4 Pulling the levers for cultural change


4 Pulling the levers for cultural change

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4 Pulling the levers for cultural change

What the executive or managers say they want in their missions and values (or their preferred cultures) is not always evident in the actual behaviours of people.  The reason is that what people actually bump into everyday is not the ‘mission’ – people get the message everyday from their peers, their manager’s behaviour, the structures, systems, work design.The following diagram illustrates how culture actually works, and which levers you can pull to change it.

For example, while there is a clear policy that people should report any incident or adverse outcome, this might not happen unless there is a clear process and structure for doing so, and consistent consequences for not doing so.  It is even less likely to happen if, every time someone does report an incident that are criticized or in some way punished.

An organisation is perfectly set up to achieve what it is achieving.  So, while you may have engaged your team in defining the behaviours they want everyone to exhibit, you now need to make sure that the other levers are in place to reinforce these. Audit the organisational policies, systems, processes, and the skills of you and your staff to see if in fact the wrong behaviour is being rewarded!

To get the culture you are after, you need to look at the causal factors which are these:

Structures – Who is involved in decisions and how information flows.  Is it hierarchical or flat.  Can individuals address their own conflicts or concerns or are they forced to go to their manager to adjudicate? Expecting people to act like adults rather than seeking permission is more likely to encourage them to manage their own interpersonal issues without bothering you.  We also know that sharing decision-making and responsibility in this way is important to building trust and promoting safety (Scott-Cawiezell 2006) and innovation.

Systems – Consider the system of rewards and promotion.  Is open communication, sharing differences and collaboration actively encouraged, or is individual achievement, competition and silence rewarded?  How does the system deal with incidents, complaints, poor performance.  Does it avoid it, defend it, punish those who cause it – or does it engage in open, learning processes and encourage people to see this information as helpful in the process of continually growing and learning?

Work design – How autonomous you and your staff?  Can they manage their own issues or do they need to escalate them to you or your manager?

Skills and qualities – This includes communication, conflict management, teamwork (Scott-Cawiezell 2006). Do people have the skills and strategies to deal constructively with conflict and to embrace collaboration?  The leader’s skills and qualities have a particularly significant impact on how people deal with conflict.  The leader also has primary responsibility for establishing all the other levers – so you need to actively looking at these levers and making sure they reinforce a constructive conflict and collaboration.

Your style will influence how your team deals with conflict!

The single most important factor that defines culture, and how people deal with conflict is the manager’s approach to it.

Remember at our first session we discussed manager’s approach to their work – their style and how this impacts on the people around them? Nowhere is this more evident than in how a manager deals with conflict.  If everything has to be nice and harmonious, then this will inhibit people from speaking openly.  Similarly, if the manager criticises people for having alternative ideas to them, then they will shut this down – fostering a culture of avoidance.

Creating a safe culture requires leaders to provide clear expectations and support, encourage staff to participate in decision-making, foster open communication and ensure staff are involved in the continuous quality improvement processes.  This is because the staff are actually more aware of what is happening on the ground than the managers are usually. (Scott-Cawiezell 2006).

How you deal with conflict and the systems you put in place will ensure staff can deal constructively with the conflict they come across.

It is less likely to be escalated to you if your people have the skills and authority to deal with it themselves. And if they view it as a natural part of human interactions – rather than a blow to the head!

So, what do you need to do to make a difference to how you deal with it, how your staff deal with it, and how the systems and culture support constructive conflict resolution?


  • Download the PDF “Structures and Processes”
  • With your team, process map how conflict is dealt with in your team/organisation – including the informal elements of it.
  • Review all of the policies, procedures and processes that influence how people deal with conflict, mistakes, bullying, harassment and performance. What messages are they given your people about how they should deal with conflict?
  • Do they encourage people to take personal responsibility for how they behave and how they deal with conflict?
  • Do they encourage people to speak up when they have ideas or concerns.
  • Is there a feedback loop that engages people and ensures the issues are dealt with quickly and transparently.
  • In what way does the current structures, processes and work designs encourage constructive conflict resolution and collaboration or not?
  • Do your people have the skills and strategies to manage conflict constructively themselves without coming to you?
  • What can you do to improve this right now?

Structures and Processes


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