Summary Written by Rex Williams

The Big Idea

Change culture by changing behavior

"It is easier to act your way to a new way of thinking than to think your way to a new way of acting."- Leverage, page 221

Many platitudes and approaches claim to change cultures, but when you get down to the core of culture change it is basically the change in behavior of many individuals that determines how the culture will change. Repeated behaviors over time are called habits.

Stephen Covey revealed the secret to breaking a habit when he said, “It takes a habit to break a habit.”

So just talking about culture change and hoping people change is not an effective strategy. You need to have people actually change their behavior and stick with it.

One aspect Childress discusses (although somewhat briefly) is understanding how the brain works regarding human motivation. A big piece of that is what psychologist Leon Festinger coined as cognitive dissonance. That is when a person is confronted by a change and a choice between what they know and believe to be true, and new contradictory information. It’s the dissonance or discomfort we feel when we hold two conflicting thoughts in the mind at the same time.

When people are presented with a new culture that is different from their habits they can act in dramatic ways, such as attach the new process with reasons it won’t work, give up and be disenfranchised, or play dumb and hope the need for change disappears. This is normal so the point is not to avoid the dissonance but work through it so that the fear of loss is lessened and new ideas or different ways of working can be embraced.

Uncertainty and loss of control are some fears that can cause resistance to change. So, one way to replace current habits with new ones is to practice. And that means experimenting and trying new things – over and over again – until you’re not ‘trying’ anymore and it’s a new habit. The new behaviors need to be ‘grooved’ in the mind, and that only happens through repetition. John rails on consultants who think an exercise in a workshop will cause people to change.

Insight #1

Change behavior by changing processes

"Logic and reason, unfortunately, have little to do with making change actually happen."- Leverage, page 233

When employees show up to a new job for the first time they are completely open for a big change. They are ready for someone to tell them, “This is how you do this.” Unfortunately, once they learn, they don’t like to hear that again. But when you change the underlying processes of how things are done, you change behaviors. John says the most important change that must first happen before the culture can shift is a change in the behavior of the senior leadership team, because the organization will follow the team like a shadow (mostly subconsciously). That is where they learn how to react to circumstances and what is acceptable behavior.

Processes that might need reevaluating are hiring, new employee onboarding, promotion and development, innovation, and middle managers leadership. These have the most impact of key behaviors that affect the culture.

There are formal processes, and then there are behaviors that are just common, or the norm, that need to change, because they can start a chain reaction that cause additional adverse behaviors and eventually (or constantly) no one takes responsibility. That’s why it needs to start at the top.

John asserts, “Behaviors either support other behaviors or kill them. Platitudes do nothing for anyone.” We’re all connected and affect each other with our actions. It’s important for key individuals to start the change, then others will follow their example, or the effects of their actions will ripple throughout the organization.

Changing processes, both formal and informal, will change behaviors. I’m even working on my own process change. I wake up much earlier and write stuff that’s in my head, so now I feel more like a writer. I’m also using stopwatches or timers more often when I need to focus on a task. That is changing my behavior.

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Insight #2

Change the culture without calling it ‘culture change’

"If you want to make enemies, try to change something."- Woodrow Wilson, as quoted in Leverage, page 223

No matter what change effort you launch, there will be those who resist. And because so many change efforts have been a complete failure, or implemented poorly, many people will have an instant prejudice about any change that appears. So, one tactic is to implement in a way that you’re not announcing a ‘culture change’ but rather aiming for a new vision. Peter Senge said that “People don’t resist change. They resist being changed!” So if you can couch your efforts from a different angle, you might get less resistance.

Childress talks about using a slogan or phrase that people in the company will believe. He shares the great story of Continental Airlines who was at the bottom in almost every category before Gordon Bethune turned things around. Their transformational slogan was, “Becoming profitable in 1995 and running an airline we can all be proud of.” They changed the culture as an intended by product of their new goal.

I know I affect the culture in my corporation, whether it’s with my local group or at different organizational levels, even companywide. Each of our actions matter, and create the culture that others around us experience.

What kind of culture are you swimming in?

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John R. Childress

John R. Childress is a senior executive with 30 years experience of building and running an international consulting firm and also consulting and coaching CEOs and senior leadership teams. Born in the mountains of Oregon, raised on the California coast and educated at Harvard, John brings a penetrating insight, creative solutions and sense of humour to his work.

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