• Top Ten Culture Posts of 2018 on CultureUniversity.com

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Jan 16, 2019

    CultureUniversity.com was launched in 2014 to cut through misinformation related to culture and culture change, and it has grown into an essential educational resource for leaders and change agents.

    Ten new posts garnered the highest traffic in 2018, and my personal top insight from each post is captured in the list below.

    #10 – Dealing with Uncertainty in an Era of Disruption

    By Larry Senn

    Larry Senn is clearly a pioneer in the culture space, and we’re fortunate to have him share his wisdom on CultureU. This post doesn’t disappoint as Larry guides us in dealing with uncertainty.

    My favorite point came at the close of this excellent post: “You choose how you respond.” Larry continues, “Recognize that in life and business, a fair amount of surprises will cross your path, and some may come with immense challenges. When that happens, remember: Stop. Think. Decide. Only you can make a conscious decision to take a more effective course of action.” Change agents will inevitably run into major roadblocks and frustration when dealing with culture challenges, and it’s tempting to take the easy out and “go negative.” Larry reminds us to “stay positive,” because “people tend to gravitate toward positive people” and you’ll be better equipped to “come up with solutions to problems and solve key issues.”

    #9 – Framework for a New Leadership Culture

    By Graham Williams and Eva Marie Cooper

    This comprehensive post covers a framework for a new leadership culture that’s necessary to support an important shift in the operating model of organizations. Two points stood out to me toward the end of the post. First, Graham and Eva referenced using “projects as incubators of the required leadership characteristics” like freedom of action, adventure, discovery, trust, collaboration, empowerment and “sharing of everything.” Most underestimate how difficult it is for individuals to shift their behavior when confronted with the power of the current culture. Intentional, shared approaches using “projects as incubators” are far better than general leadership development or change management approaches. The authors further refined their guidance in the second standout point by emphasizing the importance of “engaging with rather than managing both internal and external stakeholders.”

    #8 – Culturally Intelligent Change

    By Donna Brighton

    Donna, an expert in the important connection of culture and change management, shared “15 key culture actions” as part of an excellent visual:

    15 Key Culture Actions

    She stressed how they should be “layered into an existing change approach” and can also be “used as a checklist to ensure that these critical actions are part of the Change Management Strategy and Plans.”

    #7 – A Template for Organizational Culture Change

    By Tom Kayser

    I loved Tom’s deeper dive on Edgar Schein’s three-level model for culture. Everybody wants to learn how to change culture or improve without understanding some of the classic models that help us grasp important aspects of culture. Tom expands on Schein’s model with further explanation about how basic underlying assumptions can conflict with espoused values or may “not align properly to reinforce and facilitate success of a visible artifact.” The reality is that leaders in most organizations haven’t taken the time to understand the basic underlying assumptions driving the behavior they see on the surface. 

    #6 – The Impact of Trust on Corporate Culture

    By Barbara Brooks Kimmel

    Barbara is CEO and Cofounder of Trust Across America-Trust Around the World and a tireless trust expert and advocate. She doesn’t disappoint with her sharing of “universal trust-building principles.” These Trust Alliance Principles (TAP) follow the TAP INTO TRUST acronym. My favorite principle is the final “T” for Tracking: “We define and scorecard our performance against our value and values — we measure both.” It’s unbelievably rare for leaders to measure how well they are “living” their values and whether they are consistent with the norms or “unwritten rules” driving the majority of behavior in the workplace.

    #5 – Fake Culture

    By Scott Beilke

    Scott warns us, “Culture is caught not taught, reinforced not announced.” He shares some interesting examples, and one that stood out to me was the story of how an executive reacted in an ineffective meeting. The person leading the meeting wasn’t prepared and the leader was frustrated with the lack of productivity, so she took over the meeting. Her team member didn’t learn how to improve and, next time, he’s more likely to step back than to step up and improve. Many well-intentioned leaders are appropriately focused on the outcome while forgetting that culture is not “taught” but “learned through observation and experience.”

    #4 – The Three Levels of Change Required to Shift Culture

    By Jerome Parisse-Brassens

    What are the three levels? The answer is organization, team and individual. Where do you start? Jerome correctly emphasizes that change is required at all three levels, “often at the same time,” or you may risk “sending contradicting messages about what’s important.” Many top leaders are comfortable working at the organization level but struggle with how to cascade changes to individual work teams. Jerome shared the Kurt Lewin quote, “The immediate social group is the greatest determinant of behavior.” Change may start at the top with the executive team, but many top teams go too far, making decisions without a clear approach to drive engagement, empowerment, learning and results with supporting teams and individuals.

    #3 – How Visible and Invisible Forces Shape Culture

    By Marlene Chism

    Marlene shares a crucial point from an interview of Edgar Schein: “Culture is what a group learns as its way of surviving and both getting along internally and solving its problems externally. What’s usually missing is understanding how the external environment influences culture.” She cited the example of the decision by the CEO of Dick’s Sporting Goods to stop selling assault rifles at a time when the country was “divided over second amendment rights, gun control and public safety.” Many leaders and change agents view culture as an internal dynamic without understanding external influences and problems that need to be solved.

    #2 – Southwest Airlines Reveals 5 Culture Lessons

    By Kristin Robertson

    The “culture lessons” cover critical areas like leadership, empowerment, appreciation and the need to “evolve your culture.” My favorite part of the post is the impressive summary of business results. Southwest Airlines may be the ultimate culture poster child with their sustainable, culture-driven results in a difficult industry, which include:

    • 44 consecutive years of profitability

    • #1 lowest number of customer complaints

    • 2.4% voluntary turnover

    • 85% of employees reporting that they’re proud to work for Southwest

    • No layoffs, no furloughs ever

    What outcomes or results are you focused on influencing due to your culture-related improvements?

    #1 – 7 Essential Insights Normally Missed in Culture Change Efforts

    By Tim Kuppler

    This was the 200th post on CultureUniversity.com. I still believe “we’re living in the absolute best time in history to be involved in meaningful culture change.” Make the most of it and be intentional about how you engage people in your change effort. My favorite “insight” is the focus on “uniting the organization to support the purpose and top priorities.” This concept of “uniting the organization” behind growth, quality, customer experience or other targeted business outcomes or results has always resonated with top leaders. This insight may be the key to a strong culture and performance connection, but the final “essential insight” is turning out to be the difference between success and failure, even if the other six insights are covered.

    7 Essential Insights Normally Missed in Culture Change Efforts

    Insight #7 was to “plan on the resistance and learning from it together.” I can’t recall a single culture-related change effort I have been involved in over the last 20 years where this wasn’t the case. “The resistance” can include:

    • Senior leadership’s attention being pulled to a new priority or opportunity

    • Lack of clarity regarding individual or shared responsibility to champion or facilitate improvement plans

    • Team members feeling uncomfortable moving forward with improvement plans without top leadership approval and, often, difficulties in coordinating that approval or support

    My advice to “get used to the culture grind and don’t stop or dramatically reduce change efforts” continues to ring true, and it is inevitably part of culture change efforts in some form.

    Edgar Schein gave me the following feedback about one of my blog posts and why culture change is so hard: “People forget that what they now have is what they learned, what made them successful, what they have settled for. They are then surprised that culture change is so hard, but at least they now understand why it is so hard.”

    Thank you and the future

    2019 will be a big year for CultureUniversity.com, as well as for ConstructiveCulture.com (our sister culture blog -- see the 2018 Top Ten post here), our monthly Ultimate Culture Webinars, scaling The Culture Journey Learning Experience globally, and much more. We’ll be zeroing in on specific “how to” content and sharing thorough case studies and examples designed to accelerate the culture learning curve.

    Thank you to all our contributing authors—more than 70 and counting in our history of nearly five years. CultureU wouldn’t exist without your interest in sharing what you have learned. CultureU continues to be part of a movement to change the way the world thinks about culture and culture change.

    One final “thank you” goes to all our readers. Your interest in culture and sharing of content on social media are a major part of the journey.

  • Top Ten Posts of 2018 from the Constructive Culture Blog

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Jan 15, 2019

    Key insights for creating a remarkable workplace culture!

    It’s been an exceptional year of shared learning through case examples, stories, and posts on best practices. We’re delighted to share the following blog posts that garnered the highest traffic during the past year. They’re compiled here for your review and use as a resource for building constructive workplace cultures. You read them, we tracked them, let’s count them down!

    #10 - Does Culture HAVE to Eat Strategy for Lunch?

    By Cathy Perme

    This strategic overview resonated with our readers. Experienced consultant, Cathy Perme, raises the important point that the strategic planning process in most organizations simply reinforces the current culture. In response to this reality, Cathy provides a case example and highlights an approach for adjusting the strategic planning process after organizational leaders gain a clear understanding of their current work culture and climate.

