Culture Course Correction: 11 Ways to Avoid Going Over the Cliff

When it comes to getting things done, culture can have a huge impact not only on how well the team performs, but how likely it is that our teammates will stick around to do it again.  So, what do we do when we sense that our team’s culture is heading straight for the edge of a cliff?  Here are eleven ideas for how we can make a culture course correction with our teams.

Culture Course Correction - 11 Ways to Avoid Going Over the Cliff

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Approaching the Edge

Recently a reader wrote to tell me that he was facing this exact problem.  The job and working conditions had not significantly changed over the previous few years, and most of the faces were the same.   Yet he couldn’t help noticing that attitudes seemed to be drifting.  Negativity seemed to be on the rise.  Even his more buoyant teammates appeared to be operating under dark clouds, or becoming more discouraged and disengaged.

As the leader, he felt he couldn’t ignore the warning signs.  His team needed a culture course correction, and he was looking for ways to go about it.  I put together a few ideas for him to consider; what follows is a condensed version of what I shared with him.  Whether your team’s culture is rock-solid, or moving toward shaky ground, maybe some of these ideas can be helpful to you, too.

11 Culture Course Correction Ideas

1. Get Clarity.  To begin with, culture is one of those hazy terms that seems to defy definition.  We might “know it when we see it” – we either get a “good” vibe or a “bad” one.  But if we hope to play a role in the direction our culture takes, it can help to be able to describe what we’re looking for in the first place.

I’ve written before about how to define the culture we want, but a good start is to ask questions like these:

  • What is our culture? How would an outsider describe it?
  • Has it changed over the last two years? How?
  • What does the culture we want look like?
  • How do we encourage that on a daily basis?
  • Where might we be doing things that go against our cultural ideals? How do we change them?

Putting our ideas about the culture we want in writing is the first step in getting it to move in that direction.

2. Meet with the team.  Comparing notes with our teammates can also help clarify our own view of what is going on.  Ask them the same questions and see what they say.  Does everyone see things similarly?  Culture may look very different, depending on if our office is on the top floor, or on the front line. 

To avoid “group-think” in this discussion, one technique may be to pass questions like these out ahead of time and encourage people to think about them independently before coming to the table to talk.   Alternately, meet with each key leader separately first to get their perspectives before getting together as a group.

3. Measure it.  Making a culture course correction means that we have to know where we are in the first place.   One way to zero in on our location is to develop and use an anonymous survey periodically.  It could include a list of statements such as, “My crew/company/organization focuses on integrity, teamwork, and cooperation.”  Use a number scale for responses (e.g.  1 = Strongly Disagree, 3 = Meh, 5 = Strongly Agree). 

Over time, we will be able to see which way the numbers trend, and with it the need for any culture course correction.  To get started, this post has  20 questions about work culture if you are interested in this approach.

4. Take an “I” Test.  Sometimes the attitude we unwittingly project may be the reason for a negative turn in our cultures.  In positions of authority, it’s easy to slip into a self-focused mind-set.  On a daily basis, it’s all about what I need right now, what my goals are, and what you owe me by close of business.  But ultimately, all that focus on the first-person singular sends a message of self-interest, disunity, and ultimately, distrust. 

One simple way to see if this could be part of the problem is to run a quick audit of our own communication patterns by taking the “I” test.  If we (or our subordinate leaders) do poorly on this test, it may be that we are focused on the wrong things.   Culture is a team phenomenon; the less we talk in terms of “us,” the more excluded and isolated our teammates may feel.

5. Encourage Positivity.  In many environments, compliance is critical.  There are legal requirements, health and safety regulations, and mandatory procedures to be followed.  We have probably established some of our own processes on top of all this. 

The risk with this environment is that we adopt a fault-finding approach to leadership.  Our focus is on looking for what is wrong.  When we find a mis-step, we summon the gods of accountability.  The resulting atmosphere can be one of fear, negativity, and disengagement.

One antidote is to focus instead on the things that are going right.  As Stephen Covey likes to say,

Water the plants you want to grow. - Stephen Covey Click To Tweet

When we find something going well, we can congratulate and encourage the people involved.   Verbal recognition, some eye contact, and even some physical touch (hand shake, fist-bump, pat on the back) can go a long way towards setting a positive environment.  It is surprising how powerful a simple hand-written note can be in setting a positive atmosphere on the team.

