Engaging Executives in Leading Organizational Culture Change

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

It’s common knowledge that a strong organizational culture correlates with a highly engaged and productive work force. But how do you get leaders to attend to the gaps in their own cultures and to be mindful of their employee’s experiences? Especially those who are set in their ways or too attached to “traditional” ways of running a business?

Here’s what I know from my years as a clinical psychologist and culture consultant: Effecting culture change in both small and large organizations starts at the top. To garner an executive’s attention, it’s important to understand the “typical” personality characteristics of the leaders you are trying to persuade to shift their beliefs and ultimately, their behaviors. Buy-in is necessary to create sustainable changes across any company culture. If we tap into the characteristics that have served them well as leaders in the first place, we have a pretty good shot.

In my work as a psychologist and consultant, I have made some general observations about common traits among leaders by incorporating the DiSC Assessment, a tool for understanding workplace interpersonal dynamics and behavior. Here is what I have gleaned about leaders:

Leaders share these common values:

  • Challenge
  • Taking Action
  • Generating Enthusiasm or Motivation and most of all;
  • Getting Results (a.k.a., profitability).

Leaders share these common fears:

  • Giving Up Bold Ideas
  • Slow Growth
  • Getting Bogged Down by Too Many Details
  • Loss of Control

Many executives enjoy having authority, promoting innovation, and are comfortable taking risks. The desire to obtain results is also paired with a strong need for results to happen quickly. When selling culture change, as a leader in an organization or a change management consultant, one must educate and communicate succinctly, the what, why, and how so that leaders can capitalize on their natural intuition to lead and influence growth.

Defining the “what” for a leader requires listening carefully. In order to fully speak the leader’s language, listen carefully to their values (both historical and present) and goals to compare them to the values and goals of the company’s employees. Ultimately, we want to assess alignment of values across the company.

Assessing current culture will help guide the process of identifying what a desired culture might look like. Leaders almost always have a story about how they began their business.

Listen carefully. Reflect back the reasons they took the risk to get their business started in the first place and incorporate this into new strategies for growth.

Companies that focus on culture change at the core of their initiatives are 5x more likely to achieve breakthrough results in their transformation initiatives (Boston Consulting Group). This is the most difficult part of influencing change in leaders. Leaders don’t always understand why they need to change. They also do not always know how to identify their culture gaps.

Consider how you might apply some of the following approaches to communicate the why.

Understand Fears and Resistances

Many leaders experience fear around losing control or getting slowed down by lack of progress or vulnerability. They fear what they don’t know. Validate fears and resistances to doing the long-term work and remind leaders of their integral role in maintaining control by managing change with persistence, conscientious care, and creative strategies.

Creation = Survival

Humans, by nature, thrive when they are engaged in creative pursuits. It’s based on our primitive instinctual foundations. Creation = survival. Capitalize on the natural need to influence by engaging leaders in the creative process of inspiring others. Leaders are motivated by opportunities to create. Remind them of this survival need and how it can trickle down to their employees with a little modeling.

Provide Statistics and Research

Leaders should understand that they risk becoming obsolete or falling behind the curve if they ignore organizational weaknesses. Providing statistics and data on research conducted around culture can be eye opening. Using an assessment tool to expose gaps in company culture can be convincing for the executive who naturally enjoys problem solving.

Expose the WHY in a compassionate, concise and clear way. Executives are focused on broad strategies, profitability, and the long-term course of the company. Put emphasis on the bottom line when speaking to executives. Discuss the financial impact of cultural strength and evolution with confidence.

Use their language to show how the culture shift can be done. The culture should be specific in nature, yet flexible enough to shape and influence the organization’s optimal performance and outcomes. Highlight an executive’s natural orientation toward creating motivation and encourage them to be the face of their own cultural change. Influential leaders are inclined to stay on the forward edge of building, modeling, and shaping teams toward progressive results. Guide them toward communicating and demonstrating the path toward greater alignment, balance, and empowerment of their teams.

People are generally resistant to change. Engaging leaders in a collaborative way can make all the difference in whether the organization will fall into stagnation or evolve as a culture in a productive way. Cultivating culture means building reciprocal, rewarding relationships that will result in endless opportunities and pay-offs. Creating a strong foundation for any business requires leaders to remain on the forward edge of a people-centered workplace.

About the Author:

Dr. Kate Burton is a core member of the +One team. She is a Doctor of Psychology and former Clinical Psychologist, practicing for 15 years working with people of all ages, couples, and families with diverse needs and goals. She uses this background as a foundation for her consultation and coaching practice, applying her clinical skills to guide and mentor managers, business owners, and executives to create a more positive and productive workplace culture. Dr. Burton initiates change by creating mutual relationships built on trust. She is dedicated to understanding complicated relationship dynamics in order to foster more interpersonal effectiveness, motivation, and high satisfaction in the workplace.