I listened carefully to a song on the radio and I could hear the consistent drumbeat that carried through the entire piece. Parts of the melody varied – highs and lows, fast and slow – but that steady rhythm kept time throughout.
I think that the drumbeat is the job of the supervisor – providing consistency through the variations of organizational life. The supervisor should be the voice of calm in the chaos. They serve their staff well when they function as a through line that maintains movement and provides integrity to the work.
Supervisors whose emotions and stress levels cover the full gamut of the scale tend to transfer their dysfunction to members of their staff. Others model their behaviors and instead of a cohesive melody that is pleasant to experience, the culture reflects unproductive clashes and often loses its way.
If you’re the one in charge, try to function like the consistent drumbeat in the background, providing a steady signal that allows the others to turn their contributions into beautiful music.
Front-line workers in five organizations that are working to create system-wide change were asked to share observations about how the change efforts have (or haven’t) impacted them.
The content that resulted from those interviews wasn’t much of a surprise to any of the organization leaders but the gift of the process was the language the employees utilized. The transcripts moved the conversation away from buzz words and the party line to express real emotion about the work, their reactions and their fears about the change. The comments painted a vivid picture – far richer than any of the leaders could have painted on their own – and highlighted gaps between how the front-lines are experiencing the change and how the supervisors do.
Think about the implications of the process itself for your enterprise. You may believe that you know what your customers or employees think about your organization but without direct contact, you’ll never be able to describe it in their words. The richness of the language of those who experience your products or services can enlighten you in ways that nothing else can. Not only can it help you to listen and learn, but direct feedback can also reshape how you speak and communicate back to your constituencies.
It’s worth the effort to invest in externally-facilitated focus groups or face-to-face interviews to gather the nuances of the external voice. Looking through a window isn’t the same experience as being outside.
I went to return bottles at the redemption center and it was closed – due to lack of workers. The same thing happened at Sam’s snack bar and at Popeye’s Chicken – the employee didn’t show up so they shuttered the operation for the day.
Liz Ryan (@humanworkplace) offers this perspective: “The ‘talent shortage’ myth is a simple case of employers refusing to acknowledge that the cost of talent has gone up.”
I don’t think she is referring just to minimum wage. The cost of talent, in my opinion, refers to the intangible contributions that employers need to make to create a desirable culture – to provide meaningful work for employees, to treat them with respect and dignity, and to create a sense of belonging and purpose that makes showing up for work worthwhile.
How many times have you volunteered to do hard work for free? Of course, you can’t pay the rent with altruism, but volunteering serves as evidence that you can have experiences that transcend what you are paid to do them. As older generations retire and younger generations are looking for incentives to trade leisure for work, an organization’s culture is going to be as valuable as its salary pool. The time to pay attention to it is now.
When interviewing a potential employee, managers often look for a “cultural fit.” This makes sense as the new employee’s values need to align with those of the organization and they need to be comfortable operating within its environment; however, design firm IDEO’s founders encourage a different lens with which to view candidates: that of “cultural contribution.”
Instead of hiring people who are similar to everyone else, they suggest considering what differences a person can add to the organization and how they can make everyone uncomfortable in their thinking. Hiring someone with a varied background, nontraditional experience, or characteristic new to your organization can allow them to contribute creative perspectives, challenge assumptions and raise questions that others may not think to ask.
If you’re looking to stimulate thinking in your organization, hiring for cultural contribution instead of fit may be a good first step on this journey. Consider what you are missing and seek out candidates who bring you something new.
While on vacation at Lake Michigan, we were warned to watch out for rip currents, a force of water that occurs away from the shore. Swimmers can get caught in the waves near a sandbar and feel the pull of water toward the center of the lake.
Instinctively, swimmers fight the current and attempt to head against it back to shore. While this may be their first reaction, it is the wrong one and will only serve to tire the swimmer. A far more effective response is to swim parallel to the shore until you are past the rip current and then you are able to return to the shore with ease.
I think rip currents occur in organizations, too – places where strong emotions or opinions bubble up and create disruptions all those in the area. You may feel trapped in the current of dissent and expend your energy fighting it. Better to take the counter-intuitive route and go about your business in a parallel fashion; ignoring the currents rather than getting sucked into the drama.
I have noticed lately that the relative size of products is shrinking each time I purchase them. The dog treats are just a wee bit smaller in the new package. Snack bags used to be in boxes of 50 for $1, then 45 and now 38. Fountain beverages were 32 oz. and now are only 30 oz. in some places. The scrubbing pads used to be packaged 10/box but are replaced with 8/box for the same price.
Unless you are really paying attention or happen to have both the old and new side-by-side, you likely won’t notice these changes…
…until they reach a tipping point and you do.
The same is true of organizational culture. It’s barely perceptible when civility first takes a hit or morale shifts a little in the wrong direction or the vision becomes a bit fuzzy. People don’t notice when the standards start to lax or the transparency begins to fade – until the culture reaches that tipping point and suddenly the lapses aren’t so insignificant anymore.
Most changes – for better or worse — occur incrementally. It’s far easier to pay attention and address minor shifts rather than being oblivious until an obvious change has occurred.
Navigating a change process is like moving through a labyrinth – you need to pay attention to the process or you’ll get lost. As I told my Organizational Behavior class, creating change goes against many of the natural inclinations that we have. You need to intentionally pay attention to the change effort itself – not just the outcome you seek — or your actions will carry you in ways that are counter to your effort.
- Leaders who forget that they have been thinking about change long before they share it with others will be negatively impacted by the Leader’s Lag (dot #2317). You must remember your message is new to others and therefore allow time for them to absorb the idea – even though by the time you share it, you are ready to jump into motion.
- Changemakers inherently think they can go from the old to the new but will get tripped up if they forget about going through Crazytown first – that period when both the old and new are still present. You must intentionally prepare your team for that period of confusion. (dot #2301)
- We naturally think that once the change happens, it is the beginning. Not true – William Bridges teaches us that the first stage of a transition is the ending and leaders must help their team deal with loss and limbo before expecting forward motion. (dot #75)
- Leaders must also fight the natural inclination to squelch tension that occurs. Peter Senge’s rubber band analogy reminds us that the further “current reality” is from “future vision”, the more tension that occurs. Conflict means that you are getting someplace! (dot #371)
- It’s also tempting and the first impulse to jump right in and start making changes. The School Retool framework reminds us to start with an aspiration (the why) and then identify small experiments that can lead to the desired behavior. Even though we want to act now, we need to know where we’re going before we just head down the road. (dot #2358) We also need to see our actions through the lens of learning rather than just doing, with the former more important. (dot #2359)
Change management is becoming an increasingly important skill in today’s fast-moving world, and, ironically, the faster we move the greater the tendency to focus on the outputs instead of the internal process driving the change. Do yourself and those you lead a favor and be the exception. Helping people through the labyrinth makes it much more likely that the change will endure.