6. Take a step back.  In a compliance leadership environment, the more we find wrong, the more we also tend to dig into the problem area, and the more oversight we layer on.  But the farther we go down this road, the more we are micro-managing.  The cost here is eroded trust and motivation in our teammates.  

When something goes wrong, of course we’ll have to take action, but how we approach the problem can make all the difference.  One idea is to re-frame our role to that of a coach.  Since a coach is not allowed on the playing field, we have to think more carefully about how we prepare and train our players to succeed when the ball’s in play.  And when someone inevitably fumbles, we help our players extract useful lessons-learned so they can improve their play next time around.

7. Enable Autonomy.  Daniel Pink, in his revealing Drive:  The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, identifies three major factors that motivate people:  Autonomy, Mastery, and Purpose.  Autonomy is the most important of these, and has to do with the idea that people have an innate desire for self-direction, and resist being controlled.  He goes on to say this:

A sense of autonomy has a powerful effect on individual performance and attitude. - Daniel Pink Click To Tweet

According to Pink, reinvigorating people’s motivation can come from increasing their autonomy in any of four areas that he calls the “Four Ts.” 

  • Task – The ability to choose what tasks to perform, and even to choose to perform tasks that have not been assigned.
  • Time – The ability to manage our own schedules, and when to work on which tasks.
  • Technique – The ability to choose how to perform given tasks.
  • Team – The ability to choose the people with whom we do the task.

If we can find ways to increase individual autonomy in any of these areas, we may begin to stimulate that culture course correction we are looking for.

8. Watch the competition.  Leaders like to use competition to bring out the best in their people, but we have to be careful with this motivational tool.  When the best way for someone to get recognition or advance is for them to do better than the people working next to them, we disincentivize everyone from collaborating, helping, and sharing.  Instead, we are encouraging them to do the opposite. 

It's hard to build a team if you make teammates fight for the same resources. Click To Tweet

For a culture course correction, look for ways to reward team performance so that everybody benefits from team effort.

9. Consider Mastery.  In the daily crush of just trying to get stuff done, we tend to see our teammates as having a static set of capabilities – Sheila’s the go-to person for one task, Terrence is the guy for another.  But if we only see our teammates as so many fixed pieces on the chess board, we limit their, and our team’s, potential.

Circling back to Dan Pink’s three sources of motivation, Mastery is another main driver.  People generally like to feel proficient and capable.  Like turning a pawn into a queen, when we help our teammates upgrade their skill sets, it can improve their outlook and attitude, while at the same time building depth and capacity on our teams.

10. Co-opt Crisis.  When crisis comes, in a wink we can either reinforce, or destroy, everything we hoped to build in our culture.  All the off-sites, motivational posters, and happy talk will evaporate into the ether if the decisions we make when the chips are down run counter to the culture we were trying to create.

When it’s time to make those tough calls, a key question to ask is, “Which decision best reinforces the culture we’re trying to create?” For some real-world examples, here are two inspiring leaders who did it right.

11. Add Ritual.  Sometimes, the missing cultural element is a kind of social cohesion that bonds us together.  We can build this through team rituals – things we do as a group that strengthen connections and reinforce the culture we are trying to build. 

For a fun story about parachuting Hummers into a swamp, and 35 Ideas to jump-start your own team rituals, check out Team Rituals: 35 Pretty Good Ideas to Strengthen Your Culture

Culture Course Correction – The Takeaway

Culture is hard to define, and always changing in reaction to mission, personalities, and circumstances.  And like good communication or leadership, it is something that is never perfected.   The best we can do is to keep working at it with persistence, and do so with the realization that most changes will only come over time. 

If we can clearly define what we want our culture to look like, become a positive influence on the job site, and encourage personal autonomy where it makes sense to, we can begin to get control over the direction our team’s culture is heading, and we’ll have time to make a culture course correction before we get too close to the edge of the cliff.

Lead On!

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About the Author: Ken Downer
Ken Downer - Founder RapidStart Leadership

Ken served for 26 years in the Infantry, retiring as a Colonel.  From leading patrols in the Korean DMZ, to parachuting into the jungles of Panama, to commanding a remote outpost on the Iran-Iraq border, he has learned a lot about leadership, and has a passion for sharing that knowledge with others.  Look for his weekly posts, check out his online courses, subscribe below, or simply connect, he loves to talk about this stuff.

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