A recipe for changing your corporate culture

This isn’t the only recipe, of course, nor is it a guarantee. Perhaps a more accurate description would be “a list of ingredients you need to have a chance of making a difference.”

To begin, it’s easier to start with three things that don’t work.

Rebels. As much as I admire people who break the rules for good reasons, their actions tend to be futile when it come to changing a company. The rocks they throw at the corporate machine tend not to make much of a dent, and eventually the rebels becomes disheartened and move on.

Grassroots movements. I want to believe that change at work can be democratic. Yet grassroots movements inevitably hit a kind of “grass ceiling.” Despite their good intentions and good will, there are limits to what they can do without changing structures and processes.

Change from the top. If it’s difficult to order your children to change behavior, it’s impossible to order thousands of adults. Yes, managers do have significant influence, and they certainly have authority to allocate resources and make certain decisions. But they cannot decide on a culture, a mindset, or the behaviors that employees will adopt.

Sustainable change isn’t just driven from the top or by rebels or grassroots efforts. It requires a bit of all three. An example that makes me optimistic about this recipe is something that’s happening at Bosch and Daimler..

Back in 2015, it was a “rebel” at Bosch who introduced Working Out Loud there. Her skill, passion, and perseverance enabled her to build a grassroots movement of several hundred people. She then inspired a rebel at Daimler to do something similar, and they continued to collaborate informally.

As the movements expanded, there were now many people - not just rebels - making their work visible and actively growing their influence. They self-organized, and purposefully and opportunistically reached out to different divisions to find places where they could integrate WOL into existing programs. Over time, WOL found its way into the Corporate Academy, the on-boarding program, mentor programs, and more.

Their latest milestone was this past October 31st, when Bosch and Daimler teamed up to jointly sponsor WOLCON18 for 400 of their employees. In attendance were two board members, the head of industrial relations (including HR) at Bosch, and the Chairman of the General Works Council at Daimler. Though they’re typically on opposite sides of the negotiating table, a photo below shows them together supporting the grassroots movements to become something much bigger (and even wearing WOL hoodies with their company’s logos on them). Daimler issued a press release about it.

"Working Out Loud proves that the digital transformation does not need to instill fear and worry. It comes down to how it is designed. If you make your work visible, you also learn what it is worth. And if you network, you find additional possibilities of belonging and recognition. 

If 100 percent of all users of a new method have more fun doing their job, the method is right and makes work more humane. And as the works council, we can only support this.”

The movements now include thousands of people. What was formerly rebellious has been embraced and institutionalized. What would have been unthinkable less than a year ago is now normal, and new possibilities keep emerging.

Whatever change you’re hoping to bring about, the point is that the recipe for change really can start with you - and also that it must go beyond you. You have to connect the people who believe what you believe so you can amplify the benefits and make them visible. That’s what makes it possible to gain the management support you’ll need to scale your efforts, and to make the difference you want to make.

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BOARD MEMBERS FROM BOSCH & DAIMLER (HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS & CHAIRMAN OF THE GENERAL WORKS COUNCIL)

BOARD MEMBERS FROM BOSCH & DAIMLER (HEAD OF INDUSTRIAL RELATIONS & CHAIRMAN OF THE GENERAL WORKS COUNCIL)

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When the CEO isn’t enough

I was sitting in the audience as the divisional CEO delivered his talk to over 500 people. He was encouraging them to try new ways of working, to experiment more, connect across silos, and continuously learn. Not only would it be better for them as individuals, he told them, but the company needed this kind of culture and attitude. The enthusiasm was palpable.

Then he opened the floor to questions from the audience, and a hand went up.

“But what do I tell my manager?”

Fear and control

The employee's concern was understandable. Despite exhortations from top management, the new values posted on the walls, the cultural change program, it still didn’t feel safe to do things differently. Too many other people got into trouble doing that, so why take the risk?

Without a sense of psychological safety - "being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career" - most people will wait until a critical mass has changed behavior before making a change themselves.

How many people have to say “yes”?

After the question there was an awkward pause. The CEO replied that it was better in this case not to ask permission. "You should just do it,” he said, explaining that the personal benefits were worth the risk. 

The head of the Works Council was also there, and he pointed out that even in the most stringent environments, employees had times when they could choose for themselves what to do. “If your boss doesn’t like what you’re trying, do it on your lunch hour, or outside of work.” 

The audience didn’t seem satisfied. They wanted to do things differently, but they felt stuck. As happy as they were with visible support from top management, they knew the CEO wouldn’t be there if their boss doled out consequences.

The permission you’ve been waiting for

One way out of this conundrum is for you to take a series of small steps rather than a big leap. There’s plenty of research to show that even small changes to tasks, relationships, and perceptions can make you happier and more effective. (It’s call “job crafting” and you can read more about it here.)

You may have to experience it for yourself before you believe it, like my friend Stefan who, after 12 weeks in a WOL Circle, said this:

"I now realize there are things - tasks and interests - that bring me joy and satisfaction besides my original job but are still in a business context. I guess my next goal will be concerned with job crafting... ;-) " 

Every day you have some control over who you interact with and what you do. Every day you have complete control over how you interact with others and how you approach the work you need to do. 

You can choose to experiment in small ways at work, to learn and explore more, to relate to others with generosity and kindness, to actively look for purpose and meaning in what you do. You can be a leader in one of the most important ways possible - by example.

For that, the only person you’ll need permission from is you.