversation. Rather than being typically ‘direct and forthright’, as is the custom in your business, you have created a space for genuine, courageous dialogue. However, the quality of the dialogue is now dependent on one other thing…

5. Create psychological safety

Imagine for a moment an environment in which everyone feels psychologically safe; allowing us all to be totally present to the situation or challenge we are facing. There are no ‘interferences’ in the shape of wanting to impress the boss, not challenging in fear of losing that bonus, or avoiding making a mistake in the group. Here we can start to enquire openly and surface the assumptions and beliefs, habits and perceptions, thoughts and feelings that are REALLY present.

Psychological safety⁵ is the fundamental condition for open and honest two-way conversations. You may think you have honesty with your colleagues and your people, but unless they can talk as ‘straight’ in your direction, as you do in their direction, you will struggle to surface the underlying blockers to great performance. And this takes leaders into the space of building more open, transparent, trusting, collaborative relationships.

6. Enable new thinking

With psychological safety present, founded on deeper more open relationships, and the confident humility to ‘not know yet’, we can put aside ‘my-way’ vs ‘your-way’ and co-create (or empower others to find) a ‘new-way’.

Here we enter the unchartered territory of deeper discovery and innovation, and unlock the real barriers to change. We access people’s full creative potential and we engage their deeper energies – by asking powerful questions, rather than feeling the need to provide all the answers.