Level Set: The Ground Zero Step to Shaping an Effective Culture

When a business executive makes the critical decision to shift a culture, pivot a business offering, or release a new product, successful ones do their research and understand the competitive landscape, the buyer’s needs and the expected ROI. However, even the successful ones do not fully understand or appreciate the human complexities that can become barriers to cultural transformation, organizational change management and growth effectiveness.

The human system in an organization is the core element that makes the business unique, competitive, and successful. Business leaders tend to miss that a healthy human system breeds productive behavior and higher levels of results produced in the workplace.

When members of the human system feel secure in their work environment, trust their leaders, are aligned with the big picture, qualified for their role, and are encouraged to develop themselves, the human system thrives. Conversely, when the people in the system feel threatened, their effectiveness diminishes.The Five Dysfunctions of a Team, by Patrick Lencioni as well as The 7 Levels of Personal, Group and Organizational Effectiveness by BEabove Leadership explore this concept at length.

Pushing change will only stall success

Many organizations look to traditional change management training programs filled with content to solve the organization’s cultural impediments. While training on content is a solid element of any organizational shift, it alone does not cause new behaviors congruent with the ideal corporate culture. And the content cannot simply be presented to the workforce without first considering a thoughtful approach to addressing the change.

When change is thrust on people without context or space for introspection, people are more likely to resist the change and act out in ways that stall a successful culture shift.

When change is thrust on people without context or space for introspection, people are more likely to resist the change and act out in ways that stall a successful culture shift. When the organization needs to change its culture, and therefore the people inside of it, business leaders must begin with why, how and the intended outcomes. When employees understand the context for a cultural shift and how it will affect their everyday life, they are better equipped to navigate it in a positive and successful way.

Gaining workforce buy-in is a must

Neuroscience, leadership and emotional intelligence are becoming leadership development norms. Companies from Google and Zappos to millennial-run startups invest in their leaders – training them for self-awareness – which ultimately make them better able to support their teams. When a leader is fully grounded in the systemic impacts of human behavior at work, they are better equipped to consciously create a culture that fosters courage, engagement, innovation and even synchronicity.

Take for example how human beings respond to change. Stress is typically a natural byproduct as people learn to adapt. While some are highly skilled at recognizing their response to stress, others are blind to it. Therefore, leaders who know where their workforce is at with organizational change, how they respond to stress and what may stop them from operating at their best allows them to prepare for it, speak to their concerns, and work with team members to pave the path to a better future. Thus, creating a higher likelihood of buy-in and a smoother transition forward.

A business leader may intuitively know that change is necessary, but that alone will not cause real transformation within the human system. Therefore, an essential step in creating a culture shift is to gain buy-in that the change is needed. Gaining buy-in begins with data collection, which illuminates cultural misalignment and fractures within the human system. The most effective data collection comes from surveying your workforce to uncover their ideal culture in comparison to how they perceive the current culture. This information will be used to create a compelling statement that specifically addresses their concerns and barriers thereby enrolling them in the plan for change. 

Level Set event—a culture change essential

A Level Set event sets the foundation for obtaining positive buy-in and initiating the necessary cultural change. This event paves the way for effective teamwork, collaboration, and ultimately, the successful implementation of organizational change by allowing management and executive teams to gain insight and understanding into their personal barriers and overall team dynamics that constrain individual and organizational effectiveness.

As a result, your workforce recalibrates and leaders feel inspired to fully engage in creating a high-performance team that shapes culture, inspires people, and progressively executes strategy. At the end of this event, every member of your human system is prepared to navigate and positively impact the organization’s culture change.

The Framework of a Level Set event

At the onset of the Level Set, the team comes together in a facilitated inquiry to discover and uncover what has prevented accelerated and sustained high performance. During this inquiry, team members are guided in shaping their communications towards a solution-oriented and fully positive outcome. 

Then, the team comes together for a series of challenges that draw attention to the complexities of how a human system operates and what it takes to perform at a highly effective level.