    Get insights and take-aways here >

    #9 - How an Icebreaker Can Demonstrate Group Synergy

    By Caroline Walker and Hallie VanManen

    group synergy tsunami simulationSimulations provide a powerful learning experience and meet a variety of organizational needs. Here’s a case summary that delivers added value by including an interactive experience on group synergy. The challenge? Getting teams to establish synergy is no simple task. As a matter of fact, most work teams underperform. But you can help your teams beat the odds by developing superior interpersonal and rational behaviors that lead to effective solutions.

    Help your teams beat the odds >

    #8 - Organizational Culture Assessment in a Non-Profit Organization

    By Arief Kartolo, Carolyn Rauti and Catherine Kwantes

    The specific missions and roles of non-profits vary by region and organization, but they share a common goal of making a difference in the communities they serve—at times taking on some of society’s most pressing work. And like for-profit entities, culture plays a vital role in not-for-profit organizations. This unique case study highlights the importance of understanding how paid and volunteer staff can experience the organization in different ways and, as a result, view the current culture very differently.

    When differences collide: paid and volunteer staff >

    #7 - Change Agents and their Role in Transforming Culture

    By Kalani Iwiula

    Change Agent for culture transformationThe guidance and expertise of a change agent can be invaluable to your organization’s change effort. Whether internal or external, change agents help leadership teams understand the challenges at hand, assess next steps, and collaborate on a clear path forward. Like a lighthouse, a change agent can provide safe passage. Part geek, part translator, part transformation specialist, guiding change is what they do.

    Success stories and lessons learned >

    #6 - #1 Reason for Culture Change Success

    By Donna Brighton

    Whether an organization builds big trucks or competes in the world of baseball, culture transformation requires a commitment that’s not for the faint of heart. Culture change expert Donna Brighton offers a superb perspective on leadership and culture change at two completely different, major organizations … both with the #1 reason for culture change success.

    Discover the #1 reason >

    #5 - Seven Top Culture Insights from the 1st Regional Ultimate Culture Conference

    By Tim Kuppler

    Culture expert, Tim Kuppler, shares seven insights gleaned from the 1st Regional Ultimate Culture Conference hosted by Human Synergistics and the University of Wisconsin Center for Professional and Executive Development (CPED). Whether you attended or missed the conference, you can advance your culture learning with this content-packed summary and video clips, all designed to help you make a meaningful difference in your organization. 

    For key, actionable insights >

    #4 - In Conversation with Edgar Schein: Answering Three Common Questions about Culture

    By Aga Bajer

    Aga Bajer & Ed Schein podcastCulture strategist, Aga Bajer, conducts this thoughtful and engaging interview with world renown culture expert, Edgar Schein. With interesting discussions on employee engagement, assessing culture, building relations and more, you’ll enjoy this refreshing look at culture and culture change.

    Sit back, relax, enjoy >

    #3 - It Starts with “Us” – The Importance of Leadership Team Alignment

    By Alysun Johns

    Nothing contributes more to an organization’s mission than clear alignment in the senior leadership team. And when leaders are pulled in conflicting directions, refocusing is essential. Enjoy this 9-point perspective on ensuring alignment in leadership teams.

    How leaders can inspire exceptional performance >

    #2 - Shaping Healthy, High-performing Workplace Cultures for More Than 40 Years

    By Larry Senn

    In this superb article, culture master Larry Senn talks about the principles Senn Delaney has developed over 40-years of helping leaders shape high-performing company cultures. Larry shares his views on what's changed and what hasn’t over the decades and offers guidance on shaping your workplace culture.

    Reflections of a culture master >

    #1 - A Historic Shift in Expecting Leaders to Understand and Evolve Culture

    By Tim Kuppler

    Culture Crisis Historic ShiftThe year 2018 was an unkind one for many to endure as negative and/or negligent leader behaviors were exposed across industries, time and time again. Technology, news & entertainment, higher education, athletics, non-profit--you name the industry, and we had a crisis in trust.

    In this timely post, culture expert Tim Kuppler offers a comprehensive 12-question culture challenge that change agents can use for unlocking the power of culture for good. And given the number of scandals plaguing domestic and global organizations at senior levels of leadership, this post provides relevant and significant guidance for leadership development and culture transformation.

    Experience this historic shift here…and get involved, speak up, take action! >

    Thank you!

    To our readers, thank you for your support, social sharing, and content requests. To our bloggers, a special thank-you for sharing your stories and expertise so that others can learn from your journey. At Human Synergistics, we are passionate about our mission of Changing the World — One Organization at a Time®. Together, the contributions we make to this forum on leadership and culture will help guide our journey, and we invite you to join us.

    Coming in 2019

    Stay tuned for a rich series of “how-to” content from clients, partners, and members of our Global Change Circle of accredited consultants. There will be several ways to enjoy our content—blogs, webinars, videos, conferences and more, so watch this space for coming details on a remarkable year ahead for change agents!

  • Transition Consult AG

    by Dana Koering | Dec 18, 2018

    Transition Consult AG

    Erfahren Sie mehr

  • Barriers to an Accountable Culture

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Dec 11, 2018

    Embodying 3 Keys to Enable Success

    Almost every organization wants to increase accountability, yet the road to an accountable culture is often rocky, narrow, and slippery. Most executives can quote books, articulate models, and share statistics about accountability, yet the gap between knowing and doing remains wide.

    What I often see in the field is intellectualizing rather than embodiment. Intellectualizing is about “head knowledge,” and embodiment is about taking actions until the actions become habits that turn into ways of being. This post is about three distinct barriers to creating an accountable culture and what to do to shorten the gap between ideas and action.

    Barrier #1 – Lack of Alignment

    The first barrier is lack of alignment. One reason this barrier exists is because we lack understanding about alignment: what it is, what it isn’t, and how to recognize a lack of it. Most people I ask define alignment as “the walk matching the talk,” or some version of living in harmony with your values.

    There’s a difference between knowing and doing; between intellectualizing and embodiment. For example, valuing the quality of respect and living that quality is very different from just knowing about it. And we would certainly know how to identify a hypocrite, yet, most of us have a much more difficult time looking in the mirror at our own misalignment. 

    To truly understand alignment, you must understand inner conflict. Inner conflict happens when we experience opposing drives, desires or demands. You desire to be respectful, yet it’s difficult to hold back when you're triggered, perceive injustice, or find yourself absorbed in a vortex of negative media and heated emotion. Embodiment is about living the value even when the value is tested.

    What to do:

    Look at the issue of alignment from both a personal perspective, and then through your organizational lens. First look at values. Get clear about what behaviors are in harmony with those values and what behaviors need to be let go. As a leader, make a decision about what you need to clean up to be in alignment with the corporate mission and values. In your next meeting, share an example or two of an employee who embodies the stated behaviors and make that your blueprint for talent selection. Then make behavior a part of your performance requirements. 

    Embodiment is about living the value even when the value is tested.

    Barrier #2 – Lack of Clarity

    Without clarity, there can be no alignment. How can an employee be aligned with your leadership when she is unclear about her role, responsibilities, priorities or direction?

    When your organization experiences workplace drama in forms of negativity, reduced employee retention or low morale, you will always find at the root, a lack of clarity. The number one stressor for employees is unclear goals.

    Clarity must come first, before alignment is possible. In my work, I see tremendous clarity about desired revenues and sales goals, but once you get past the financials, clarity turns to fog. Most employees I talk with say they don’t understand how their boss measures success. Research supports what I’ve seen in the field: Gallup reports that half of employees strongly agree that they don’t understand what’s expected of them at work. Sadly, managers are equally at a loss.

    What to do:

    Update the job descriptions and standard operating procedures. Meet regularly with employees to keep them updated on the progress and any changes. Don’t wait for a yearly review if an employee’s performance is lacking. Invite conversation and analyze where the lack of clarity or lack of alignment occurs.

    Barrier #3 – Lack of Courageous Conversations

    All things considered, the biggest barrier to creating a culture of accountability is the inability or unwillingness of executives, managers, and supervisors to initiate difficult conversations. Why do I say it’s the biggest barrier? Because even if you are clear and aligned, a culture of accountability can’t be sustained if leaders aren’t willing to talk about difficult subjects related to performance, behavior, and results. 

    A good conversation can help you achieve clarity and alignment, but clarity and alignment do not necessarily drive good conversations. Therefore, the lack of executive conversation is the biggest barrier to creating accountable cultures. In short, executive conversation drives performance and avoidance creates a culture of avoidance.

    A culture of avoidance is easy to spot. I use a ten-point questionnaire to help companies see the snapshot. Here are four of the ten:

    1. Employees “walk on egg-shells” to avoid their manager’s mood
    2. The “inherited problem” has gone on for more than three months
    3. There an excessive amount of unwanted turnover
    4. “Negative Nellies” are shuffled off to someone else’s department

    A culture of avoidance and a culture of accountability cannot exist in the same space.

