By Graham Oxley, Project Manager – Digital Engagement
The manager of Manchester United is not someone that people would often look to when researching culture change. However, the remarkable turnaround in fortunes at the club since new manager Ole Gunnar Solskjaer joined on the 19th December 2018 is worth investigating. When you look closely, you can see the hallmarks of successful culture change that can be applied to any business, from football team to multi-national corporation as I intend to show. This is particularly exciting to me because it allows me to see a connection between my favourite hobby and my daily work in helping businesses enact effective culture transformations.
Solskjaer has not had lots of time in the job, but he has unwittingly (or not?) taken a number of the same steps that we recommend to organisations looking to transform the culture:
1. Engage your influencers – People naturally want to reduce their cognitive dissonance and this means that in teams and organisations, employees adopt the behaviours of those people who have reference power[i]. These people are your influencers, and if you can engage them in adopting the behaviours you seek, this can naturally filter through the organisation. Paul Pogba is one of the most influential men in the Manchester United squad, which is why in pursuit of a culture of attacking football, Solskjaer has focussed on encouraging his star player to play more positively and watched this rub off on the rest of the squad.
2. Focus on micro-behaviours – Micro-behaviours are defined as small, thoughtless acts that can act in dissonance with a culture. For example, speaking over a junior colleague in a meeting is a small act, but may be in counter to an organisation’s intended culture of respect and collaboration. Calling out these negative micro-behaviours can help continually reinforce the organisation’s culture in employees’ minds until it becomes unconscious. Solskjaer has identified a respect for the club as something that he wants to foster in the culture and focussed on micro-behaviours such as asking all players to wear matching Manchester United branded jackets when arriving at the games to show unity, as opposed to wearing whatever they wanted previously[ii].
3. Fostering a culture of positivity – Positivity can have a significant impact on creativity, which can be explained by neuroscience. The neocortex and limbic system, seats of rational thought and emotions, work together to produce creativity, which means to be creative, you need both to be stimulated and feel safe.[iii] A lot of culture change initiatives in organisations focus on the rational or intellectual appeal for employees, however it is important to maintain a focus on the emotional elements to ensure that employees are feeling positive and therefore unleash creativity. Solskjaer knew that creativity was a big part of the culture he wanted to embed, so has focussed heavily on positivity in his messages both externally and internally, which was a stark contrast to the previous culture described by some as ‘fear and hate’[iv].
We frequently talk to clients about the importance of each of the above when it comes to enacting successful cultural change and it is interesting to see some real-life examples coming from an unexpected source. One word of caution however; immediate change is highly unlikely in a large multi-national organisation. Changing the culture in a 25-man football squad is a much smaller task, and even Solskjaer himself has admitted that ‘we are still very much a work in progress’[v]. However, he has adopted some key principles that are the key to cultural change no matter what the size of organisation and perhaps there is a lesson there for anyone enacting their programme of transformation.
Here at HSM, we help clients leverage the power of crowd-sourcing to make evidence-based decisions around delivering effective culture change. If you want to discuss this further, or are a football fan, drop me an email on firstname.lastname@example.org and I am happy to have a more in-depth chat.
[i] Shu, L. Gino, F. Bazerman, M H., (2011) Ethical Discrepancy : Changing Our Attitudes to Resolve Moral Dissonance, Behavioral Business Ethics: Ideas on an Emerging Field. Taylor and Francis Publishing
[iii] Dietrich, A. (2015). How creativity happens in the brain. Springer. Chicago
What does it take to successfully deliver an organisational transformation? Whether it’s a culture change, a new operating model, or a shift in the approach to performance management, this is the number one question on many executives’ minds. When attempting to answer this question, people often default to the conventional wisdom of leadership buy in and role modelling. However, our experience at HSM suggests that many executives may be missing a vital ingredient – influencers.
When most people think of influencers within their organisation they think of leaders; managers, directors and their executive board who have a lot of formal hierarchical power and can sway their colleagues due to their position within the organisation. However, there is another group who are harder to identify, yet can be even more important when embedding change. These are people who can, because of their knowledge, skills and position in the company network, and not their formal hierarchical power, shape the views and behaviours of multiple colleagues. It is this ability to softly effect the behaviours of others that makes them such a valuable tool in your change initiative.
But how can you identify these influencers? By their very nature they can sit in any part of your organisation, in any function, in any region and could have been there for 20 years or just a couple of months.
