Original Publication: HR.com
Original Publication date: January 29, 2016

The Institute for Health and Human Potential (IHHP) worked with a large financial institution that believed low employee engagement and resistance to change within their organization were negatively impacting their business performance. In order to improve in these areas, they needed a shift in their culture as well as their leadership. In particular, they felt their leaders were focused on getting results over their relationships, collaboration and coaching their teams.

Their next step was to bring in an outside consultant to help them identify what they wanted their culture to be. They chose new values that included things like Relationships, Collaboration, Innovation and Agility. They also identified the specific behaviors that would be expected of their leaders in order to shift the culture. Then they put together a communication plan to let the leaders and employees know what the new values and behaviors would be.

That was two years before we started working with them. They came to us, frustrated, because they needed help solving an ongoing problem. Although they had an excellent set of new values and had communicated them clearly, their culture wasn’t changing. Except for a few instances, leadership behaviors were not changing. Engagement scores were still low and rolling out change initiatives was painful.

This company – like many other organizations – did a great job of identifying WHAT their new values and behaviors needed to be to drive culture change, but they didn’t help their leaders understand HOW to change their behaviors.

The Impact of Pressure on Culture

In our New York Times bestselling book, Performing Under Pressure, we explain that a major reason that organizations have trouble changing their culture is because of pressure. Specifically, their leaders and employees are unable to change their behavior under the ongoing pressure they face. Under pressure (organizational change, looming deadlines, daunting sales goals, volatile relationships, etc.), people often aren’t able to behave in ways that are expected of them.

If people do not learn how to manage pressure effectively, it’s extremely difficult for them to exhibit a new behavior. When not managed, pressure reduces our cognitive abilities, and we are limited to whatever our learned default behaviors are.

Take this simple example: most leadership competency models I’ve seen (and I’ve seen hundreds of them) include language around leaders listening effectively. People want to be heard, and they don’t feel valued or respected when they are interrupted. The challenge is that if I am in a meeting and I believe that an employee is making a wrong decision about a change we are implementing, I often stop listening and will try to lobby hard for my point of view, even to the point of interrupting (since I am focusing on the WHAT). So much for the new leadership behaviors!

Conversely, if I can manage the pressure I feel in that moment and calmly listen to the other person, acknowledge their point of view, and share my perspective with a view toward trying to bridge the opposing opinions that will have a much more positive impact on that employee. It doesn’t mean I give in to the other point of view, and I may still decide to go with my approach, but I will have handled that pressure moment with much greater skill (I got the HOW right), leading to improved engagement and willingness to change by that employee.

Best Practices to Drive Culture Change

In the last 15 years, we’ve worked with thousands of organizations that are trying to change their culture. A few best practices that have worked successfully include:

Focus on the HOW not just the WHAT. People have difficulty demonstrating cultural values (e.g., compassion, creativity, relationships, etc.) and new behaviors (the WHAT) when they are under pressure. They need insights and techniques to manage pressure more successfully so they can be effective at the HOW.

Gain senior leadership buy-in. This is a big one. Ensure that senior leaders commit to both the WHAT and the HOW of the culture shift. Leaders must help define the desired values for the culture change, and commit to behaving in accordance with those values. The training, assessment and coaching to the rest of the organization on HOW to demonstrate the new values and behaviors needs to be driven by the senior leaders. Additionally, leaders need to be held accountable to those behaviors like everyone else. As Einstein said “Leading by example is not the main means of influencing people, it’s the only means.”

Create a systemic culture initiative. Real culture change is not easy and it requires a committed, long term plan incorporating many approaches that help people learn “HOW” they need to behave.

Reward the positive behaviors. Too often, organizations and leaders tend to only identify the bad behaviors. Make sure to specifically identify when people demonstrate the new behaviors and find creative, positive ways to acknowledge them.

Implement performance management systems. This will take time, but the most successful organizations I’ve worked with incorporate their key leadership behaviors (the HOW) into their performance management systems along with results (the WHAT). When people’s salary and/or bonus are involved, you know they will pay attention!

Emphasize the importance of training and coaching. Demonstrating cultural values under pressure is a skill leaders can learn through training and coaching. Committed organizations certify their internal facilitators so they can personalize the training for the companies’ specific cultural values, increasing the behavior change that results from the training.

Bringing It All Together

What happened to that financial institution struggling with driving culture change? Once they understood the importance of helping their leaders learn HOW to change their behavior, they implemented all of the best practices above (and more). After doing so, they are finally seeing results, including increased engagement scores, leaders modeling desired behaviors, and quicker roll-out of change initiatives.

In fact, the change in leadership behavior has been phenomenal. They’ve seen relationships improve. Leaders have become more self-aware of how they impact people under pressure, and are able to better connect and coach their teams.

There have also been numerous stories of people applying the strategies in their personal lives – that’s when you know people are really engaged in learning!