In our work we urge leaders to attend to their “whole” organization. Many managers have a bias for systems, processes and programs; we challenge them to attend to culture and shared values too. Managers often focus on actions and results; we ask them to also think about the mindset, intentions and attitudes that influence actions. It’s not a hard sell: nowadays everyone is talking about the need for culture change. But ironically, when some managers start paying attention to culture, their first instinct is to implement a new system! They ask HR for a cultural assessment tool; they dust off the annual employee satisfaction survey and issue it quarterly; they hire a consultant (like me) to conduct a cultural diagnosis and deliver a training program. Our efforts to work on the ‘soft stuff’ often reveal just how much we prefer the ‘hard stuff’! Here’s a news-flash:
You don’t need tools, systems or programs to get started on culture change.
You’ve already go everything you need to understand and influence the way people think, talk and act — you can get started today. The trick? Conversation. A few interesting questions, some genuine curiosity, and a willingness to shut-up and listen closely to what people say (and don’t say) are far more effective than any assessment tool, survey or diagnostic. Here are five conversation-worthy questions to get you started understanding and influencing culture. Do not ask these via email! Do not ask your assistant to gather input from your team! The conversation is the intervention — the effect comes through asking, listening and understanding:
  1. What do we pay the most attention to around here? Of all the things we think, talk and worry about, what’s the thing that gets the most attention? (No matter what answer you hear, follow-up with, “Interesting. Tell me more. What has you say that?”)
  2. What’s the biggest crisis we’ve ever faced around here? What’s the biggest problem this organization has encountered thus far, and what’s your understanding of how we responded to it? (“Interesting. Tell me more. What has you say that?”)
  3. Who stands out as a leader around here? Who is someone that influences the way others think and feel — and what do the do that makes them stand out? (“Interesting. Tell me more. What has you say that?”)
  4. What does it take to get ahead around here? What types of things will get someone a raise or promotion? (“Interesting. Tell me more. What has you say that?“)
  5. What does it take to get fired around here? What types of things will get someone punished or terminated? (“Interesting. Tell me more. What has you say that?“)
Don’t ask all of these questions at once — have a conversation rather than working through the list. It’s useful to ask thesequestions of a group — especially if folks may be uncomfortable due to your title or rank. And don’t to do this alone: get your team-mates to ask the same questions of their colleagues. In our next posts, we’ll offer suggestions on what leaders can do about what they hear. But here’s a preview: after you’ve had several conversations, reflect on what you’ve heard — what themes stood out? What surprised, pleased or disappointed you? Now, ask yourself a question: How am I part of this? How have I, through the way I speak, act, lead… contributed to people seeing things this way? Interested in learning more? Ready to have conversations that create change in your organization ? We’re ready to help.   About the author: Andy Erickson is a principal and CTO at Humanus Solutions, a consulting firm specializing in people-centric leadership. He can be reached at 

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