Giselle Nicholson, MAPP '06, is a social behaviorist obsessed with leadership development, team-building, and social innovation. She poses hard questions that invite candor and ah-ha! moments critical to effective, lasting change. What makes her jump out of bed in the morning is the opportunity to partner with leaders, teams, and organizations to ignite and develop high impact solutions to pressing problems. Full bio.
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Editor’s note: For more on this topic, listen to Giselle’s session in the virtual conference to run all day on March 20 in honor of International Happiness Day. Click here to find out more and register. The conference starts at midnight GMT on March 20. It is free during International Happiness Day. Recordings are available for a modest price after the day.
Organizational culture, often described as “the way we do things around here,” is a management challenge begging for positive intervention. Yet it is an asset often taken for granted by traditional companies that believe it is hard to define, measure, and manage proactively. Those companies have it wrong. Investing in culture provides returns in competitive advantage, employee satisfaction, improved distribution of information, clearer communication, nimbler implementation, and more.
Even though more and more leaders paying attention to culture’s strength, I’ve found that most informational resources focus on “why” culture is important and “what” good culture looks like, instead of “how” to go about changing it. The most immediately powerful step towards cultural change is for leaders to change their own behaviors because positive leadership habits build and reinforce a positive culture.
So if you are like the 96% of executives who say some change in their culture is needed, read on for some insight into the five behavioral practices I believe leaders must demonstrate in order to positively impact culture.
Practice 1: Commit to a Higher Purpose“Get 80% of the world’s population connected to the Internet.” This statement led Mark Zuckerberg’s keynote speech at the Mobile World Congress just a few weeks ago. He did not talk about signing up more Facebook users or acquiring new apps; he spoke about vision, meaning, and purpose. Positive leaders have clarity of purpose, They understand the deep needs of their stakeholders and are able to articulate, believe in, and live a clear purpose or vision. Then they communicate it over and over. This is precisely why the CEO must be a culture-builder.
Robert Quinn teaches that commitment to a higher purpose helps us move forward through fear or conflict when we are in a place of uncertainty or challenge. Purpose requires us to take the long-term, strategic view. When we do this not only does organizational culture and society benefit, but it also helps employees to survive the everyday ups and downs. Any hiring manager will tell you that one of the highest priorities among young job candidates is their desire to work for organizations that pay attention to social responsibility, in other words, a higher purpose other than just profits.
Next time you introduce a new project or change initiative, ask yourself: “What really drives this employee? How can I tap into what they believe are their most meaningful contributions and connect those to the task at hand?”
Practice 2: Build Trust
Think about a manager you loved working for or a meaningful relationship outside of work. What made that relationship work? What encouraged you to deliver your best for that person? Most would say, Trust. Positive leaders build collaborative trust within their networks.I emphasize ‘collaborative’ because trust develops from the joint experience of working together, which requires collaboration and dialogue. When trust is high we are more likely to develop positive, implicit ways of working with others.
Working well with others and building trust requires that leaders recognize everyone is human. It is about respecting who people are before they enter the office door and the unique talents they bring to work. Managers that structure a coaching relationship with their team typically encourage ongoing conversations about performance and intentionally ask questions that support trust building.
Ask yourself questions such as: “Am I reliable and consistent in making sure my deeds follow my words? Do I genuinely demonstrate compassion for my colleagues? What kind of listener am I?”
Practice 3: Be driven by strengths and values
This one should be obvious to regular PPND readers: leaders that positively impact culture are driven by strengths and values. Positive leaders deliberately define and live their values, strengths, and passions, and they understand that the same needs to be done at the organizational level. These leaders are often described as authentic and with strong character because they appreciate how their inner experiences and personal history drive who they are at work, and they understand this is also true of their coworkers. They also know how to build their immediate team in a way that mobilizes everyone’s greatest strengths to achieve sustainable success. Positive leaders remind themselves they are only one person and that every success is the result of teamwork.
Ask yourself: “What can I do on a more consistent basis to make sure my values are expressed and lived? What do I want to be remembered for? Would employees say they are able to live our company’s values?”Practice 4: Focus on the Humans, Not Just the Job
As my friend and MAPP classmate Sulynn Choong says, “Positive leaders focus on the human being too, not just the job. They know that if the human being isn’t happy that nothing good gets done…and they are open to accepting that they themselves are part of the [cultural] change.”
Leaders that do this practice emotionally intelligent communication to develop self-awareness of how they affect others and to build meaningful relationships. Emotional intelligence research tells us that a wide range of EI competencies distinguish top performers from average ones, including self-awareness, empathy, judgment, and resilience. These leaders “create climates in which information sharing, trust, healthy risk-taking, and learning flourish.”
This practice contributes to a leader’s ability to be a positive energizer, modeling and building positive energy networks and connections with others. They are able to appeal to people’s rational and emotional sides. (Most often there is a rational business case for culture change and formal ways to go about it, but this case needs to be combined with emotional appeals at more personal levels.) This kind of communication relies on strong empathic and active listening skills, as well as the ability to leverage the power of culture with storytelling. Every company I know of with a strong culture has pivotal stories that explain how they got to where they are today.Ask yourself: “What stories illustrate my/our values in action (personal or organizational) that are a natural way to reinforce our desired culture? How can I improve the way in which I communicate to others to improve understanding, inspire confidence, and direct action?”
Practice 5: Personify a Growth Mindset
Finally, positive impact leaders personify a growth mindset, fueled by dogged commitment. These leaders believe their own abilities expand over time, so they are more likely to persist in the face of difficulty. Having a growth mindset is about demonstrating humility and willingness to learn, grow, and stretch rather than trying to prove expertise and knowledge. These leaders do not shirk responsibility or applaud passive progress; they are committed to moving towards goals in a way that is learning and results-oriented. This is strongly linked to having sharp clarity of purpose and using a collaborative approach to achieving long-term goals. You can bet this practice comes in handy for situations that demand courage and guts!
It’s easy when surrounded by intelligent coworkers to feel the need to display feathers, but much more productive to creating a positive work climate when leaders demonstrate curiosity instead.Rather than thinking, “What can I teach? How can I prove myself here?”, ask yourself: “What can I learn from this situation? What other perspectives are possible?”
In sum, culture formation is an ongoing, deliberate practice that starts with top-level leadership. There are no shortcuts and contrary to popular belief it takes rigorous effort. I encourage you to regularly measure the health of your organization’s culture to best understand how to leverage culture to drive and sustain change.
Check out my video in the International Happiness Day virtual conference on the March 20th for more information and to hear me talk with three leaders who are living these practices: Sulynn Choong in Malaysia, Lisa Watson from Downtown Women’s Center, and Caryn Bosson from TreePeople. I would love to hear from you – what personal habits or organizational practices do you believe best support building a flourishing culture?
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