Embedding a Culture

It’s not enough to know what we need to do – we need to do it, willingly and with excellence.

Creating lasting change is never easy nor simple, and a “one-size-fits-all” approach will not do (in fact, it’s questionable even in sock sizes).

A deep understanding of the value proposition, vision and operations of an organisation is needed, from which partners can work together to shift mindsets (beliefs), behaviours (actions) and practices (systems, structures, environments) through a united approach. Quick fixes are a “band-aid” to stem the tide while lasting solutions are found.

Sustaining change for a plant requires a radical (root-based) return to ensuring that the soil, sunlight, air (oxygen/ photosynthesis) and hydration needs are met, along with “companion planting” to match strengths. Done well, these elements are conducive to growth and flourishing. In human terms, the elements approximate to the physical and psychological environment in terms of culture, recognition/reward systems, communication, relationships and person-job fit.

Internalising values and moving from compliance to owned excellence will guide engagement and execution, and promote accountability, given appropriate boundaries for authority and roles.

Excellence cannot be forced. Only compliance can be legislated and coercively enforced. Excellence is voluntary. When coerced, we most often do “just enough” to not be liable for career damage or punishment. Likewise, control is not the language of 21st Century management; choice is (Glasser, 1998). How do we, then, encourage people to make better choices?

We need to understand what drives them, what inspires them and where they belong, for starters.

As a main course, we will need to include them: create forums for them to be heard, challenged and supported and for the “benchmark behaviours” to be highlighted and rewarded, and for participation in setting goals/targets that will provide challenge and opportunity for achievement – satisfaction, purposeful engagement and – of course – remuneration

The “just desserts” would be a sustainable culture, where people naturally self-manage behaviour, having personally bought into the value of the goals and being intrinsically motivated to maintain high standards and interact robustly for the greater good.

Tolerance is the Lowest Common Denominator

Most organisations, despite significant investment, have not made much progress towards gender and ethnic diversity, let alone all the other measures of diversity. According to Dobbin & Kalev (HBR, July 2016) , certain approaches to workplace diversity may even be working against transformation. Examples of this would be forcing compliance, focusing on the negative (e.g. what happens if diversity targets are not met) and leaving implementation of policies and grievance procedures to managers’ discretion. Instead, the authors suggest, encourage voluntary involvement, mentoring programmes and create a representative forum on diversity. In essence: collaboration and challenge by choice.

A comprehensive study on employee engagement (MacLeod & Clarke, 2009) found four enablers of engagement:

  1. a strong, connected narrative (story)
  2. engaging managers
  3. employee voice and
  4. organisational integrity

The narrative was a compelling, genuine, well-communicated message of why the organisation existed – a purpose beyond profit. Engaging managers were found to display a few key behaviours, too: they envisioned/ focused their people, created opportunities for growth, coached and challenged them with “stretch” roles and treated each person as an individual. Employee voice stems from the belief that employees are part of the solution, not annoying necessities. The result is including them, listening to their concerns and insights and pro-actively seeking out their contribution. Lastly, integrity is about integrating walk and talk, and reducing the “knowing-doing” gap so prevalent in businesses. The latter exists where agendas trump authenticity and power supplants purpose.

People don’t want to be “tolerated” – ignored and segregated, but allowed to exist. We want to belong to something meaningful, feel competent and be autonomous enough to plot our own journey, according to self-determination theory (SDT). We are more motivated when we feel supported, authorised to do what is necessary and connected to the bigger picture of the team or organisational context. Inclusion is more than an event; it is a culture-shift that creates competitive advantage.


Strategy is pointless without execution – translation into operations that are tracked and continuously improved upon. That delivery depends on people, who need to be a good fit for the values and culture of their organisation. It’s seldom useful, for instance, to hire MBA’s for businesses that need to be agile and innovative. Most MBA’s major on benchmarks, baselines and best practices – not inherently evil, but focused on past performance not future requirements and agile methodology. Transformation requires robust dialogue around what Jim Collins called the “brutal facts” of current reality. transforming the current reality into the desired future. The process involves embedding values, viral change, culture transformation and sustainable leadership.

A culture is not changed, or built, overnight. John Kotter said that the departure point for change is the creation of a “sense of urgency”: there must be a need, a deep desire to start now. The psychological concept of cognitive dissonance is useful here: unless there is sufficient dissatisfaction with the status quo, movement is slow: there is minimal traction. We need to desire growth more than the growing-pains of change. Successfully done, the goal becomes a “pull” (want to, choose to) factor, instead of an all-too-common “push” (have to, ought to) factor.

We would love to help you build a community that has listening and robust dialogue at its core, building a sense of belonging and acceptance, with respect for each other’s differences and common humanity. Understanding is the key, leading to vulnerable trust and empathy and therefore accountable engagement and action.

Our approach is adaptable, from using music or football as a metaphor for team alignment to more traditional methods. Whatever your choice, please don’t create your culture by default.