    What to do:

    This must start at the top. Executives must pave the way. Most managers won’t be able to create departmental accountability if the top executives are avoiders. Invest in formal or informal training to give your executives and managers the skills of initiating difficult performance conversations. Start a re-set button and create new standards.


    Creating an accountable culture is not about using accountability as a whipping stick to gain compliance. Compliance is not commitment. Enlightened accountability, where people truly take ownership and seek growth, can only be achieved through clarity and alignment. Embodied through action, conversation is the bridge to bring it all together.


    Photo credit: Farsai Chaikulngamdee on Unsplash.

  • Ultimate Culture Webinar - Turbo-Charging Community Impact—Real-time Culture Insights from Wipfli’s Nonprofit Conference

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Dec 06, 2018

    Live from Orlando! Explore a common language for understanding and changing culture, its impact on your performance and people-centered results, and learn from on-the-spot shared best practices to unlock the mystery of purpose-driven organizational success. Steve Lipton and Seth Fine join Tim Kuppler in this informative session.

  • Johnsonville Sausage: Ensuring a Culture for Growth

    by Meghan Oliver | Dec 04, 2018

    This is an excerpt from our Constructive Culture blog post, "Change Agents and their Role in Transforming Culture," by Kalani Iwiula. Click here to read the full post.


    UnivOfWisconsin_JohnsonvilleSausageMembers and leaders of Wisconsin-based Johnsonville Sausage have a bold vision to “be the best company on earth.” This requires that the leading national sausage brand be culturally prepared and poised for aggressive innovation on its way to growing and becoming a $1 billion company. An important step was determining whether the company’s Research and Development subculture would foster innovation and growth while supporting their desired culture famously cultivated in the “Johnsonville Way.”


    Susan Dumke, Johnsonville’s Research & Development Senior Project Manager, partnered with the University of Wisconsin-Madison CPED to coordinate a pilot culture study led by Lisa Yaffe, Program Director for Executive Leadership.

    Accredited in the OCI, change agent Yaffe guided the Johnsonville team through the assessment and reporting process.1


    A pilot study confirmed that the R&D employees maintained a strong Constructive subculture that helped the team stay aligned, focused, and to work together and grow. The process also confirmed that the OCI could be leveraged for assessing and developing the Johnsonville culture more broadly.

    Summary PDF


  • Culture Shift + Leadership Development = Sustainable Results for Advocate Health Care

    by Meghan Oliver | Dec 04, 2018

    This is an excerpt from our Constructive Culture blog post, "Change Agents and their Role in Transforming Culture," by Kalani Iwiula. Click here to read the full post.


    AdvocateHealthCareAs the largest health system in Illinois, Advocate’s challenge was to increase and stabilize engagement, focus on culture change, and strengthen relations within a high-profile, semi-autonomous unit that struggled with negative team dynamics, unproductive work relations, and entrenched passive-aggressive behavior.

    *Advocate Health Care is now Advocate Aurora Health, April 2018


    Focusing more on culture than climate, emphasis was placed on helping leaders and teams make the connection between outcomes and their actions and behaviors. Simultaneous “teach & learns” were delivered at all organizational levels with a keen focus on achieving ideal behavioral styles and impact.

    The change initiative was guided by an OD professional specializing in culture transformation and leadership development. Change agent Diane Stuart’s 10 years of healthcare management experience qualified her to lead Advocate’s change effort through an intense and collaborative learning process using assessments like the OCI and Leadership/Impact® (L/I).1, 3


    As leaders gained awareness of their behaviors and their impact on others, Advocate achieved a dramatic shift in culture, attained high levels of engagement, and exceeded financial goals. The impressive turnaround results realized by the focal unit have subsequently been used to motivate, guide, and transform other Advocate teams and departments.

    Summary PDF


  • Does Culture HAVE to Eat Strategy for Lunch?

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Dec 04, 2018

    Design your strategic planning process with culture in mind

    Most everyone has heard some version of “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” Countless iterations of failed strategic plans, as well as mergers and acquisitions, have proven the point. But does it have to be that way? Can we use what we know about the organization’s culture to start changing it while we do strategic planning?

    Oftentimes, the way we do strategic planning simply reinforces the current culture. And if that culture is already defensive, we are probably fortifying those defenses instead of breaking them down. Today, as an integral part of my strategic planning with a client, I start with Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®). I need to determine the current culture, establish why it is that way, and identify levers for changing it. From there I can design a strategic planning process that actually begins to change a client’s workplace culture while helping them plan their strategy. Here is an example of how I have integrated this tool into strategic planning with clients.

    A Case of Strategic Blues

    In a mid-size public sector organization with which I worked, new leaders needed a strategic plan to deal with increasing demand for its services, staff turnover, and highly public incidents regarding safety. The only problem was that “strategic planning” had a bad name and no one wanted to do it.

    We did a limited culture study to find out what was going on, surveying those in management and supervisory positions since they were responsible for planning. We also conducted focus groups and interviews of managers and supervisors at each level of the organization.

    The organizational culture survey showed that, with one exception (a division that was the farthest from the main office!), the overall culture was highly Passive/Defensive, with Avoidance being a core theme.1 Through the focus groups and interviews, we learned that managers at all levels felt beaten up by the punitive practices of a past administrator, especially in planning checkpoints where they would be publicly shamed. In addition, there was great fear of making a wrong decision, which translated into pushing decisions up to the highest levels of the organization. Unfortunately, people at that level did not want to make the decisions either, which translated into most decisions being made in crisis mode.

    The cultural assessment was sobering to say the least. After presenting the results to the client, they agreed that they were NOT ready to do strategic planning—yet! In designing a process for them, we needed to help them model effective decision making. They wanted high engagement, and yet at the same time needed to learn how to drive the process constructively to implementation.

    We helped them get ready to plan by: (1) describing and committing to a “From-To” organizational culture shift; (2) clarifying their leadership/management roles and responsibilities; and (3) clarifying their decision-making structure. That took three months to complete. As part of this effort, they restructured the leadership team into an executive team and an operational leadership team to more effectively address the issues faced by the organization.

    To begin strategic planning, the executive team was tasked with drafting the mission and operating principles of the organization and then working constructively with the operational leadership team to shape it. Over the next eight months, the rest of the organization was invited into the planning process.

    • We facilitated a large group meeting of 100+ people over 1 ½ days in which all divisions and levels of management were represented. The purpose was to:
      • Develop a shared understanding of current reality
      • Create a shared vision for the organization
      • Get reaction to the “From-To” Cultural Shift and the Operating Principles
      • Identify 3-4 overarching goals and potential strategies
    • The executive team took the input from that large group session and refined it. Over the next month, all those involved in the large group meeting worked with the leaders to communicate a joint strategic direction throughout the organization.
    • Then, each division was tasked with developing its own implementation plan congruous with the organization’s goals, in a highly engaged manner. We trained and supported internal facilitators to assist this effort, and almost a third of the organization was involved one way or another in strategic and tactical conversations and planning.
    • A new checkpoint process was developed to focus on linking efforts and learning across the organization and communicating and celebrating progress.
    • The operational leadership team became responsible for identifying, sponsoring, and supporting cross-functional work with executive support.
    • I am happy to report that 18 months into implementation, people seem energized by their goals and they are making progress. The organization is planning to carry out a follow-up culture study next year for the entire organization and will use those results to help shape the process to update their goals and strategies.


    Without conducting a cultural assessment up front, we could have only guessed at the organizational dynamics. Having a cultural assessment gave us the information we needed to:

    • Avoid reinforcing defensive cultural styles (which is easy to do inadvertently)
    • Focus on facilitating new experiences that build the culture they wanted

    In other words, we now knew what to target and could design planning processes to support “shared learning and mutual experiences,” which Edgar Schein calls the key to culture change. None of this would have worked, however, without the total commitment of the top leader in this effort.

    How Do You “Sell” a Cultural Assessment?

    I have often been asked how I “sell” a cultural assessment. The reality is, I don’t—I just include it in my strategic planning work as “step one.” If I get push-back, I remind clients about the opening line of this article and watch their heads nod up and down.

    That said, I will tailor the cultural assessment based on planning objectives and financial resources. For example, if desired, we can also measure how the organization’s customers experience them with a companion tool from Human Synergistics. The Customer ServiceStyles™ (CSS) survey provides an organization with information about how the culture inside impacts their customers outside.

    I have been working with Human Synergistics’ culture tools for more than 20 years and can honestly say theirs are the best tools in the industry. If you want reliable information built on solid research that validates clients’ experiences and gives you the levers for change, these are the tools to use. The rest is up to you!