One method advocated by Yoonjin Choi and Paul Ingram of Columbia College (2017) is to analyse semantic networks, which track how knowledge flows within a community. Choi and Ingram define culture as a web of connected concepts that people use to make sense of situations. For example, if a culture is collaborative, then at the centre of the web would be concepts such as “Help others”, “Good Communication” and “Altruistic”. Choi and Ingram then identified influencers through semantic network analysis asking questions such as “choose three people who are valued, and then…why is this person valued?” Using this information, they mapped out the culture, showing that some concepts were central, and some were distant. Cultural fit and therefore the strength of an influencer is then defined as the degree to which an individual has these concepts assigned to them. For example, your team members may describe their colleague Sam, as someone who regularly helps others and often takes time to explain decisions made in the team. Sam would therefore have high cultural fit to a collaborative company culture and as such would be a useful influencer in embedding this culture across the firm.
Another method is one we use frequently here at Hot Spots Movement – the power of Crowdsourcing to solve complex organisational challenges. Crowdsourcing is an inclusive problem-solving approach that gives everyone in the organisation a voice, regardless of rank or tenure. This enables organisations to identify influencers from different regions, departments and levels, irrespective of their place in the hierarchy. During our Crowdsourcing Conversations, we identify influencers firstly, by highlighting participants who had particularly high energy and enthusiasm in the conversation, demonstrated by high participation rates. Secondly, we look at the quality of comments, to find those who added significant value to the conversation. And finally, we establish which individuals had strong social capital, these are participants who received a high number of comments, likes and praise for their comments. Only participants that meet these varied criteria can be defined as influencers and therefore individuals that our clients can engage with when launching a change programme.
With many companies embarking on transformation programmes, perhaps now is the time to find out who in the organisation really has influence. Contact me at email@example.com to find out more.
By Amanda Fajak, Executive Director at Walking the Talk
20 years ago I published an article looking at the link between power, gender and the likelihood of promotion. In that research I uncovered an important finding. Women were associated with emotion and emotion was a characteristic that was not associated with strong leadership. Inversely, men were associated with assertiveness, a characteristic that was associated with strong leadership.
This finding has been reiterated many times over the years with the general consensus being that men are traditionally associated with aggression, risk taking, decisive behaviour and autonomy (what are called agentic qualities) – what have historically been viewed as valuable leadership skills – whereas women are traditionally associated with being kind, caring, humble and relational (what are called communal qualities) – historically less valued leadership skills. These stereotypes of men and women have resulted in historic streaming of men and women into different careers (very broadly in 1998 this meant men traditionally in finance and business and women in nursing and teaching).
Fast forward to 2018 and I was curious as to what has changed. When you look into our business press, there is still evidence of the male hero leader – with the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Mark Zukerberg being credited with single handedly changing our lives. However there are also strong women leaders and influencers making the headlines – Michelle Obama, Angela Merkl, Mary Barra (GE), Indra Nooyi (Pepsico), Carolyn McCall (ITV), Theresa May to name a few.
Interestingly, research from as recently as 10 years ago showed that despite an increasing number of women in more powerful roles, women had started to see an association between feminine and leadership characteristics, but men had not.
The latest research by Eagly – who has polled views on gender stereotyping since 1946 – delivered good and bad news. Over time, men have increasingly been seen as more agentic (aggressive, decisive, etc). Over time women have been increasingly seen as more intelligent and competent than men but the stereotype of women being more communal has also increased.
These sorts of findings are a source of frustration to many. On the surface it would appear that we haven’t made much progress in breaking down stereotypes. This is only 1 lens, if we broaden out our perspective another picture might be emerging.
Recent research conducted by Walking the Talk showed that investment professionals are less likely to invest in organisations that are aggressive, overconfident, overly hierarchical – organisations that have more agentic qualities.
Similarly, recent research by the Centre for Creative Leadership listed the following 10 characteristics to be associated with leaders: Honesty; Ability to delegate; Communication; Sense of humour; Confidence; Commitment; Positive attitude; Creativity; Ability to inspire; Intuition. These are more communal qualities.
In the same vein the latest thinking about the leaders that create psychological safety – a critical underpinning to organisation health – includes modesty; humility; openness; supportiveness; inclusive decision making; acknowledging others; emotional intelligence; and accessibility – more communal qualities.
If we look at changing perceptions about leadership it is evident that we are starting to see a significant shift in terms of what good leadership looks like. Could it be that although stereotypes about women have not changed, society has come to a point where it is starting to recognise that feminine characteristics are what it takes for strong leadership?
 Fajak, A. & Haslam, A. (1998). Gender solidarity in hierarchical organizations. British Journal of Social Psychology. 37, 73-94.
 Eagly, A.H.. Wood, W. & Diekman, A.B. (2000). Social role theory of sex differences and similarities: A current appraisal. In T. Eckes and H.M. Trautner (Eds.). The developmental social psychology of gender (pp.123-174). Mahwah, NJ: Erlbaum.
