As a management consultant, I've worked with many leading companies on their strategies and culture. In fact, I've developed a comprehensive methodology to help clients quickly assess their current company culture and establish a game plan to transform it. I've found through my many years in practice that true cultural transformation is easier said than done.
Indeed, senior leadership teams often believe that they can significantly alter their organizational cultures by introducing "lifestyle" benefits to employees, like elder care or tuition reimbursement. They believe, in fact, that changes like moving toward a "no cubicles" workspace design will somehow fix the decades of damage caused by leaders driven to achieve unrealistic goals.
In reality, while these things may affect employee hiring and retention statistics, they'll do little to categorically change the company culture.
However, there is one simple change you can make in your own behavior that will improve your company culture:
Promote the notion in your staff that they have an obligation to dissent.
This means that colleagues not only have permission to speak up when they don't agree with a new concept or idea -- they have a duty to express their opposition.
Some things a leader can do to begin working this way include:
1. Make it part of the job.
Make it clear that you expect your team to express disagreement when discussing direction and change. Everyone is responsible for bringing their best ideas and effort to the work every day, and expressing opposing points of view is part of the job.
Of course, dissent for the sake of being uncooperative is not the intent. Rather, you want to ensure that opposition is expressed in constructive ways and that the primary driver is a thirst for getting to the right answer. One of my clients has gone so far as to institute an active listening technique: her team must repeat the idea that was originally posed before offering a dissenting opinion. This keeps things polite and positive.
2. Let them know you can take it.
Let it be known that you're fully OK with team members arguing against your ideas. Be sure that there are no repercussions, implied or direct, to a staff member expressing their disagreement. Show that you're looking for the best idea, not looking for blind, sycophantic agreement with your idea.
A former mentor of mine was brilliant in demonstrating this behavior. He would thank team members whenever they challenged his thinking. Often saying, "Thank you for pushing back. This is how we all get better." His leadership style continues to influence me to this day.
3. Raise the bar.
Instill in your team that identifying a problem or voicing disagreement is fine. Moreover, let them know that the game is won by offering new ideas and solutions to problems. When they get into the habit of identifying problems and offering solutions, they improve team performance and raise the bar.
One of my clients is a real stickler on this point. "How do we fix it?" is his very first question as soon as a staff member comes in with a problem. Even if the person has no solution and needs help to identify one, the leader has immediately set a collaborative tone and has made it all right to discuss and figure things out.
4. Make it a learning opportunity.
When discussing alternatives, it is likely that some opposing ideas will lack merit right out of the box. When this happens, use it as an opportunity to give your team feedback and teach them why those ideas may not work in practice. This way, they get stronger and learn through your experience and guidance. It also encourages a two-way dialogue, because you're demonstrating that you hear them and are responding to what you're hearing by offering additional insight.
The "obligation to dissent" is a concept that corporate America likes to think it practices, but many of my clients don't really want to hear much from the "peanut gallery." Making this business principle come alive through leadership behavior is the key to setting "true north" and becoming a real learning organization -- one that can set the bar for performance and market domination.