    1 The terminology is from Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., Organizational Culture Inventory® and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Human Synergistics International, Plymouth, MI. Copyright © 1987-2007. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

  • Culture Change at HKS: Resilient and Responsive

    by Meghan Oliver | Dec 03, 2018

    This is an excerpt from our Constructive Culture blog post, "Change Agents and their Role in Transforming Culture," by Kalani Iwiula. Click here to read the full post.


    US Bank Stadium_HKSDallas, Texas-based architectural firm HKS Architects creates places that enhance the human experience, like the US Bank Stadium, home of the 2018 Super Bowl. After collecting employee satisfaction data for 10 consecutive years, leadership sought to better understand the current culture and the roadblocks that were inhibiting employees from taking the most successful actions.


    A culture survey was initiated firm-wide using the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) from Human Synergistics.1 Well-coordinated company-wide discussions, covering 20 offices across the globe, were conducted to review cultural attributes and the climates and prevailing behaviors of the various offices. Office leadership engaged staff in goal setting and planning. A new performance development system, ELEVATE, was implemented; not linked to compensation, the system involves managers meeting with team members three times each year. Change agent Cheryl Kitchner led ongoing discussions to facilitate participation and learning; vocal support from senior leadership is visible.


    HKS reassessed its culture in 2016 using the OCI and added an assessment of the work climate with the complementary Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI).2 The retest, showing an impressive increase in survey participation, confirmed remarkable reductions in Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/Defensive styles and vital improvements along the Constructive styles. Key changes included stronger commitment to and focus on personal and professional development.

    A second phase of improvement is ongoing and includes:

    • Definition of a clear “FROM-TO” shift to consistently support the company-wide strategic priority, “Responsible Design.”
    • Implementation of a creative and engaging leadership development program, Root Compass. “Responsible Leadership Workshop” was customized based on culture assessment results and launched for use with all managers. Goal: 100 people trained by end of 2018.
    • Enhancement of the ELEVATE platform is further enhanced to include peer reviews for project teams and benchmarking by role.
    • Roll-out of personal assessments to identify individual styles and strengths. Goal: 600 people trained by end of 2018.

    Summary PDF


  • Kate Evans - Performance : That's Culture

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Dec 03, 2018

    Kate Evans
    Group Executive People & Culture

    Performance : That's Culture

    We know that Constructive Cultures deliver better business results. Kate share's her story of how SHAPE’s vision to have a highly constructive culture is being lived everyday as ‘the way we do things around here’. Demonstrating an undeniable link between the Constructive Culture Shape has built and the amazing business performance they achieved because of it. The SHAPE journey has involved making tough choices, increasing accountability, and building leadership capabilities. Kate share's the decisions, approach and performance data through her insightful and personal experiences with SHAPE.
    Kate commenced with SHAPE in 2004 and was an integral part to the introduction of a People & Culture department, where she now holds the Group Executive position. Passionate about Leadership and Organisational Development, Kate is responsible for all functions associated with People at Shape and enjoys being part of an effective leadership team that drives business results through highly engaged and motivated employees.

  • Your People Are the Hearts and Minds of Your Culture

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Nov 27, 2018

    The mantra of work these days is to do more with less, which means companies are hyper-focused on hiring and fostering highly productive employees. They throw in surface-level perks like Margarita Mondays, ping pong tables and more in hopes of driving up engagement and ultimately better business results. What companies should really be striving for is authentic, true employee engagement with a culture that supports it. We know that engaged employees show passion, drive, optimism and resilience, but their sustained engagement relies on organizational support and culture.

    Have you thought about how well your culture supports employee engagement? Is it working for or against engagement? Creating a culture that supports well-being and engagement is crucial to the success of your business. Culture is the collective values, norms and beliefs of your organization, also known as “how things are done around here.” While it can be hard to define, the key is that your culture needs to align with the engagement climate you’re creating.

    What is employee engagement?

    Employee engagement is the engine of the organization—the way stuff happens, the way results are achieved, because of the energy people have from being engaged. That burst of energy you feel comes from a deep sense of purpose and connection to your work, not just with how satisfied you are while you're there or how many tasks you're checking off your to-do list. It's also about being "in the flow"—when you get so caught up in what you're doing that you lose track of time. You're challenged, but not overwhelmed.

    Just because people work long hours and attend happy-hours doesn't mean they’re more productive, complete more tasks, or feel more engaged in their work. High-productivity doesn't necessarily mean engagement, either. Instead, think of productivity as an outcome of engagement. Engagement is all about energy and purpose. Engaged employees have a deep and real emotional connection to their work, and that drives extra energy and purpose. Productivity defines how much an employee produces, but without the energy, care and purpose behind an employee's daily work, there's a lack in initiative, adaptability, creativity and extra effort.

    What does engagement look like?

    Engagement isn't an all-or-nothing game. Employees can be invested in their work but not in the company they work for. Or they might feel connected to their team but not feel aligned with their higher purpose.

    When people are engaged, they’re persistent and take initiative without their manager having to tell them what to do. They’re adaptable and understand how they fit into the larger picture. They go above and beyond to think about their role more broadly and step outside of their usual responsibilities to help others or solve problems for the business. And that’s critical because it means your employees are deeply connected and “all in.”

    So, true engagement benefits both the employee and the employer.

    The benefits of bringing hearts and minds to work

    What research has found repeatedly is this: well-being and engagement are connected. When you invest in an employee’s well-being — their emotional, financial, physical and work well-being — they invest back in the company. In fact, when people feel supported by their employer, they’re 38 percent more engaged and 28 percent more likely to recommend their company as a great place to work. And they’re 17 percent more likely to still be employed there in a year.

    In other words, when people feel supported in bringing their hearts and minds to work, the results speak for themselves.

    Here’s how to help people bring their hearts and minds to work:

    • Support people holistically. Individuals feel more valued when their organization genuinely cares about them. Offer activities and benefits that help them improve their well-being. Value and treat your people fairly by frequently recognizing a job well done, providing new opportunities and encouraging them to recharge. At the leadership level, invest in teaching managers how to be effective and train them on how to support the well-being of their team.
    • Empower your people to find meaning. To truly engage your people, you must help them find meaning and purpose in their work. Really lean on managers for this. Managers can talk to employees about how they contribute to the overall mission of the company and their own personal mission in life. When you connect people to a higher purpose at work and they feel truly supported by not only managers but also leaders and the company itself, everyone benefits.
    • Focus on job design and foster the talent you have. When an employee is disengaged or not challenged, take a hard look at the job and how it’s designed. This is a totally solvable issue, but it takes a flexible, thoughtful mindset to design the right position. Think through what your employee does every day and ask yourself: Are their responsibilities directly tied to solving a real business problem? Is there enough ownership and room for growth in the role? If not, adjust or even reinvent their job so it’s a better fit.
    • Support growth and learning. Keeping people engaged requires a steady stream of new challenges and career advancement opportunities (not just moving up). Make sure your people are building new skills and can take on stretch assignments when they feel ready. Most importantly, establish a regular cadence of feedback, so your employees can actually improve and grow.
    • Create community and be a culture architect. Help people connect to your mission and align with your values—across teams, peers, affinity groups and more. When people feel genuinely included, they’ll also feel more connected and committed to the company. Don’t be afraid to openly address culture with your employees. Encourage employees to be culture champions—people who serve as role models by living the culture every day. This strong sense of community will lift up the whole company and help people navigate difficult times together.

    Employee engagement and a great culture are more than friends at work, productivity levels, or how many hours an employee tracks a day. Find what makes your employees’ hearts and minds tick, and emotionally connect to their daily work. With every burst of energy comes a higher sense of purpose, belonging and commitment. Most importantly, take the time to intentionally invest in your people and commit to bringing hearts and minds to work. The results will follow.


    Photo credit: Neshom on Pixabay

  • Shaping Healthy, High-performing Workplace Cultures for More Than 40 Years

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Nov 20, 2018

    Larry Senn has been called the “Father of Corporate Culture.” He has spent 40 years guiding the first firm ever designed to create healthy, high-performing organization cultures. As Senn Delaney Culture Shaping (now Heidrick Consulting Center of Excellence) celebrates its 40th anniversary, the founder reflects on how business and leaders have evolved.

    In this time of radical, often disruptive change, it is remarkable and yet reassuring to me that the healthy culture concepts we teach have remained so constant. I believe that’s true because the principles underlying a healthy, high-performing culture are akin to timeless principles of life effectiveness for people. When in history has integrity and personal responsibility not been foundational for success in life and in organizations? When has collaboration not been needed? If anything, many of these concepts are even more necessary in organizations than they were back then.

    Here’s what hasn’t changed, but instead has grown.