 Duehr, E. & Bono. J. (2006). Men, women, and managers: are stereotypes finally changing? Personnel Psychology, 59, 815-846.
For somebody like me for whom time is a gift – not as extra years added to the later part of my life but right now in the form of an 8th day of the week, an extra hour every day – I’m keen to understand why time is so volatile. Why are so many people struggling to make ends meet time-wise at work?
When at Hot Spots Movement we speak to companies around the world, and again lately when we were in Australia, we hear from senior executives how stretched they are, with many requests on their time that are not to do with their ‘day job’. Of course, in a time such as this of increasingly fluid job design and project-based working, the definition of ‘day job’ is not a hard and fast one. Nevertheless, it seems that many of the requests are peripheral to people’s roles. You may ask why this is an issue – after all being useful is profoundly satisfying to most people, and contributing to the ‘greater good’ of the organisation by delivering input over and above your own projects surely is positive? It is, but not at the expense of preserving time to focus, to think, and to ponder longer-term strategic matters. When people are persistently stretched, and their time therefore is too fragmented, their productivity, creativity and wellbeing may suffer. Although a hidden cost for some time, it will eventually catch up with both the individual and the organisation.
So, what is it that is occupying the time of busy executives, and are these tasks really adding value? They seem to fall into two categories: reporting, and collaborative endeavours, such as attending meetings or reviewing others’ work.
Let’s start with reporting. One of the many great columns Lucy Kellaway wrote in The Financial Times was about why young people leave jobs. Her empirical evidence was that they lose the will to live because they were promised meaningful work, however, once on the job, they’re asked to produce reports and spreadsheets that are not being put to use. I’m not convinced this only happens to young people.
Next, collaboration. As the new and indiscriminately applied preferred working style in many organisations, there’s a tendency to over-collaborate and be too consensus-focused (or afraid of taking full accountability). Both lead to more meetings and more requests for input, where in fact one or two viewpoints would suffice. Of course, there’s a certain respect for hierarchy, and there are compliance-driven requests, but we could question more what is on our to-do list, be they legacy tasks or new tasks. And a bit tongue-in-cheek, see what happens if we don’t get around to providing our input. I’m not sure it would always even be noticed?
As companies move to designing work around projects rather than roles, I’m wondering if we should learn from freelance workers who work on discrete and time-defined projects, measured on outcome, and therefore can focus on these? Perhaps a zero-budgeting  based approach to how we spend our time may be helpful – regularly resetting the to-do list to 0. We need to be regularly asking ourselves, ‘what is it that keeps me busy, and is it really adding value?’ On that note, back to my to-do list, where the first point is to critically question the items!
 Where you have to justify what you need to spend, starting from 0 for every period, rather than assuming legacy spend requirements.
I recently returned from running our annual Workshop in Sydney. Alongside trying to find the best flat white in the city and dealing with jetlag, I was able to hear more about what is on the minds of our Australia based clients. At our workshop we discussed why companies need to build a narrative on the future of work, and how to build a future-proofed culture amongst other topics. There were three major takeaways for organisations that came out for me around the workshop.
- Think about your narrative
Despite increasing digital disruption and the rise of AI and analytics, organisations need to ensure they don’t forget the social aspects of change, and the power of stories over straight facts or data. Research has shown that stories impact people’s brains differently to facts, causing more connections in the brain and leading to closer relationships between the storyteller and the listener. People use stories as a way of understanding the world and this is particularly true when it comes to the future of work. Employees are looking to employers to provide a sense of stability and purpose in a rapidly changing world. Organisations therefore need to reflect on their own narrative on the future, thinking about what it will mean to work in their company and how work will be done in the future. Where are your non-negotiables? Where are you going to take a bet and what will stay the same? In considering questions such as these, companies can provide their workers with a story about where they are going, and how they will be supported along this journey.
- Abandon assumptions around aging
The importance of not relying on stereotypes and assumptions around aging also came out strongly in the Workshop. Longer working lives mean that organisations cannot make assumptions around the needs and desires of their workforce, particularly older workers. No longer is it always the case that a worker in their 60s is looking to retire, for example. Organisations need to make sure that their practices and processes are not based on erroneous expectations. They need to rethink the way they approach retirement, or what it means to progress in the organisation, so that people are not penalised if they want to downgrade their working hours without losing status in the organisation.
- Identify your influencers
Finally, the need to think about the cultural influencers in organisations was another important point. Rather than relying on hierarchical leaders, companies need to uncover the real influencers and work with them to drive cultural change. These influencers can be discovered through network analysis or crowdsourced conversations but should be brought in early on in the process to ensure the behavioural change so crucial so a successful culture shift.
It was great to hear from our members in Sydney, and we look forward to our next trip Down Under!