How Every Manager Can Create a Culture That Works

If you want to run a high-performing company, you can't afford employees who are just along for the ride. From corner office to cubby, your work force must be fully engaged. In other words, they must be "all in," according to Adrian Gostick and Chester Elton, co-authors of the bestselling "The Carrot Principle" and "The Orange Revolution."

To understand how some managers are able to get their employees to commit wholeheartedly to the company's culture, Gostick and Elton, who co-founded the global training and consulting firm The Culture Works, teamed up with Towers Watson, a performance-improvement consultancy, to analyze the findings of a global, 300,000-person work force study conducted during the worst of the recession.  They found that today’s high-performance organizations have a distinctive kind of culture in which employees believe in their leaders and in the company’s mission, values and goals. These employees are not only engaged but enabled and energized. In short, they are all in.

This leads to astonishing results — average annual operating revenues three times higher than companies lacking such a positive culture.

Based on this breakthrough research and their extensive consulting experience, Gostick and Elton have developed a simple, seven-step road map that all managers can follow to create a high-achieving culture within their own teams. They describe that road map in their new book, "All In: How the Best Managers Create a Culture of Belief and Drive Big Results" (Free Press, 2012).

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The two authors recently shared some of their findings with BusinessNewsDaily.

BusinessNewsDaily:What is a "burning platform" and why is it important to creating a culture of belief?

Adrian Gostick:  When you think of a burning platform, imagine an explosion on an oil rig in the North Sea. A worker stands on the edge of the platform as fire billows behind him. He jumps into the icy sea. After being hauled aboard a rescue boat, he’s asked why he jumped into uncertainty. He answers, “Better probable death than certain death.”

The point: Only the literal “burning platform” could cause a radical change in behavior. Your team may not be running for its life, but with competition much, much fiercer these days, you undoubtedly face issues that threaten your livelihood and your organization’s very survival. Your ability to identify and define the key burning issue you face and separate it from the routine challenges of the day is the first step in galvanizing your employees to believe in you and in your vision and strategy.

To create a culture of belief — where employees understand and buy into the team or company goals — leaders must explain in very clear terms to their teams why they must step up and refocus their efforts. Helping employees understand they’re on a burning platform is not about fear but more about framing the conversation in honest and real terms that employees can relate to.

BND: What is a "culture of customer focus" and why is it important?

Chester Elton: A culture of customer focus provides channels for employees to report upward issues they see on the front lines, and empowers people at all levels to respond to those challenges with alacrity and creativity. The trouble is, most organizations are oblivious to what customers find attractive about rivals. But the best leaders in our study encouraged vigilance for disruptive solutions or trends that might harm or benefit their firm.

Successful companies fall into various traps, including fixating on what made them successful and failing to notice something new displacing it. That’s why customer-focused organizations actively seek feedback from clients as they grow, and they put more responsibility in the hands of key employees who are asked to push the entire organization forward. These “trouble makers” are given permission to disrupt and innovate with the customer in mind.

BND: Is an agile organization the same as one that acts quickly? What are the characteristics of an agile organization?

Gostick: Agility is not just about speed. The new data we published showed that in this struggling economy, high-performance organizations are vastly more adept at helping guide employees through the vagaries of the marketplace — and that can lead to stunning financial results. In fact, our researchers found the most agile of companies report revenue growth a whopping three times higher than their high-performance peers. Such agility started with managers who were considered “authentic” by their people. That meant leaders at all levels provided a clear sense of direction and made decisions promptly, they treated employees respectfully and took action on issues their people raised, and finally they behaved in alignment with professed values.

And, on an organizational level, these agile companies faced competitive market pressures head-on through innovative product development, a customer-focused culture, and integrity in dealing with their clients.

BND: What are the challenges involved in creating a trusting organization?

Elton: A key way in which managers can build trust is by developing transparency and creating an environment that shares everything. The bottom line is this: Much of the distrust we see in work groups is a result of misunderstanding or misreading the intentions of others, especially leaders. When we aren’t sure what’s happening around us, we become distrustful. We are born that way. It’s a reason children don’t want to turn off the lights at bedtime. What are they afraid of? Not something they can see, but that something unknown that is hiding in the closet.

In a dark work environment, where information is withheld or not communicated properly, employees tend to suspect the worst and rumors take the place of facts. Leaders can begin this process of openness — driving out the gray and helping employees regain trust in a culture. Through their example, leaders can create openness, which leads to trust and is a major contribution to a culture in which employees are engaged, enabled and energized to give more effort.

BND: Can partnering with your talent and organizational hierarchy peacefully coexist or are they mutually incompatible? How do you know what the right "What's in it for me" is for each person?

Gostick: The hierarchical structure is still the most efficient for organizations; however, a distinguishing quality of great companies is the ability of management at all levels to help employees feel like valued, contributing partners in the business. It’s about treating your talent as equals in an effort to enhance your culture and help people feel motivated to excel and give you their full effort in every aspect of their work. And that means finding out what matters most to the people in your care, or creating a WIIFM ("What’s in it for me?"). The short answer to how to create a WIIFM for each person is to ask them: Are they seeking to climb the corporate ladder, grow and develop skills, do they want recognition, etc.

BND: What are the characteristics of a culture of appreciation and good will?  How do you create that kind of culture?

Elton: Great managers appreciate great work; it’s that simple. We’ve found higher levels of recognition in just about every successful workplace we’ve studied over the past two decades. Many companies in recent years have amped up the top-down type of praise, and we applaud their efforts, but manager-to-employee and peer-to-peer recognition are both important and fulfill separate human needs. Workers want to know that their bosses see their effort and truly value it. This ties into feelings of job security and well-being and opportunities for development. But employees also need the affirmation that their co-workers see them as trustworthy, dependable and creative. This reinforces that you are accepted and that others have your back.

BND: How can you cast accountability in a positive light?

Gostick: To grow a great culture, you need to cultivate a place where people have to do more than show up and fog a mirror; they have to fulfill promises. A lack of accountability is one of the most corrosive elements of ineffective work cultures. It shows up in missed deadlines, errors in judgment, overpromising, personal failures, petty disagreements, unfair expectations and a marshmallow mound of "should haves."

In the minds of so many in business, accountability is inherently negative. To be “held accountable” generally implies that a rebuke or punishment of some kind is coming. How often do employees get the message that the boss wants to see them and feel a tightening in their stomachs? Yeah, just give me a minute while I go throw up. Heavy-handed leadership such as this is not true accountability; it’s fault-finding. Holding people accountable is about assigning responsibility with realistic goals, evaluating progress and making positive course corrections at milestones, removing obstacles, and then closing the loop by celebrating successes or honestly and openly evaluating misses.

Reach BusinessNewsDaily senior writer Ned Smith at Follow him on Twitter @nedbsmith.

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