    Organizations still become shadows of their leaders

    The central finding of my dissertation on organizational culture was that organizations become a shadow of their leaders. That is still true today. Even if employees aren’t in direct contact with their leaders (and even if they’re in a different region), they’ll still become a reflection of the culture that the top leaders model. You’ll find this in organizations that repeatedly end up in the news for bad press until they change leadership. Therefore, we never start working with a client unless we have full buy-in from the leadership team and we take that team through first. If they don’t get it or don’t buy in, we won’t be able to make any progress through the rest of the organization.

    “Every leader casts a shadow across their organization that impacts its culture.” ~Larry Senn


    The biggest obstacle to culture change that we found when we started was how to change the habits of successful adults. People are well-intentioned, but all leaders and organizations have some dysfunctional habits. We discovered 40 years ago that the only sure way to shape a culture was to shift “thought habits” of people and teams through “engineering epiphanies” or Ah-Ha moments. Think about someone who knows they must eat better and exercise. Even with their doctor’s advice and an encouraging spouse, they continue with unhealthy choices. The next week, that same person could have a major health scare and sure enough, they’re eating greens and going to the gym. Their health scare provided an Ah-Ha moment that led to change.

    Our breakthrough in shaping culture 40 years ago came from learning how to creatively unfreeze old habits through engineered epiphanies in team sessions, beginning with the CEO. Unfreezing old habits and connecting people to healthy behaviors at a gut, not intellectual, level is still the key to our “secret sauce” to culture shaping.

    Being at your best

    Larry Senn Being At Your BestBeing at your best mentally, emotionally, physically, and spiritually may not seem to connect to company culture, but it always has, and it is always foundational. While physical health has now become more important to most people, we still glorify working late and sleeping less, which have been consistently proven to harm work performance. Our understanding is that when people are at their best and top of their game, they automatically live the right values and create a healthy culture.

    We walk our clients through “what makes them feel at their best and what sucks the energy out of them” to give them a picture of what it takes for them to be the best versions of themselves. This has led to additional research and the creation of the Mood Elevator as a tool for optimal living and leading.


    Having an accountable organization has always been important. Things don’t get done if you can’t acknowledge reality, own the problem, and collectively come up with a solution without pointing the finger. Not only is internal accountability essential, but with the ever-growing transparency between customers and brands through social media, the need for leaders and organizations to be accountable and honest with the public is greater than ever. Companies can no longer sweep issues under the rug—social media and the broader community demand and expect answers immediately.


    The need for teamwork and decisions for the greater good emerged early as a cultural necessity. Some of our earliest clients were in the aerospace industry, and they wrestled with project management hampered by silos. The increasing complexity of our times has magnified that need.

    Mental focus and priorities 

    Larry Senn Be Here NowWe have become obsessed with multitasking and being busy. With a constant stream of distractions from our phones and the internet, the combination of these two can create a lot of work in the wrong direction. We have always worked with clients on determining the priorities that are necessary to move them in the right direction as an entire organization, and not simply on what keeps them “busy.” The need for this structure is huge. Leaders must establish common priorities and communicate those priorities across the entire organization, often and with clarity.

    A Blue-Chip mindset and Be Here Now were powerful concepts then and are still relevant today.

    Here’s what has changed.

    People ‘get’ culture

    When we first started selling culture shaping, we first had to explain to people exactly what corporate culture was. It was seen by some as a frivolous expense to help people be nicer to each other. Today, culture has reached a tipping point where you now see something related to it in the news every single day.

    Culture is no longer a “soft” thing, but is rather a strategic imperative, and organizations know they need to address it. Peter Drucker got it right: “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

    The need for purpose

    While it might have been mentioned by some, what is clear now is the importance of organizations having a purpose or noble cause to help bring the best out of people. It is just a step behind culture in people understanding its importance. Purpose-driven organizations have always had added benefits by members being able to rally around one common goal as a company. Self-actualization, or a purposeful connection to and focus on the organization’s highest cause or reason for existence, motivates you. You get that it’s bigger than you. However, purpose-driven companies now have an even bigger advantage in that ‘purpose’ sells, which can help rally people behind a common cause and purpose.

    It’s more important than ever to have something to come together on, and purpose can help lead the way.


    Senn Delaney purpose statement on the wall of their Huntington Beach, CA office

    Need for appreciation

    The next generations have an even bigger need not just for meaning, but to feel they are valued and appreciated. We’ve always been big proponents of teaching our clients to share appreciation generously through their organization. So often we point out what our coworkers do wrong, but we try to shift the perspective and encourage people to “catch others doing good.” Oftentimes we find morale is bad within an organization, not because of a lack of pay or benefits, but because employees don’t feel valued and appreciated. Creating a culture of appreciation can instantly raise morale, camaraderie, and productivity. As we like to say, “Appreciation is the glue that holds teams together.”

    Need for speed, agility, and curiosity

    We used to talk about continuous improvement; now, it is all about agility and speed. Things that once took years to complete now need to be finished in months. And things that took months now need to take days. This can’t happen in hierarchical, boss-driven firms. This also can’t happen in a culture that is neither curious nor open to new ideas.

    To keep companies innovative and agile, organizations that nurture a culture with curiosity and an open, learning mindset supported by encouragement for risk-taking and innovation will have a good chance of doing well. Leaders always need to be up for a new idea and be aware of being judgmental.

    Employees are no longer as loyal to their organizations, and CEO turnover is higher than ever

    It is now a rare occurrence for someone to spend most of their lives working at one company. Millennials are leading the charge in demanding companies with healthy cultures. They want to feel appreciated, they don’t want to get burned out, and they want leaders who walk the talk.

    In addition, CEOs are turning over faster now. This change requires that a solid company culture be in place from the get-go for all new, incoming employees and leaders.

    Guidance on the road to change

    For as long as organizations have existed, they’ve had cultures by default or design, although most were by default. What’s different today is that most leaders understand that culture is a key determinant of success and are working on intentionally shaping their cultures more than ever. Unfortunately, many, if not most, will fall short of significant culture change because habits run deep, and few organizations have mastered the art and science of human behavior change. However, if the change process you embark on begins with your leaders’ personal and behavioral change, then there’s a better chance of broader organizational change and success. Culture change begins with the leadership team, from CEO to SVPs. Commit to this essential first step and you’ll be on firm footing towards shaping a healthy, high-performing company culture.


    Editor’s Note: We are honored to share Dr. Larry Senn’s wisdom with our readers and colleagues through the above article, previously on our blogs at ConstructiveCulture and CultureUniversity, and through his live presentation at our Ultimate Culture Conference. Since its founding in 1978, Senn Delaney has had a singular focus: To create healthy, high-performance cultures. Led and chaired by Larry, the premier culture-shaping consultancy celebrates 40 years of helping corporate leaders in this endeavor. An avid athlete, Larry is known to keep an active triathlon schedule, a healthy diet and running regimen.

  • When Competitive Cultures Run Amok

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Nov 13, 2018

    What companies lose when it’s all about winning

    Competing and winning can be very satisfying and even just taking part is often a terrific experience. “Competition brings out the best in people,” or so the adage goes. But what if the culture of your workplace was all about competition? That everything you did was viewed through the lens of winners and losers. Where collaborating and building relationships wasn’t valued as highly as the take-no-prisoners and win-at-all-cost approach to achieving goals. Where “successful” individuals were recognised as heroes of the organisation, and unsuccessful staff were subordinate.

    The False-Positives of a Competitive Culture

    When I have a client whose company’s culture screams ‘COMPETE!’ and they look at me with true pride saying “yeah, isn’t it great – we have been so successful!”, I know it’s going to be a long mandate. This is because research tells us that leveraging a competitive framework to drive success has a limited shelf-life for most companies. What ultimately unravels the hitherto success story is the toll that an excessively competitive environment takes on its people. It’s often a long journey before a client can recognise the unhealthy and damaging effects of a competitive culture run amok.

    Consequences of a Win-Lose Environment

    Some leaders genuinely feel that encouraging fierce competition will bring out the best in their people; whilst others operate in industries where competitive constructs are the accepted way of doing business. We create a competitive culture when we reward wins over the pursuit of goals; when relationships are secondary to results. Companies operating at the extremes in this regard (e.g., highly competitive company cultures) often observe the following outcomes:

    • Employee disengagement: Members resign that they will ever be in the ‘winners’ circle’ and at some point, they are no longer motivated to try
    • Burn-out: Employees are trying too hard to participate in a race that isn’t something they’re invested in, or because their successes are never quite good enough
    • Flagging intrinsic motivation: Replaced by extrinsic motivational drivers – often money, leading to increased costs
    • Only one winner: People don’t build positive, authentic relationships with their peers for fear of needing to trample them at the proverbial finish line
    • Focus on failures rather than highlight opportunities to improve moving forward
    • Decline in collaboration and creativity, suggesting that innovation is stifled as employees guard their resources and knowledge
    • Ultimately, the decline of organisational quality. Critical information isn’t being shared as groups and individuals operate as competitors not team players

    Collaboration as a Path to Success

    Our family runs – all of us. Admittedly, our teenage children run twice as fast as we adults do, but much is due to their training with a tremendous cross-country (XC) squad at school. I thought XC running was a highly competitive individual sport. And whist there are elements of one’s individual pursuit of excellence, it’s also about collaboration, shared goals and teamwork.

