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I’ve spent years helping organizations change their cultures and I am here to tell you the truth; it ain’t easy and in some cases it’s a total bust.  When I start to run head first into the nearest wall I remind myself that even the greatest experts on the topic proclaim that culture change is one of the toughest nuts to crack.  So let me describe one approach that is practical, doable and actually creates the change.

First, definition of terms.  Simply put, culture is the way that things actually get done in a group/team/organization.  It is the collective beliefs, values and behaviors that have emerged and survived over a period of time.  It is a habit.  And as we all know, habits are hard to break.  Managing performance refers to all the informal and formal processes a company uses to define “the what” and “how well” you are supposed to perform your job.  This includes a brief conversation in the hallway or regular supervision discussions or the formal performance evaluation systems that help calculate your bonus (remember those things?).

Regardless of how well your organization or your boss follows through on reviewing your performance (which is generally so-so at best) here is the GetReal cheat sheet.

  1. Have the talks you have been avoiding.  The reason why you wait until the prescribed mid-year review is because you’re chicken shit about raising your concerns early and often.  Man/woman up!  If you can’t develop some muscles around having direct, yet supportive, discussions with your people about how they are not meeting your expectations you will ultimately hurt them, yourself and your company.  I’m not talking about a 2×4.  I’m talking about, “Jason, I have reviewed the report you submitted and I have some concerns I want to discuss.  My notes say that we agreed to x,y,z yet I see that you did x,a,b.  Can you explain that to me?”  In other words, remind him of the expectations, point out the discrepancies and then have an exchange.  Don’t attack.  Listen.
  2. Offer praise for the proper behaviors.  It amazes me how often I have to remind leaders to say thanks or good job.  Secret: this is the most motivating thing you can do to get people to meet your expectations.  I’m not talking about a trophy for every kid.  I’m talking about acknowledging and reinforcing the right stuff.  It’s so simple and so underused.
  3. Stop the grade inflation.  Everyone believes they are from Lake Wobegone where the “children are above average”.  The reality is that if you clearly define what it means to “meet expectations” on goals and performance standards most folks will land there on the scale.  If the expectations are rigorous enough then a very competent employee will do a good job of reaching that bar.  On some goals they may even go beyond that while others will fall off the plate.  But if you looked at any manager’s ratings for his/her team you would think that they were lucky enough to find all superstars.  Come on people.  Be honest with them and with yourself.  If you’ve got a team of “meets expectations” folks, you’re doing fine.  Stop feeling like you have to give them all A’s when they earned B’s.
  4. The employee is responsible for the change.  Don’t try to solve the problem!  I know that is one of your strengths but resist the urge to jump in or be overly prescriptive.  Once you have delivered the feedback the next words out of your mouth need to be, “What ideas do you have about turning this around?  And how can I be helpful?”  S/he must own the solution and make the efforts to do things differently.
  5. This is an ongoing dialogue, not an event.  Make the time to invest in the development of your people.  You cannot calculate the time, money and grief this saves.

And if  you do those things you will see some changes in the culture.  When certain behaviors are rewarded and others are not, over time you will see a shift.  And if ongoing feedback becomes the norm then people understand that you are making an investment in them.  If a person feels that you are interested then they will want to please you.  They will do more of the things that make you happy and less of the crappy stuff.  This is one way a culture can change…even if it goes slower than you would like.  Remember, habits are very hard to break.  Yours and theirs.

If this sounds Pavlovian…it is.  Just without the painful buzzer.


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