The CEO arrives in Sydney, Australia, from Boston, and although he’s been pampered in First Class for almost 24 hours, he’s tired and grumpy. He doesn’t like flying, and he usually avoids overseas flights entirely, but because he is 100 percent committed to changing organizational culture at the company, he’s set out to meet each employee face to face. He wants to tell them he appreciates their contributions to the company’s success; he’s personally open to their feedback; he wants them to be more trusting and transparent; and, he hopes they will embrace open communication and cooperation. Listening to others and appreciating their points of view is especially important because the current workforce is composed of employees brought together through a series of mergers and acquisitions; we need to invest in creating shared understanding.
He works from a prepared slide deck, which is about four times as big as it should be, but his intentions are good and everyone seems to listen with rapt attention. At the end of the formal presentation, he explains that every employee needs to learn how to engage in effective dialogue, based on the technology introduced and popularized at MIT’s Sloan School of Management.
That’s my cue. I take the floor, teach the methodology, and then we practice our dialogic technique. Amazingly, the process unfolds without a hitch, and employees are excited to be able to talk about issues that have been previously off limits. They listen to each other intently, add their thoughts and impressions, and after an hour, we’re seeing the benefits; the conversation becomes increasingly authentic and somewhat raw. Still, we all stay in it, and we experience a real breakthrough in open communication. We close the exercise and get ready to pack it in for the day, but before we do, the CEO is willing to entertain questions.
The questions are slow to come, but then one veteran employee, newly emboldened by our dialogic session, suspends his typical politically appropriate cautious demeanor to ask frankly about organizational strategy and if the CEO will please explain what it means, in practical terms, here on the ground in Australia and New Zealand.
The question hits a nerve. The CEO’s response is quick and adamant, “I’ve explained the strategy before. If you don’t know by now, you shouldn’t be working here!” We hear a collective gasp from the employee audience, and the now red-faced employee immediately sits down. So much for organizational transformation—traveling at the speed of light, the story spreads globally through the electronic grapevine, and although we continue on our worldwide employee tour to promote the benefits of open dialogue, the positive results are limited in scale. The CEO has lost his credibility.
In this case, the CEO’s hostile response to an unwelcome employee question let employees know that it was unsafe to communicate or question openly. No more hard-hitting questions or candid comments. The shamed employee, who happened to be a highly regarded and top-producing sales person, tendered his resignation and went to work for a competitor.
In my 25 years working with executive teams, I’ve seen similar scenarios unfold again and again. The executive’s intentions are honorable, he or she is well prepared in terms of content, there’s a sincere desire to create an open and collaborative environment, and the time and financial commitments are made. But then someone says something disagreeable or ignorant or even disrespectful. The carefully architected cultural transformation is unmasked as a façade–a pretty program that temporarily covers fundamental beliefs, values, attitudes, and deeply entrenched behaviors that prevent the transformation from actually occurring.
Before launching a program to transform organizational culture, the executive team needs to undertake the critical work of examining its complicity in creating and sustaining the current culture. Each executive needs to identify the values, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors he or she needs to shift or modify in order to achieve the desired organizational results. Then, the leaders need to establish feedback systems that allow them to adopt new attitudes and beliefs. They need to give themselves time and space to learn and then demonstrate the changes in themselves that they want to see in others.
Employee engagement surveys correlated with individual leader 360-degree feedback are excellent tools for facilitating executive self-awareness and accountability as a precursor to large-scale organizational change. Here are my recommendations:
- Start with the data
- Proceed with self-reflection
- Establish open communication channels and continuously test for candor
- Identify areas for development and apply strengths to achieve immediate results
- Track success or change
- Verify and validate
- Create and execute a plan for expanded organizational transformation
In the words commonly attributed to Mahatma Gandhi, “Be the change you wish to see in the world.” It may be the only way to truly effect that change.