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Marble Brook

Adviser, Consultant, Executive Coach

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Five juggling clubs of culture evolution

Quentin Millington invites us to view culture evolution as a skilled juggling act played by managers, with five clubs in motion.

We know that culture does not submit to corporate fiat, and that change is hard. Experience shows how managers’ usual bureaucratic methods paralyse the complex systems that are human-led organisations.

If we, instead, see our role in change as a performance crafted to involve the hearts and minds of colleagues, we shall secure better outcomes. The complexity of the effort, where we adopt fresh thinking and new tactics at various times, renders culture shifts a juggling act.

The five imperatives of culture juggling

Over the years we at Marble Brook have discovered that five imperatives make up the juggling clubs of a capable manager. To throw and catch these activities with skill makes a huge difference to colleagues’ experiences, and hence their capacity to evolve:

1. Assure through personal credibility

2. Unite through clear direction

3. Inspire through visionary leadership

4. Guide through robust management

5. Enrich through meaningful work

In directing attention to these five activities, an individual or team can provide the challenge and support required for others to develop confidence in the process and the outcome, as well as in the people who champion new ways of working.

1. Assure through personal credibility

We know that trust matters in the workplace, and yet is often lacking. Trust is especially important when the organisation aims to nurture fresh dimensions of culture, for this is an unsettling time where anxiety causes disconnection and passive or overt resistance.

Executives, senior managers, and all those who talk about change must give others (and themselves) confidence that they have in mind the interests of the organisation and its people. This comes down to moral character in many senses: do what you say you will do, and show how it yields beneficial outcomes.

Managers must demonstrate values to which others can relate. The common rift here is that the senior team thinks about shareholder return, whereas employees care more keenly about customer and colleague experiences. This is why we must go beyond ‘values’ on the wall to articulate the deeper ‘value’ the organisation exists to create.

The juggling clubs of personal credibility and clear direction are – when thrown and caught well – inspiring in themselves.

2. Unite through clear direction

It sounds obvious, yet often fails in practice: all members of the senior team must commit to the desirable culture. One job of the ‘change manager’ is to corral everyone in positions of influence to speak and act in ways that are consistent with the stated ambitions. Back-stabbing is lethal.

Cohesion at the top must be visible and reflected in the direction taken. The direction must be seen as positive for the stakeholders who matter, be they employees, customers, shareholders, society and/or the planet. No one supports plans they find irrelevant.

The stated direction – vision, mission or strategy; the words are not important – must be meaningful and also something to which those affected can contribute. One cause of passive resistance is when people see no place for themselves going into the future.

3. Inspire through visionary leadership

Not everyone in a senior position can ‘inspire’ others to take action. This paradox reinforces bias for the delusion that we can manage culture as a complicated problem rather than the complex question it is.

That said, the challenge should not faze us. The juggling clubs of personal credibility and clear direction are – when thrown and caught well – inspiring in themselves. Add to this heartfelt excitement for the mission and a willingness to act as a role model, and almost anyone can be inspiring.

What matters greatly here is to value others’ experiences, views and feelings. Managers who care about their people, and who are curious, will inspire – and liberate – colleagues to become involved. Tub-thumping from a podium can help on occasion, but this is not the main effort.

Fairness is crucial: often with culture initiatives, some colleagues shoulder the burden, whilst others wait and see, and a few attempt to derail the change.

4. Guide through robust management

If leadership is about liberating people, then the purpose of the management imperative is to provide support and a little structure. Mindful that change is unsettling, it is important to make clear what the culture means in practice, and then enable everyone to meet expectations.

Fairness is crucial: often with culture initiatives, some colleagues shoulder the burden, whilst others wait and see, and a few attempt to derail the change. Here, the role of a manager is to guide everyone to play a part, balancing interests on a day-to-day level.

Questions of intention and integrity matter here too. Managers who do not fully support the change are a liability in that they feed insecurity. Whilst efforts to secure a manager’s buy-in are important, the senior team must know when to draw the line – and find someone else.

5. Enrich through meaningful work

An organisation that does not enrich its people through meaningful work will sooner or later find itself running on fumes. True, many will turn up because they have to – for money – but only satisfaction leads to strong performance and a willingness to evolve.

Work should make people feel good about themselves. It should not be too hard: Battling with red tape, systems that do not work and insufficient time drains enthusiasm for the future.

The thorny ‘human’ side of work dictates outcomes. Managers, clearly, have to care and offer support. Team dynamics have great bearing: one bad apple really can spoil the whole barrel, so managers must be sensitive to words and actions, attitudes and morale.

What HR can do

The complexity of the culture juggling act means that a simple list of ‘next steps’ is likely to mislead. In our experience, however, HR is in an excellent position to emphasise three realities that are often ignored:

  1. Consistent actions and words help managers establish credibility
  2. To inspire others combines both magic and thoughtfulness
  3. Accountability goes hand in hand with encouragement

Whilst HR may not be responsible for the entire change effort, the people team can help managers view the challenge in the right way: as an act of juggling complexity, not as an exercise in ticking boxes.

Interested in this topic? Read You can’t change culture, so stop trying

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Adviser, Consultant, Executive Coach

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