While individual members and the team as a whole encounter their automatic operating modes and responses, limiting beliefs and unproductive behaviors, they are at the same time learning to adopt state-of-the-art neuroscience, emotional intelligence and agility recalibration models that empower them to discover what’s not working, name it, and pivot individual and team output towards high performance.

By the end of these challenges, teams understand how to communicate productively, provide constructive feedback, proactively set and accomplish goals, and own individual roles within the larger context of the organization’s objectives.

In Conclusion

Positively shifting an organization’s culture should not be done with a quick fix. There is no replacement for understanding and educating the people in the human system to lead, navigate, and operate well in the face of change. Leaders must become champions of change to guarantee the organization’s alignment.

Addressing your organization’s need for a culture change is best done by beginning with a Level Set event where the workforce can understand why the change is needed, how the company will approach the transition, and the benefits it will produce. Doing so maximizes the company’s and the workforce’s effectiveness throughout the transformation process leading to successful implementation of the new corporate culture and a high-performance organization.

How to Avoid 5 Lethal Culture Landmines

While most awake and aware leaders say they want a constructive corporate culture, many are uncertain of what it really takes to cause cultural change. Consequently, many executives and managers unintentionally create conditions in their work environment for a destructive culture to ferment and metastasize throughout their organization. This happens when leaders focus too much on the task dimension and lose sight of the culture dimension. When leaders step over, ignore, or inadvertently reward the five lethal landmines, culture and strategy alignment fragment and fall apart.

The lethal landmines—cultural norms from the Organizational Culture Inventory®—include enablement of internal competition, micromanagement, resistance to collaboration, pursuit of perfection, and an overemphasis on being liked. These slow killers erode teamwork, creativity, and innovation—all requirements in a 21st-century organization.

1. Internal Competition

Inside competitive work cultures, members are often expected to operate in a “win-lose” framework, outperform peers, and work against (rather than with) their co-workers. What begins with a healthy race often devolves into unproductive, dog-eat-dog internal workplace behavior.

Winning is an incredibly powerful motivator. The desire to win can move mountains and bring in profits. However, when the need to win overrides better judgment, fragments and erodes core values, and runs over people and leads them to the brink of exhaustion, it must be called out and new behaviors that promote and inspire must be integrated into the culture. A pursuit of results above all else can cost relationships, health and wellness, trust, quality, and safety.

When gone unchecked, a once-healthy desire to “beat the competition” very often creates opportunities for unproductive behavior, as well as perpetuating neural pathways and automatic ways of thinking and being that result in an organization eating itself alive. This shows up on the floor with people arguing for win-lose scenarios and in-fighting for power, control, rewards, promotions, and resources. A focal shift from “we” to “me” occurs, where siloed and personalized thinking prevails.

Even though the intentions of leaders who want to “win” are almost always well-meaning, a workplace culture that values winning above all else can be fertile ground for destructive behavior and employment brand erosion.

2. Micromanagement

When leaders and team members are expected and even encouraged to “power up” over others, people in the organization often view themselves as pawns in the micromanagement chess game, or simply as cogs in the organizational profit wheel. They lose motivation and initiative and give less of their discretionary time to make the organization better. Commanding and controlling is a vicious cycle, and the only way out is to declare it and inspire a new way to lead and follow.

In power-driven organizations, hierarchy reigns and members of the management team are expected to take charge, control subordinates, and yield to the demands of superiors. Historically, this has been the “right” way to lead, and for many decades, it actually worked. This model is flawed, however, and those managed by people who admire and enjoy this model atrophy and stagnate. In workplace cultures where this type of behavior is rewarded, the powerful take over and the powerless surrender.

3. Resistance to Collaboration

Opposition shows up in communication such as, “Yes, but;” “We already tried that and it failed;” “I have been here for years and I know it won’t work;” and “No, because.” While everyone ought to be singing from the same overall hymnal and working together in tolerance and engagement, members of this type of organization spend far too much time navigating personalities and conflict than collaborating, innovating, and solving problems.

