Times are tough in corporate America, making jobs harder to get and keep. In times of economic uncertainty, it can be hard to keep employees motivated and productive. Sometimes, as managers get increasingly frustrated with a company’s slowed financial growth, intractable problems of performance, employee dissatisfaction, and the desire for a silver bullet solution can tempt them to shift quickly amongst a variety of change initiatives to try to make some headway. These are just the kind of circumstances that encourage employees to accuse management of sponsoring “flavor-of-the-month” programs.
It can be demoralizing when it seems like nothing does any good, no matter how many new things you try. If that’s the case — if problems keep mounting even though you’ve tried to make improvements — maybe it’s time to stop banging your head against the wall of individual behavior and particular circumstances and do a broad culture scan.
Culture and infrastructure are often stronger and more resilient than even the most dominant individuals. Long-standing structures and habituated processes and procedures can be difficult to modify despite the best of intentions.
Trying to change the people or the way they behave, without changing the underlying structure that either supports them or blocks them, is like trying to bail out the ocean with a ladle. You may move a lot of water over time but, somehow, the job just never gets finished.
Long-sustained cultures tend to protect status and selected memory, and to discount new inputs and attempted improvements: “We tried that and it didn’t work” or “We don’t do that kind of thing.” This can be as true for a department or work group as for an entire organization.
Even if you’re able to conceptualize a new vision for the future, though, just dictating the kinds of changes people have to make, and using threats or raw power to compel their compliance, rarely works for the long term. Too many old habits will pop up to subvert the new rules.
Instead, it’s often more productive to try to restructure the environment, and even the work itself. Then people may adapt because the real needs of the environment demand their change, not just because management tried to force them to behave in a way they didn’t choose.
Finding the reality underneath Sometimes you can change the way the work gets done with new objectives, goals, and processes. And sometimes you have to change the structure by realigning the boxes and the information flows. So first try to draw out all the current workflows and information flows.
Look for conflicts at the borders of departments or individuals’ authority, and in the places where processes or turf overlap. Dig deeper into the areas that either customers or employees tend to complain about or resist; they often lead you to the most troubling border zones or conflict spots.
Get all the relevant constituents — or at least their representatives — to participate as early in the review process as possible. If you can, have them involved from the very beginning of the mapping process, or at least get them in to verify all the pain points once you have them on your initial draft schematic.
Many managers make the mistake of assuming that it’s the people who are the problem; that they have a bad attitude or that they need a new or better kind of training. Don’t just leap in with a people-based solution, because bad systems are almost always stronger than good people.
It may sound cynical, but you can’t assume that even high-performing, apparently satisfied employees trust their management in general or you in particular. There needs to be a track record of the groups and individuals working together on new issues or in new ways with more openness and credibility — and lack of finger-pointing, information-hoarding, or stonewalling — than before.
Instead of permitting the typical discussions about “the fact that” some circumstance is or isn’t a problem or that “a lot of people” are happy or unhappy with the way things are going, ask for the evidence to substantiate these claims. How are you tracking the number of people? What evidence do you have that they’re happy or unhappy?
The more reality there is on the table in the form of comprehensive, substantiated facts, the easier it will be to diagnose and treat any difficulties, or to replicate success, if you’re actually having some.
The sharing of data is one of the most effective levers in any culture change. You don’t know if you’re doing a good job or a bad job if there are no clear data, and no one else does either.
The sources of a problem or a triumph may not be apparent, so let the data speak for you. Teach people to find and understand the relevant facts.
Whether the news is good or bad, share and substantiate information so everyone can trust it — and the conclusions and recommendations that come from it. This way, there will be fewer perceptions of autocratic action, or a witch hunt when something goes wrong, or favoritism when praise is handed out. You should also focus on sharing the history and mythic stories that demonstrate the company’s desired values and norms.
Assume up front that you’ll need regularly scheduled meetings to discuss issues and progress. If you plan these conversations preemptively, you can avoid the impression of staged inquisitions and blame-fests and focus instead on shared learning.
You’ll need to be fairly structured about agendas, deliverables, and meeting management until these norms are so clearly inculcated that you can afford to be less strict about them.
What to expect from the staff As you go through this process of culture change, you may find that some managers appear to disengage when they have to explain themselves and their actions publicly, or they may claim that they’re being micro-managed. These are often folks who were merely coasting before, or who were less committed to the institution but were comfortable with the status quo.
Some may even have been experiencing career inertia and complaining of feeling stalled or bored. They may have been generally compliant with requirements as long as no extra effort was required, but they may not be willing to make new personal investments that will secure a glowing future for everyone.
On the other hand, you may notice other “emerging leaders” who become motivated by the new, larger goals or by the chance to rise to the occasion and become stars. These folks will run with every new idea and come up with more of their own.
A third type of employee may see and grab opportunities to succeed or contribute specifically because they appreciate the new evidence-based clarity now that success doesn’t accrue solely based on the old perceived wisdom or status.
If any employee thrills you with his or her new ideas or energy, be sure to praise! It’s a classic management pitfall to expend too much energy and attention on the problem children: Those individuals who create difficulties by resting on their laurels or, worse, who are obstructionist about the larger changes and cavil about the details.
Why go to all this trouble? When a management group or work team in a poorly performing culture is confronted with a transitory crisis or a long standing difficulty — a product quality problem, a labor market issue, a competitive challenge, or the discovery of internal malfeasance — the business is more likely than not to experience a general sense of helplessness.
Or the company may see a rush of panicked and contradictory actions, finger-pointing and blaming as individuals try to sidestep responsibility.
Without a culture-based intervention to reorient and refocus the participants, the entire organization can spiral downward into a costly abyss of ineffectiveness. Sound dramatic? It is — and it’s also all too common.
Teaching employees at every level to analyze situations, identify stress points and potential exposures, provide actionable data, and communicate regularly and candidly will help ready the organization for the next big blow, or position it for a soaring trajectory upward into future success. Also dramatic, but a much better outcome.
Liz Kislik is president of Liz Kislik Associates (www.lizkislik.com), a Rockville Centre, NY-based consultancy.