Workplace culture leaves strategy in its wake

29 March 2021

An organisation can have the best structure, systems and strategy but without the right culture, they amount to nothing. Business transformation expert ALLAN KEOGH explains.

We spend our lives being taught what to do, what to say and how to behave, and that means we can lose touch with the things that make us unique.

Children don’t have the same filters as adults. They speak their own truth unhindered by societal constraints so provide a truer representation of who they are.

I am not suggesting we should all ignore social and moral etiquette or break all the rules. As a former military man, I’m one of the first to advocate for playing by the rules.

But a lot of executives today have spent so much time being compartmentalised that they are unable to think and act for themselves.

The thing that differentiates good leaders from mediocre ones is their ability for individual thought and a willingness to deviate from the norm.

It may not always be the most popular or accepted choice, but leadership should not be a popularity contest. After all, healthy conflict leads to better outcomes.

More importantly, a leader who displays their own individuality provides a clear indication that they will accept it in others. That is at the heart of good workplace culture.

Culture is about emotion – something that traditionalists might think has no place in the boardroom. But without emotion, there can be no passion.

Emotional issues have a ripple effect. It might be more obvious when it comes to negative emotions – anger, sadness and feelings of discontent can spread through the workplace like wildfire. However, positive emotion spreads and influences equally as quickly and broadly.

Good workplace culture starts with identifying and nurturing talent, using empathy and authenticity to do so.

As leaders, we have to be aware of the things that give people goosebumps, create intensity and resonate with them in the right ways.

Many of us get those feelings from music, stirring stories or witnessing acts of kindness.

Physiologically, it is because such events trigger our bodies to release higher levels of dopamine, a type of neurotransmitter chemical that helps us strive, focus and find things interesting.

In other words, it is the natural drug we produce to become more engaged. Imagine the sort of impact that could have in the workplace.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes that empathy and engagement are essential not only for creating workplace harmony, but also for developing products that will resonate with target markets.

Nadella says that by understanding where a person is coming from and what makes them tick, you can tap into the best ways to help them flourish and perform exceptionally.

It is an approach that works.

Since he took the helm of Microsoft in 2014, Nadella has been attributed with one of the biggest shifts in corporate culture ever seen. The outcome for the workforce was that Microsoft became a far happier, more engaging place to work. For shareholders, there was an even more significant shift.

Microsoft had stagnated and was being left in the shadows of Apple and Google.

While the company wasn’t about to go out of business, many industry commentators thought the slow decline was irreversible. But under Nadella’s guidance, the market value increased by US$250 billion in little more than three years, recording an even bigger spike than during the dotcom boom.

He did it with empathy and authenticity, creating in people a sense of excitement by letting them be heard and enabling them to explore their ideas.

So how do we go about implementing a cultural change?

Rarely will we have the opportunity to start with a blank canvas. But given culture is about realising individual interests, drivers and potential within a larger group, a blank canvas may not always be the optimum starting position anyway.

A better approach, and a more realistic one, is to identify and nurture pockets of brilliance.

One way to think about it is that cultural transformation is like renovating a house. You identify the “good bones”, develop a plan and deliver to it. That’s quite different to knocking the house over and rebuilding from the ground up.

In other words, we can identify the good bones within an organisation – the high performing individuals and teams – and begin the transformation from there.

Transformation is a key term. Change is linear – a process of shifting from one place to another. But that can lead to discomfort, resistance or sour grapes. Change can be quite polarising.

On the other hand, transformation is a process of evolution rather than revolution. It builds on existing strengths, capabilities and those pockets of brilliance that already exist.

In time, the less successful or desirable areas will fade away as those more desirable pockets envelope the entire organisation.

So, like eating the elephant, cultural change can be achieved a bite at a time.

Following the disruption of the past year, there’s an expectation of evolution within and around most organisations.

That provides an obvious opportunity for cultural transformation to begin.