In oppositional workplace cultures, there is often a root of overcoming obstacles that afforded the organization sustainability and success over years. But often what got us here will not get us there, and opposition is one of those elements of culture, much like winning at all costs, that turns the organization against itself. In work cultures where members are expected to be critical, oppose ideas of others, and make “safe” decisions, people drop into fear and suppress their ideas and creativity.

4. Pursuit of Perfection

Leaders of many modern organizations often stake their reputations on delivering excellence or superior service. There are not many CEOs who would stand behind, for example, sending out sloppy work or delivering code to customers littered with errors, but there is a subtle difference between standing for quality and being in pursuit of perfection.

Many, if not most, leaders of quality-driven organizations pride themselves on a commitment to excellence. While that intention may have been initially pure and congruent with the leader’s values, all too often the unconscious underlying behavior that is fostered with this value is perfection. In a culture of perfection, people do not take risks, they do not try new things, and they almost certainly do not put themselves or their reputations at risk to color outside the lines.

Perfection, by definition, leaves very little room for risk taking and creativity in your organization. When curiosity is stifled and looking good is the primary focus, mistakes are hidden, learning is mitigated, and growth is constrained. In an environment where perfection is celebrated and rewarded, conventionality emerges as a safe bet for staying out of the boss’ crosshairs. In a workplace that prioritizes perfectionism, members are expected to conform, follow the rules, and make a good impression. The byproduct of making a good impression and following the rules is that creativity and risk taking are thwarted and innovation becomes impossible. Resistance to change becomes a blocker to progress and complacency sets in. While certain roles demand perfection or someone could die, perfection as a culture limits and constrains what is possible for the organization.

5. Overemphasis on Being Liked

In a work culture where needing approval is a core component of how the organization works, team members are expected to agree with, gain the approval of, and be liked by others. In a workplace such as this, disagreements are frowned upon and people are encouraged to go along with the crowd—even when the crowd is prepared to drive off a cliff. When team members fear conflict, even constructive conflict, they are incapable of engaging in debates or openly voicing opinions. The team avoids conflicts that involve speaking up against bad decisions, thus leading to inferior organizational results.

Everyone who is anyone in business understands the need to cooperate with others in the workplace and the need for teamwork and collaboration. However, creating a work culture where everyone has to be liked and get along with little to no emphasis on performance or results most often leads to over-the-top consensus building, perceived favoritism, a loss of focus and ambition, inconsistent accountability, and a very destructive fear of conflict.

It’s imperative to understand that “keeping the peace” workplace cultures can be an insidious thief of organizational and talent optimization. Keeping the peace has the potential to rob the organization and its people of experiencing the highest levels of role fulfillment and satisfaction. When people and the human system they operate in do not actively engage in productive ways of being, including constructive conflict, speaking their truth, giving new ideas, and sharing insights of what is not working, they can never achieve true engagement in the workplace.

Build an Intentional Culture to Avoid Landmines

The five lethal landmines are slow killers of a high-performance culture. Over time, these ways of being seep into the human system and become “the way things are done around here.” This behavior, when left unquestioned or unchecked, erodes creativity, collaboration, innovation, role fulfillment, self-expression, and employee engagement. Shaping a Constructive culture is about intentionally developing the kind of corporate culture that exemplifies your brand promise. This takes a solid and palatable intention for that culture as a holistic human system—a system of people operating as a living and agile organism. Intentional culture is all about monitoring what you are creating and making necessary shifts along the way to ensure you are accomplishing what you set out to by creating the intentional culture in the first place.

Adapted and reprinted with permission from keenalignment.com.

Editor’s Note: The five cultural styles discussed here are adapted from R. A. Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, Organizational Culture Inventory®, Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics. Some of the behaviors cited describing these styles are survey items from the Organizational Culture Inventory (Copyright 1987) and are used by the author with permission.