    A XC squad is comprised of several runners and each runner’s finishing place counts for points towards the team’s total. The lower the total points, the better the squad places. So, encouraging your running buddies to fight for 27th place instead of 30th will boost the whole team’s performance.

    cross country runner team

    When a XC squad gets it right, the fastest runners set a challenging pace in training, which inspires the rest of the team to stretch themselves. The slower runners get coached by the speedy athletes through an exchange in which both parties grow. The grit and fortitude of the middle pack creates a sense of shared purpose, encouraging the naturally faster contenders to do their best. And in competition, runners who finish first circle back to the course to encourage their team mates to strive for that bit extra. I have even seen it go so far that one of our squad’s runners stopped his race to jog with another school’s competitor to ensure that kid was able to just finish after a fall.

    “The strength of the team is each individual member. The strength of each member is the team.” ~Phil Jackson, author, coach, executive

    The coach of our kid’s XC squad has built an incredible culture, and the leaders of the team (the school seniors, who change each year) emphatically embody these values of co-operation, participation and effort as exemplified by Coach Mullens. He doesn’t talk about the winners, he talks about the new personal bests and the shared experiences that bind the group. Winning is not the squad’s singular objective, although more often than not, they do win. Their success is a bi-product of a team culture inspired through collaboration and achievement. Sadly, organisations all too often forget this.

    Coaching for Personal and Collective Growth

    When you see a company or a group where the balance between sparring with each other to achieve challenging goals and mutual support are in sync, you see long-term viability for success. Encouraging leaders who are caught in a competitive trap to see the possibilities for personal growth and organisational success if they give up some of the extremes of competing is challenging but not impossible, and having coached and consulted on this exact “competitive vs collaborative” culture struggle quite often, I recommend the following strategies with confidence:

    • Make 27th place an achievement worthy of praise to give everyone something to celebrate. First over the line might not be the biggest achievement leading to the success of the group—it may well be the slowest member of the team whose contribution is most important
    • Build an environment where the diverse talents of members are qualities that are truly celebrated
    • Encourage authentic relationship building through shared experiences of successes, failures and daily interactions
    • Leverage the strengths of the experienced and talented by having them coach others to help lift the whole team; reward collective growth, not individual performance
    • Create shared objectives to generate momentum to move faster and with greater focus 

    Future Leaders Will Demand Better

    runner future leaderThe XC squad to which our children belong gives me hope for the future. The kids leaving this team will not be content to work in a company where good people fall by the wayside just because their efforts weren’t gold-medal worthy. They will have seen what can be achieved by being competitive but doing so in a way which brings out the best in everyone for the mutual success of not only the squad, but of the sport as a whole. They will know that in a competition there are always those who don’t win, and how we chose to treat those who come over the line later is completely within our control.

    So, I ask you, are the winners in your midst team-players and valuable mentors, or has the company’s culture become one that puts the second-place holders off the team?


    Creative credits: Inset photos; image copyright: L. Frauenlob, “XC runner 2016”

  • Ultimate Culture Webinar - What are your Blind Spots? with Jim Haudan and Rich Berens

    by Meghan Oliver | Nov 13, 2018

    Root Inc Chairman, Jim Haudan, and CEO and Chief Client Fanatic, Rich Berens, reveal the five most common blind spots that thwart leaders and their organizations from attaining higher levels of member engagement and creating real and meaningful strategic and culture change. They outline how to create a thriving organization by focusing on purpose over profits and motivate employees at every level. Tim Kuppler facilitates this webinar based on Jim and Rich's recently released book, What Are Your Blind Spots? Conquering the 5 Misconceptions that Hold Leaders Back.

      Download the slide deck

  • The Missing C in C-Suite = Culture

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Nov 12, 2018

    Marti Wronski, General Counsel and SVP with the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, shares: “Successful transformation happens when the majority of people in the company have aligned beliefs and when proper leadership mindsets fuel consistent action.”

  • People First—Culture Transformation at OSK

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Nov 12, 2018

    Angie Zeigler, Vice President of Talent Management at Oshkosh, on the importance of syncing leader and manager development with efforts to understand and evolve the overall culture.

  • Seven Top Culture Insights from the 1st Regional Ultimate Culture Conference

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Nov 06, 2018

    In 2015, we at Human Synergistics hosted our inaugural Annual Ultimate Culture Conference to bring visibility to important insights from culture pioneers and progressive leaders. Though that event and the following 2nd and 3rd conferences sparked outstanding feedback and learning, we felt there was an opportunity to translate more of the learnings to action by building on relationships that already exist in regions and local communities.

    We shifted our focus to regional culture conferences in partnership with major universities, and in September, we collaborated with the University of Wisconsin Center for Professional and Executive Development (CPED) to host our 1st Regional Ultimate Culture Conference. The following seven “ultimate culture insights” made an impact with the passionate audience of culture experts and change agents.

    1. “Employees don’t believe what they see on the walls; they believe what they see in the halls.”

      Tracy Nelson, Vice President of Learning & Development at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, shared this unambiguous language about the reality of culture in the workplace and stressed the importance of what employees “see in the halls.” It’s great for leaders to invest the time in sharing their mission, vision and values, but it’s even more important to understand how team members are behaving and what expectations, norms or “unwritten rules” are driving that behavior. For example, “If I make a mistake, should I admit it or sweep it under the rug?” “Do I feel comfortable sharing my ideas or speaking up?”

      People in most organizations interpret and talk about this behavior “in the halls” in many ways, so it may be difficult to translate this collective knowledge to action. I have referenced the “culture measurement illusion” before: It is rare for organizations to understand, measure and define a common language for the underlying culture in terms of beliefs, assumptions and behavioral norms (the “unwritten” rules driving the behavior they see on the surface). Many think they are doing this work with a survey focusing on factors like engagement, satisfaction, or great workplace using so-called “culture assessments,” but these are nearly all, by definition, work climate assessments.

    2. Culture is always growing and evolving. You need to understand if you are growing “good culture” or something that turns out to be toxic.

      Steve Lipton, Partner with Wipfli and leader of their Performance Consulting, talked about the “culture petri dish.” He emphasized that, in addition to the overall culture, there are many sub-cultures that need to be understood. You can hope that you’re growing a “good” or Constructive culture, but if you don’t take the time to understand it, there could be very negative attributes evolving beneath the surface. These points resonated with me.

      Many leaders avoid the work to understand culture because they think their culture is “good” or they don’t have any problems. These leaders are totally missing the power of intentional culture development to improve or sustain performance when it’s viewed as a strategic priority. Most organizations unfortunately lack an understanding of how their current culture is impacting major mission or performance priorities. This undermines efforts to engage and unite team members as leaders struggle with defensive norms that, based on the work of Robert Cooke and J. Clayton Lafferty, may range from internal competition and opposition to avoidant, dependent and conventional expectations. All organizations should see value in understanding their current culture as a foundation for effectively dealing with increased complexity, overcoming challenges and improving effectiveness.1

    3. “Your supervisor is more important to your health than your physician.”

      Angie Zeigler, Vice President of Talent Management at Oshkosh, shared this shocking point from the Mayo Clinic. It was part of her presentation on People-First Culture Transformation. The journey at Oshkosh, a 101-year-old company, included the decision to start with their top 100 leaders and understanding the gap between their “Ideal Culture” and “Current Culture” using the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®).1, 2 A Culture and Development Roadmap was defined across all leadership levels, including specific competency and behavior development programs for senior leaders, middle managers and front-line leaders.

      Oshkosh - Mayo Clinic

      Angie emphasized the importance of synching leader and manager development with efforts to understand and evolve the overall culture. Many organizations experience challenges with behavior and jump to deliver well-intended training or development efforts. Leaders may learn new skills and approaches via such efforts but struggle to translate them into action when they are back on the job and bombarded by cultural norms that may be very inconsistent with what they learned. It’s easy to look away from inclusive approaches and revert to a “just get it done” mindset when faced with the cultural realities in many organizations.

    4. Leaders need to obtain feedback to understand how they are reinforcing the current culture and act on what they learn.

      Marti Wronski, General Counsel and Senior Vice President with the Milwaukee Brewers Baseball Club, shared: “Successful transformation happens when the majority of people in the company have aligned beliefs and when proper leadership mindsets fuel consistent action.” A key part of their culture journey was involving each senior leader in utilizing the Leadership/Impact® assessment to understand the “Ideal Impact” they want to have on the behavior of others and how that compares to their “Current Impact.” 3 The Brewers obtained expert external help to support the process, which included group work with the senior leadership team and one-on-ones with each senior leader.


