Cultural Change Begins in Your Head Not Your Feet

March 31, 2020 |  Categories:  Leadership  

I spent 17 years in the power industry. During those years, we talked incessantly about safety culture, and we should. Safety is essential in many industries. The problem wasn’t that we talked about it but rather how we approached changing or improving it. We would start with more training, safety assessments, safety observations, etc. In other words, we would start with our “feet,” doing things that are important in safety culture. While we were laser-focused on those things, safety would improve. Still, when other activities started to bubble to the top of our priority list, our focus became divided, and there was less focus on safety activities, and our safety performance would erode. Then we would start the cycle over again. Why couldn’t we maintain the safety culture we desired?

What is culture? A simple definition is the habits, behaviors, knowledge, customs, norms, and capabilities of a group of people. You have a culture in your family, church, business, etc. Whether you have intentionally developed a culture or not, you have a culture in any group of people. In other words, you either drive the lifestyle you desire, or the lifestyle drives you. We see that all the time in society, which once was unacceptable on TV, is now the norm. 

Most of us weren’t the drivers of that change but instead have been driven by it. So how can you take control of the culture in your organizations?

Cultural change starts by changing the way a group of people thinks. It’s a little like the chicken and the egg, does thinking drive behavior or behavior drive thinking? Humans are built with a spirit, soul, and body. The spirit connects us to the Creator; the soul is our center of reasoning where our will and emotions reside; and our body, the physical manifestation of our soul and spirit. In other words, our behavior is the outward expression of our inward activity. If we want to change what people see, we must change the way we think.

How should we approach cultural change? By first shaping our thinking, which will change our behavior. Let’s look at this through the lens of discipline, motivation, and inspiration. Let’s define those terms against the backdrop of where the energy comes from in each of them.

  • Discipline – The threat of a negative consequence designed to maintain, conform, or change a behavior. Contained in the threat is the energy to maintain, conform, or change our behavior. For example, teenagers limit their parties while their parents are home but might be less restrained when they are gone. Why? Discipline is only active, while the threat of a negative consequence is real and present. 
  • Motivation – A reward designed to deliver a result that requires some behavioral modification. You desire different results that are more likely to be achieved if there is a reward. In business, a common motivation is an employee bonus program. For parents, sometimes this manifests itself by paying your kids for getting A’s.  
  • Inspiration – Harnessing the energy contained in a message to deliver behavior consistent with the message. About 20 years ago, I would wake up exhausted every morning. It would take 4-5 hours before I was fully functional. No amount of caffeine would speed up the process; trust me, I tried. I discovered I had sleep apnea, a condition that caused me to stop breathing throughout the night. The exhaustion I felt in the morning was the result of my oxygen level dropping to around 85%. Typically, our oxygen saturation is between 95%-100%. I would have to breathe in the air, so my body could extract the oxygen before my energy level would increase. The energy in this example is in the air.  

Many or most organizations attempt cultural change through discipline or motivation. That works for a period but is never permanent. The permanent change will only occur when we are inspired by the message or by where the cultural change will take us. We need to message culture before we activate it. In other words, we must create believers in the new culture before we expect people to take action to deliver the new culture. 

How do we turn belief into action? Have you ever been excited after you heard a speaker or a sermon just to put that excitement on the back burner quickly? Why? Because you ONLY believed what you heard, you didn’t trust it. Tuning belief into action is difficult. Trust is the bridge between belief and action. Trust is a safe place, a place of refuge, or protection. If we want people to act based on what they believe, we must ensure we have created a safe place for them to bring their ideas, experience, innovations, and creativity. I’m not talking about physical safety, although we want people to be physically safe, but rather safe to deliver all they have into the organization.  

What’s the bottom line? Thinking drives behavior. Therefore, if we want cultural change to be permanent, not a façade to impress the boss, then we need to change the way we think and let that renewed thinking drive our behavior. That means we first must create a belief then build the bridge of trust for action to occur. Permanent cultural change will happen.  The question is will you be the driver or the passenger?



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