How do leaders successfully drive organizational change inside an organization? In this past year, we were able to witness a massive experiment in change, as overnight, many organizations had to transform from an in-person, hours-based workplace into a fully remote, output-based organization. And while some embraced the change well, many had difficulty. While this is an extreme example, companies undergo systemic changes constantly: the implementation of new software, the addition of a new product or service, or changes in the organizational structure and its procedures. Leaders often struggle with getting their entire organization committed and onboard. We often see these initiatives addressed in a company-wide email, mentioned during an all-hands meeting, and at best, supported with one-off training classes instituted for every employee. For example, suppose a client has a communication and feedback problem. In that case, they figure, let’s go after the problem directly and deliver a company-wide workshop on how to give better feedback. Yet, after all the money and time spent on the change campaigns, organizations still find their people not adopting the change fast enough or even at all.
Organizations find it tough to be agile. The bigger the company, the more difficult it is to implement change. It’s like trying to change the direction of a huge boat, and everyone is rowing in various directions. You aren’t going anywhere and you’re wasting your efforts. The key to agility is a learning culture. So how does an organization get the whole team rowing in the correct direction? It starts with having a culture where learning and growth are not only accepted but expected. And you can’t address the problem of being agile and adaptable if you don’t have your leaders exhibiting these traits. Managers are the driver of company culture. The single most important determinant in whether a team performs well is the performance of its managers. According to Gallup, 70% of a team’s engagement depends on the manager. It all starts at the top with leadership and carries through to every level of the organization. A good manager supports and fully lives in an environment where her team members are encouraged to exhibit a growth mindset; learn new things and make mistakes, share ideas, give feedback, both negative and positive, and own their roles. In a learning culture, all team members feel comfortable working outside their comfort zone, share new ideas, and ask questions without fear of retribution or humiliation. In this type of environment, innovation and the ability to have productive discourse flourishes. In a landmark study by Dr. Amy Edmondson of Harvard University on medical errors in the healthcare system, the better, more high-performing teams actually reported more errors. It wasn’t that they actually made more errors; instead, they felt freer to recognize mistakes and correct them. It’s an unspoken yet understood permission for candor. A team that feels safe in making mistakes will also be more likely to stretch themselves outside their comfort zones and grow. This is the birthplace of innovation and creativity. And when team members feel psychologically safe with each other, they feel free to collaborate on ideas and projects without fear that the other team members will use their ideas to get ahead. How does an organization create a culture that cultivates leadership like this, where managers are actually coaches of their people? In our work with thousands of leaders, we’ve identified four habits that leaders in learning cultures possess.
Habit 1: Listening with intention and attention
When you take the time to listen to your employees and focus only on what they are saying, you gain valuable insight into their needs and issues. You also give them the gift of being heard – and this drives their motivation and engagement. This is much more difficult than it may seem; it requires identifying any listening biases, getting rid of distractions, and committing to truly hearing what the other person is saying.
Habit 2: Asking powerful questions
Asking powerful questions, ones that cannot be answered with just a yes or no, ones that evoke thought and pause, create opportunities to gain powerful insights and information and to mitigate bias. These types of questions are born out of genuine curiosity and push our people to challenge past assumptions and work towards the best possible outcomes.
Habit 3: Being open, honest, and direct
The way your managers communicate matters. It’s not simply about being nice or polite- it’s about communicating in a manner that is open, honest, and direct with your employees. Instead of worrying about office politics, retribution, and fear of errors, teams can instead work towards a shared vision and mission.
When you have a team that feels free to give open, honest, and direct feedback with one another, you have a team that is able to be agile, move fast, and adapt to the rapidly changing world.
Habit 4: Holding critical conversations
A leader must address situations that impact the performance of the team member and the organization promptly and in the best way to achieve productive results. When you hold back on these difficult yet necessary conversations, it affects the rest of your team as well.
Only 1 in 10 managers actually possess these leadership habits and skills innately – the rest of us need to learn and practice them till they become habits.
A learning culture starts by empowering your managers with tools, skills, and training to be better leaders.
It’s up to you to equip them with the tools and skills they need to be coaches for their teams.
What would be possible if your leaders had the tools and training to lead this way?
Originally published on the Lucas James Talent Partners blog on March 25, 2021.