      Marti warned that this is “serious work,” and “the Culture Bus is not for the faint of heart.” Their culture journey may still be in progress, but Brewers fans have plenty to be proud about with the team’s return to the playoffs for the first time in seven years and falling one game short of a World Series birth.

    5. “Individuals are at different points of competence in understanding differences.”

      This insight came from Binnu Palta Hill, Assistant Dean for Diversity and Inclusion at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and it is critical for understanding the complexity of culture. She continued, “we lack a shared understanding” as we fill in assumptions.

      This insight hit home with me because leaders must understand this “filling in assumptions” will take place as team members work together. Judgements and conclusions can run wild if there aren’t consistent approaches to involving team members, facilitating upward communication and acting on what you learn. This is especially true when cross-functional work is needed and gaps in collaboration, communication or other critical areas emerge. Relationships may not be developed across groups to the point where team members are comfortable sharing concerns and ideas. Team members may not speak openly but, rest assured, the “filling in of assumptions” and judgements will continue in their minds. We can understand the norms, beliefs and assumptions driving the behavior we see on the surface only if we invest in intentional culture assessment and development efforts. It may take time, but consistent, inclusive efforts will be positively received by most individuals and will build shared understanding and reduce this “filling in of assumptions.”

    6. “The five-percenters should not dictate whether you take a risk.”

      I loved this point from Madison Chief of Police, Michael Koval. He talked about how he focuses on getting 95% of people along with him and then strong leadership “rules the day.” There are always naysayers and critics that will find problems with any idea. He shared, “Police forces are the most loathe-to-change institutions.” They must deal with mega-lawsuits, legislative mandates and problems “jettisoned off social media.” It was inspiring to hear him talk about being customer-focused on every call and his Notre Dame football team-inspired slogan of “police like a champion today.”

    7. It’s critical for you to “be on your mental game” as a change agent.

    8. This insight came from Tricia Downing, motivational speaker, consultant, athlete and the first female paraplegic to finish an Iron distance triathlon. She talked about how distractions and worries get people off their mental game. This is so true in the world of sport and for leaders involved in culture-related change efforts. Fear and hesitation can cripple improvement plans as leaders encounter inevitable obstacles. Tricia shared a story about her recovery from a devastating accident that occurred exactly 18 years before the day of the conference. She emphasized “the need to figure out ways to get around your problems,” and she obviously knows what she is talking about. I can’t imagine a top leader looking Tricia in the face and saying “it’s too hard” to deal with their culture-related problems and challenges.

      It’s a natural part of the process to encounter resistance and doubt your own ability or approach. Edgar Schein, culture expert and professor emeritus with MIT Sloan School of Management, once said, “You only truly begin to understand your culture when you try to change it.” Learn from the resistance and adjust your approach, if appropriate, in coordination with others. You don’t need to tackle the problems alone. Colleagues, outside experts and other trusted advisors can help you think through how to re-group and deal with the inevitable resistance. The process to “figure out ways to get around problems” can be scary and frustrating, but your courage and persistence will pay off.

    A final insight: It’s important to understand how culture is created and how it evolves as a foundation for defining effective change efforts.

    One of the highlights of the day was a new interactive learning experience called The Culture Journey. Attendees participated in this two-hour experience around tables of 6-8 people. Human Synergistics and Root Inc. developed The Culture Journey to help people understand what culture is, how culture is created and how it evolves as a foundation for defining effective change efforts. It was exciting to see how participants could relate to people depicted on the visual Root Learning Map® and the scenario cards.4

    Learning Map group exercise

    The session ended with a summary of three critical points regarding culture-related change efforts:

    1. Help leaders understand what culture really is and how it evolves
    2. Assess the culture and climate with qualitative and quantitative methods
    3. Engage teams and develop leaders to drive shared learning and results

    Culture Journey

    These sound so simple, but they are overlooked in most change efforts. It’s incredibly rare for me to run across an organization that can confidently state they consistently cover these three points as a key part of supporting their mission, strategy and performance priorities. This will change as more sophisticated and comprehensive approaches replace over-simplified culture and performance development efforts that fall short of delivering the targeted results for individuals, teams and organizations.

    It was great to see this audience of culture enthusiasts armed with important insights that will help them make a meaningful difference at their organizations. We look forward to continuing the culture conversation and hope to see you at a future Ultimate Culture event!


    Editor’s Note: If you are interested in learning more about the Culture Journey Learning Experience, Ultimate Culture Conference, Organizational Culture Inventory, Leadership/Impact and the Ultimate Culture and Performance Quick-Start program, please contact us.

    1 The terminology is from Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. and J. Clayton Lafferty, Ph.D., Organizational Culture Inventory® and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Human Synergistics International, Plymouth, MI. Copyright © 1987-2007. All rights reserved. Used by permission.

    2 Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

    3 Cooke, R. A. (1996). Leadership/Impact® (L/I). Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

    4 Root Learning Map®. Sylvania, OH. Root, Inc.

  • Fostering a Fearless Culture by Reframing Our Response to Failure

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Oct 31, 2018

    In a previous post, I shared what it means to cultivate a “fail-fast” organisational culture, what typically happens when people experience failure, and how essential it is to detach people’s fears about failure and enable them to normalize their concerns and anxieties. I described that when people fail, they unconsciously sink into a series of reactive responses that engage them neurologically and emotionally resulting in a range of irrational, cognitive (thinking and feeling) distortions, which usually involves disappointment, confusion and shame.

    Ed Catmull, President of Pixar and Walt Disney Animation Studios, offers a courageous reframe on failure:

    “If we as leaders can talk about our mistakes and our part in them, then we can make it safe for others. You don’t run from it or pretend it doesn’t exist. This is why I make appoint of being open about our meltdowns inside Pixar, because they teach us something important: being open about problems is the first step toward learning from them. My goal is not to drive out fear completely, because fear is inevitable in high-stakes situations. What I want is to loosen its grip on us. While we don’t want too many failures, we must think of the cost of failure as an investment in the future.”

    Cultivate teachable and coachable moments

    When an individual or team experiences failure, a useful strategy is to support and encourage them to hit their “pause button”—to take a moment, retreat and reflect, and become aware of their unconscious auto-response. This allows people the time and space to take a “reflective stance” and connect with their range of thoughts and feelings, and to the results they caused.

    Illustrated in the diagram below, working this way creates a safe space allowing an individual to connect with and acknowledge their pain and fear of shame and being shamed. It also allows the creation of a new space where someone has both the permission and trust to become self-compassionate, inquisitive, and curious about why or how the failure happened and what can be learned.

    fail fast model


    Choose a Constructive response to failure

    Hitting the “pause button” and creating the safe space for immersing mindfully into what happened creates an opportunity to dwell on what might become a teachable and coachable moment. This involves using the specific question patterning outlined in the diagram above to generate a new, more resourceful operating pattern to apply the next time a failure occurs.

    This allows the individual or team to take responsibility by acknowledging that their position of power and control is within themselves. That when they step into it and own it, they can continually learn from mistakes and failures, and coach and teach their people to do so as well.

    This way of working allows people to apply mistakes and failures as teachable and coachable moments so that people become less risk-averse, defensive and avoidant. It can be used to empower people to become authentically creative, compassionate, courageous, decisive, smart risk-takers and business game-changers.

    Drive out fear and normalize failure

    Normalizing and using failure as pivot points unleashes peoples’ potential for innovation and enables organisations to build the critical, cultural change foundations necessary to adapt, grow, and out-innovate their competitors.

    Cultivate trust in the workplace

    One of the key points that Catmull makes is about creating an environment where trust becomes an inherent part of the workplace culture. He says,

    “Trusting others doesn’t mean that they won’t make mistakes. It means that if they do, you trust they will act to help solve it.”

    This requires a constructive organisation culture and leadership style that embraces patience and acceptance, transparency and authenticity, and consistency and compassion.

    It requires leaders to role model a way of working that assumes people come from the best intention and want to see, respond to, and solve problems creatively.

    Survive, thrive, and onward

    Organisations who courageously confront the challenges of the 21st century will survive, thrive, flow and flourish by developing an organisational culture that interprets and applies failure as a manifestation of exploration and learning, rather than trying to avoid or out-think it!


  • Organizational Culture Assessment in a Non-Profit Organization

    by Kalani Iwi'ula | Oct 23, 2018

    Whether it’s providing emergency shelter or hot meals for an individual or family or raising funds to further the mission of a larger group, non-profit organizations provide a message of hope and caring to multitudes of those less fortunate—day in and day out. Led by advocates armed with a focused vision and unswerving commitment to their purpose, these non-profit organizations answer a higher calling, often with little managerial or organizational experience. Programs and services vary by region and organization, but they share a common goal of making a difference in their communities and across the globe.

