We Need Large-Scale Cultural Change

I wasn’t going to write today as I’m heading for IT Masters in Mexico City followed by a mini, overdue honeymoon but as the Mr is sat next to me in the lounge having had to log in to his own company’s system and check on an incident (perils of being married to a director of Microsoft technologies) I find myself questioning the decision because after all, while I know some of you read both newsletters -thanks for that!- the intersection is never complete and this week’s message needs all the eyeballs it can get.

This week in the Chasing Psychological Safety newsletter we spoke about the fact that the crisis of mental health and wellbeing in the workplace is now so great that WHO themselves have issued an unprecedented set of guidelines and recommendations to try and reverse it and we were saying that despite how we live and breathe people, we were so performance-focused that we had underestimated it ourselves:

“In hindsight, there was no way we would have presumed it was doable if we saw the mental wellness crisis and the lasting traumatic effect the pandemic would have on everyone. Should we have known about the burnout pandemic we are traversing, we wouldn’t have been surprised at the resistance to the human work. Who wants to be high performing while in survival mode? This is why we’re being so bullish these days to admit it because in the absence of the work we need to pay off some of the HumanDebt and to heal this acute crisis, none of the habitual individual and teamwork that will make us high performing and truly let us be our best despite the speed and uncertainty demands of VUCA, will be possible. So we need to sort this out first.”

And we go on to talk about the studies and the guidelines but we also call out the fact that there seems to be an artificial demarcation between industries and types of workers when it comes to what we imagine needs to be done. Not only that but all the suggestions are really quite reduced in scope and timid. Long are the days when this can be fixed by throwing an extra day of coaching a month or a longer lunch break. It will take a whole lot more than lip service and minor change. In fact, chances are that:

We need basal interventions at a great scale that will urgently improve the status quo and change mindsets and we need true and intentional cultural transformation in most enterprises.”

Basal interventions” and “great scale” are keywords there. As is “intentional cultural transformation” and it arguably contains both of the keywords as a concept but let’s face it, who do you know who had any of that?

I’m not sure if this is tangential or not but let’s explore that for a minute. Where have you seen a large-scale, clearly signposted, declared and systematically executed cultural transformation? One that looked at all aspects of the work, the processes and the humans? One that evaluated the HumanDebt and admitted it existed only to then invite everyone around the table to design answers to each of the elements still on the table? One where this new drive to flexibility ushered in open and genuine change around the notion of outcomes, incentives and performance? One where servant leadership was modelled and incentivised? One where there was extreme honesty about behaviours, needs and emotions? One where we have enabled our teams and our leaders and team contributors to take care of themselves and those around them? 

I fear this is rhetorical and there was none to speak of. I’d love to be wrong and for there to be examples.

That someone can put their hand up and say “Here, where we work, in our company, a couple of years ago we had an “A-ha!” moment where we realised much was antiquated, toxic and unquestioned and we embarked on questioning everything, redefining true humanity at work, understanding value, flow, autonomy and the human values and strengths our talent invests in them, rethinking outcomes and creating a reality that makes us empathic, involved, emotionally connected and super performant and out of that effort we have arrived at this new reality.” so if that is you please get in touch, no less because I passionately believe that if such examples were to exist they would do so in the tech realm and I would love to research them closer and include them in my new book.

But if like me, you never heard of any place doing a genuine honest-to-goodness spot of intense organisational soul-searching and concluding that if they want to compete with the winners and truly put people first so they can in turn deliver faster and better results then they will need intense change and extensive mindset transformations all around, don’t despair because I think that whether they want it or not, whether they like it or not, everyone is coming up to that time. Whether they arrive to it before it is too late or not is a whole different matter.

No enterprise will be any more able to avoid big change than they will be able to force people back into the office. Those days are gone. This is a completely new work paradigm and in this new context, all that any organisation can do is genuinely enable and support their people to do the human work themselves - distribute the work to lessen the HumanDebt and avoid creating a new one. For that, they’ll need to express that famed organisational permission to remove the stigma, the impostor syndrome and the bad culturally embedded behaviours of feigning un-emotionality and then they need to enable their people - firstly with knowledge and then with practice to improve EQ, teach behavioural theory and show people new ways to communicate and relate. 

Only then will we be reversing burnout, bettering mental health, lowering stress, reversing active disengagement and yes, at long last, improving performance in happy and psychologically safe teams. 

So look around - is your organisation even mentioning cultural transformation? Are they acknowledging that everything changed? Are they unequivocally showing they are willing to put people and the human work first? Are they teaching communication, servant leadership and EQ? Are they measuring empathy? Are they rewarding good collaborative behaviours and high-performing team dynamics? Are they truly asking -and caring- how you feel? Are they giving you the space and support to take care of yourself and others? If not, by the time they will, they may have missed the boat entirely. 

Related: The Crisis of Wellbeing at Work