No more culture change programs. We need a culture revolution

Article based on a recent interview with David Collins from Future Conversations.

David Collins drinking coffee

David Collins drinking coffee

Gallup found 90% of people in Western Europe are not engaged at work. If their study was conducted in the early 1800’s, during the first wave of industrialization which pushed millions of people into unrelenting factory jobs, you might expect it. It was carried out in 2017, which makes it almost unfathomable given the billions spent on culture, leadership and engagement annually.   

However, it makes perfect sense to David. He’s been studying why organisations fail or succeed for 25 years. What he has found is that anthropologists cannot separate the beginning of ‘organisation’ as we know it today from the advent of slavery. The model has been with us for thousands of years, and is leading to many adverse results in organisations today.

He sees that whilst the way we do business has changed fundamentally with the advent of technology, the power and organisational structures which underlie our businesses have not. Massive numbers of people are disengaged as a result.  

We are so used to this old model of organisation that we don’t think that adopting it is a daily choice. We go about our work, believing organisations are just the way they are. In David’s view, when people dig in to their inherited belief systems they bring about change:

“When people truly realise the old model of organisation is built on the assumptions and power structures which allowed slavery, elite classes, and poverty to occur then something begins to happen to them. They realise they cannot continue to promote the traditional hierarchy, even if they are the beneficiaries of it.”

The state of power in organizations today

According to David, most organizations are (still) about who has control and the positions of power, status or authority.  It’s led by boy psychology: who has the biggest gun; and who lords it over who? It’s not about engagement and agency. People talk of engagement and agency but it sits on top of this underlying structure and psychology, hence why engagement is still depressing.  

There are a few organisations who have changed things; where people are truly autonomous in service of a mission or purpose together. But they are rare. Most interestingly, they tend to be led by wise and benevolent leaders; people who have little interest in controlling others. These organizations are, unsurprisingly, more profitable, productive – and people report them as better places to work.  

To truly succeed in changing our organisations for the better we have to open people's eyes to how fundamental our relationship to power is to our everyday lives. A desire for power drives some to success, stokes greed, and makes them forceful with others. Those losing out in traditional power arrangements are often fearful, resentful or disruptive of colleagues’ efforts (Gallup found 1 in 5 people acting out in this way). The traditional business model leave the majority dissatisfied and in uninspiring jobs: 75% of working adults report that the most stressful thing about their job is their relationship with their immediate boss.

As we walk in to work each day, we give up a portion of our personal power, and we do so without considering why.  Normally, there is someone more than happy to pick it up from us. Statistically speaking, psychopaths are more frequently found in the Boardroom than in almost any other walk of life (you find more in jails). Not the people you really want running our businesses; but this is what the “model” encourages. Research shows that a person’s emotional intelligence decreases as they rise in the hierarchy of an organisation. People no longer have the need for the empathy they once had when they have a position where they can tell people what to do.   

Another aspect of the problem can be seen in the way decisions are normally made, by people removed from the everyday reality of service roles. They expect others to perform in ways they never would themselves, and this hypocrisy is killing organisations. Decision making is inefficient also. Information is passed up from levels where it is gathered, for people with no operational insight to discuss and make decisions on. Senior leaders, even middle managers spend days and months in meetings about details they are far removed from operationally. Apart from the inefficiency of this, it leads to other problems. Poor decisions are made when power structures and politics mean information is not shared openly. Furthermore, it tells employees they are not trusted to make decisions themselves. It infantilizes them, training them not to think for themselves, but to ask others to solve their problems for them. No wonder so many are left feeling powerless and apathetic, a key aspect of why so many are disengaged:

“Right now, most organizations are still operating under a code which tells us that we can’t trust people, that they need to be kept under observation and can’t be trusted with decisions. This is not how we view ourselves in our private lives, but in most organizations this is still model we have in place. “

To David, the issue with many organizational change programs is that they tend to focus too much on structure or tools without addressing the mindset and power inequalities that are leading to the problems in the first place. Ultimately what we really need to be talking about is how we interact with our fellow human beings:  

“I’ve seen a lot of change programs fail because they didn’t adequately address the psychology of change. We underestimate how fundamental feelings of fear, grief, greed, anger or frustration can be. We have a tendency to brush these things aside by labeling them, “hearts & minds”. Changing someone's mindset is an enormous task; only they can do it really... In reality changing the culture of organisations to make them truly inclusive and engaging is more of a revolution than a program – but an enjoyable one! If one creates the right environment, and provides the right tools (both mindset and structural tools) then people can thrive. “


The first step is realizing that we are living inside a power matrix

The research shows how ineffective this old way of thinking is in an organization, the trillions of dollars in the US wasted every year through bureaucracy for instance. The old model is also inconsistent with how people actually grow and develop; they impact on stress and well-being in the workplace is phenomenal. One only has to consider how the model has been associated with slavery and ownership to realise the patriarchal and other discriminatory affects it continues to encourage.  Changing the structure and mindset allows for real change; for inclusion, for greater fairness.

Furthermore, a more egalitarian model is consistent with all the research into what makes good leaders and successful organisations. All the research now shows the most successful leaders possess a high level of emotional intelligence. And the most effective teams? They have a strong sense of “psychological safety”: i.e. people feel free to show and employ their true selves. A new model of organization, one that promotes emotional intelligence and people being and employing their true selves, benefits everyone. Or, with David’s phrasing, when I asked him if this change revolution won’t also have some casualties:

“Yes. You’re right. A few psychopaths might not like it. There are those who will want to hold on to their control, or the power they have over others, and some who don’t want to be responsible for (or trust) themselves… People with these traits won’t get on well in a new model organisation.  But for the vast majority, it will be a good thing. Anyway, as a society these changes will happen over a long time, so there will be room for everyone. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t strive to speed up the process in our organizations, if only to foster collaboration and innovation, to them safer and more sane places to work. The aim is shaping organizations that succeed not just today but tomorrow as well.”

A new model for organizations

With new model organizations one of the key aims is to ensure power remains decentralized; that power does not get taken away from organisational members. Within old structures, power hungry people could get on quite well using bullying tactics, manipulation and fear. It should be a goal for all organizations today to prevent this at all costs, as the damage done to productivity and engagement - as clearly showed by the numbers – is detrimental.

Shedding light on power dynamics on an individual level is necessary. Moving on from there, it becomes about empowering each person. Rather than decisions being forced through by the executive branch:

“What I see in responsive organizations today, is that the team has permission, are allowed to make decisions. Employees maintain agency. This results in better decisions closer to the market or service need. One of the best examples of this is when, and how to invest in digital, where the success always comes down to the implementation process. Something that no executive can dictate from a corner office.”

David is all too aware that it is a big step for most leaders to allow this. Still, more and more are seeing the need for this change in thinking:

“There are those experimenting with doing things differently; for instance, choosing to have a small leadership team focusing on how to provide the best environment for people to perform optimally in (i.e. what structures and tools do they need to provide their service without the need for intervention from leadership?). These organizations are moving away from outdated ideas about leadership as power management, and towards the notion of servant leadership. They are getting the structures right to match the rhetoric, so people actually have an appropriate level of power. Things are changing. Slowly. It’s a naturally evolution given what’s happening in the world at this time. The way we have traditionally organised things is dying at a national and global scale. We must move new ways forward.

I think that’s what there is to do now; light a fire under the change. “

Interested in learning more about culture and change?

There’s our Swiss-based Culture & Change peer groups and in the US we also have a Culture & Change conference track at the Boye 19 Brooklyn conference in May