    We are honored to share one story of a group of citizens concerned about the number of people in need of help and a gathering place to share. We have kept this organization anonymous to maintain the privacy of its members and beneficiaries. Yet, for more than 50 years of seeking to make a difference in their community, resources, ideas, and volunteer-hours were pooled to build and operate a thriving program that has served its community to this day.

    Assessing Workplace Culture in a Non-profit Setting

    The usefulness of organizational culture as a construct for research and an assessment tool for organizations has been well established over the past decades.1 While research and practice involving organizational culture are, to a large extent, associated with for-profit organizations, crucial work in the usefulness of understanding organizational culture for non-profit organizations and its actual impact and practicality can be found in broad sectors of society.

    Research exists on culture in non-profits and its relationship with outcomes such as fundraising success and employee attitudes, but more can be made known about the different ways in which paid staff and volunteers experience organizational culture.2

    We had an opportunity to consult for a non-profit organization in our community that is undergoing major changes, including mergers with other community organizations, a vast increase in the number of employees, and an expansion of programs and services it offers to the community. After a tour at the site and conversations with the organization’s board of directors, it was clear that an assessment of organizational culture would provide important information to understand the issues that the organization is facing, and how the experienced culture may differ between paid staff and volunteers.

    A Perspective on Work by Employees & Volunteers

    The Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®) was administered to the managers, employees, and volunteers of a non-profit organization.3 Our findings highlighted that the culture experienced by volunteers can be very different from that experienced by employees – even when these individuals work side by side. In our study, volunteers reportedly experienced a much more Constructive culture than did employees, and more generally, the culture profile for volunteers (compared to that of employees) more closely resembled what is historically considered to be ideal for the organization. (See Figure 1)

    While employees reportedly experienced stronger Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/Defensive styles than did volunteers, these findings can likely be attributed to the type of work that goes on in this organization, which in turn affects the systems and structures, and the perceived cultural differences between these two groups.

    Figure 1, Click to enlarge image.
    Nonprofit Circumplex profiles

    Our impressions during the interview with the Board of Directors asserted that there is a turnover issue (or a low commitment issue) with paid employees, while on the other hand, volunteers have been committed and demonstrated low turnover over the years – which is evidently reflected in the results of the OCI assessment. It should be noted that for non-profit organizations, two different sets of effective management practices and policies are required to reach the same output for both paid and volunteer workers,4 as research has suggested two distinct sets of factors impacting their respective outlooks with the organization.5

    Transactional & Relational Factors—Same Output, Different Outlook

    While it is intuitive that a certain level of commitment and personal ethics is required to volunteer with a non-profit organization (i.e., a match in values between volunteers and the organization’s mission),6 there are organizational factors that can also impact the level of volunteers’ intention to stay with the organization – and they can be drastically different from factors influencing paid employees’ intention to stay.7 For example, while paid employees’ commitment to the organization is largely impacted through transactional, relational, and normative factors,8 volunteers tend to evaluate their intention to stay with the NGO (Non-Governmental Organization) based primarily on relational factors,9 as well as the alignment of personal values and motivations with those of the organization.

    • Examples of relational factors include being socially integrated as “part of the team” within the organization and being involved through effective communication across organizational levels,10 and these are important to both paid and unpaid workers in an organization.
    • While some transactional factors play a role in retaining volunteers’ commitment, the impact is minor.

    By definition, volunteers and organizations do not have a transactional relationship in a traditional monetary sense; however, commitment and intention to stay are often dictated by management practices, including proper training and support as well as adequate access to resources and integration within the organization.11

    When Differences Collide—Expectations & Perceptions of Organizational Culture

    Generally, in non-profit organizations and especially in organizations undergoing major change, employees may feel a greater sense of stress, uncertainty, and job insecurity. These factors may then contribute to stronger levels of Defensive cultural styles as greater expectations to protect one’s own status and security emerge.12

    Volunteers of non-profit organizations likely do not experience such expectations within their work roles, or at least to the same extent, and more generally may be treated differently, with behavioral expectations more positive and Constructive in nature. Most non-profit organizations rely heavily on volunteers to handle their daily operations and to keep the organization going; naturally, volunteers may be treated differently in terms of appreciation and respect for altruistically committing and serving the organization’s mission.13, 14

    Expectations for paid employees and volunteers may differ in several ways. Most volunteers do not undergo the same or similar procedures as their paid counterparts.15 For example, volunteers are often not screened during the application process, and are often retained in their roles even if they are not a great fit for the position – which likely would not be the case for paid employees.16 Furthermore, volunteers have different expectations within their roles and responsibilities, as volunteers’ responsibilities are often focused on tackling tasks that are directly related to the mission of the organization without having to go through the administrative procedures employees do.17 As such, the experienced culture may be more positive or Constructive for volunteers because of the nature of their roles within the organization since their roles are less likely to involve pressures or expectations that are associated with Defensive styles (i.e., threats to status and security).

    Our Findings

    Organizational culture isn’t a concern only for large corporations or young startups. Rather, it is important for all organizations as it sets the context for everything organizations do, and this includes non-profits that serve their communities with pride and purpose.

    In our case study, findings suggest that it cannot be assumed employees and volunteers experience culture in the same way within an organization, even when they work side by side, and that the OCI should be administered to both groups when assessing organizational culture in nonprofit organizations.


    Editor’s Note: For other real-life examples on how culture impacts the effectiveness and mission of non-profits, consider these cases: The Girl Scouts of the USA and Catholic publishing company, The Word Among Us.


    1 Ashkanasy, N. M., Wilderom, C. P. M., & Peterson, M. F. (2011). The handbook of organizational culture and climate, 2nd ed. Los Angeles, CA, US: Sage.

    2 Rousseau, D. M. (1990). Normative beliefs in fund-raising organizations: Linking culture to organizational performance and individual responses. Group & Organization Studies, 15, 448-460. Retrieved from http://gom.sagepub.com/content/15/4/448.abstract

    3 Cooke, R. A. & Lafferty, J. C. (1987). Organizational Culture Inventory®. Plymouth, MI: Human Synergistics.

    4 Carvalho, A., & Sampaio, M. (2017). Volunteer management beyond prescribed best practice: a case study of Portuguese non-profits. Personnel Review, 46(2), 410-428. doi: 10.1108/pr-04-2014-0081

    5 Romaioli, D., Nencini, A., & Meneghini, A. (2016). How to foster commitment among volunteers: A social constructionist study in Italian nonprofit organizations. Journal of Social Service Research, 42(5), 718-728. doi: 10.1080/01488376.2016.1202880; Fitzpatrick, T., Remmer, J., & Leimanis, M. (2014). A study exploring risk management issues among volunteers in an oncology support program. Journal of Social Service Research, 41(1), 25-38. doi: 10.1080/01488376.2014.930945

    6 Rothschild, J., & Milofsky, C. (2006). The centrality of values, passions, and ethics in the nonprofit sector. Nonprofit Management and Leadership, 17(2), 137-143. doi: 10.1002/nml.139

    7 Romaioli, Nencini, & Meneghini, 2016

    8 Meyer, J., & Allen, N. (1997). Commitment in the workplace. Thousand Oaks, Calif: Sage Publication.

    9 (Stirling, Kilpatrick, & Orpin, 2011)

    10 (Romaioli, Nencini, & Mengehini, 2016; Fitzpatrick, Remmer, & Leimanis, 2015)

    11 Romaioli, Nencini, & Mengehini, 2016; Fitzpatrick, Remmer, & Leimanis, 2015)

    12 Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI): Interpretation and development guide. Plymouth, MI, US: Human Synergistics.

    13 Boezeman, E., & Ellemers, N. (2014). Volunteer leadership: The role of pride and respect in organizational identification and leadership satisfaction. Leadership, 10(2), 160-173. doi: 10.1177/1742715012467687

    14 Ramaioli, Nencini, & Mengehini, 2016

    15 Stirling, C., Kilpatrick, S., & Orpin, P. (2011). A psychological contract perspective to the link between non-profit organizations' management practices and volunteer sustainability. Human Resource Development International, 14(3), 321-336. doi: 10.1080/13678868.2011.585066

    16 Carvalho & Sampaio, 2016

    17 Stirling, Kilpatrick, & Oprin, 2011

  • Ultimate Culture Webinar - Tapping Into 15 Years of Changing Organizational Cultures Across the Globe

    by Meghan Oliver | Oct 18, 2018

    Silke Zanker and Ricardo Gil from Axialent discuss myths surrounding culture and strategies for change based on 15 years of global culture transformation and their partnership with Human Synergistics. Silke and Ricardo share Axialent’s Conscious Business principles for attaining sustainable business results and cover key points of culture change journeys in this webinar facilitated by Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture & Organization Development for Human Synergistics.