The Easiest Way to Create a Healthier Organisational Culture

You’re a copycat.

We all are. We instinctively copy other people — often without even realising it.

We subconsciously choose an outfit with same colours as what our spouse or roommate is wearing. We match stride while walking alongside a friend. We hear someone use a new (or retro) phrase, and we soon find ourselves unintentionally using it too.

It’s even true with kids.

LeGrand Curtis says, “More children are punished for mimicking their parents than ever for disobeying them.” For those of us who are parents, this is scary to think about!

These are powerful reminders that often we are unaware of the influence others have on us… and how much influence we have on others.

As a boss, how much influence do I have over the hours that my employees keep? How do I influence the way work gets done in the office?

These are subtle influences — we may not even recognise it. But recognising that this social power is real can be extremely helpful for us.

We know that there are six sources of influence, and two of those sources relate to how we interact with each other: Social influences. We influence one another — whether we know it or not — and one of the main ways we do that is through modelling.

How One Voice Makes a Difference

If we want people’s behaviour to change, we should start behaving in new ways. If I’m looking to change an entire organisational culture, I need to start modelling the desired behaviours. One person’s decision to act can have a profound effect on others’ behaviour.

Several years ago, I worked with a major hospital plagued by patient safety problems. They had a lot of negative media exposure to overcome. Since our work together, they’ve made great strides and invested heavily in building crucial communication skills amongst their clinical staff members.

As a part of their efforts to create a healthier organisational culture, I worked extensively with their leaders to implement a training programme to teach their clinical staff how to speak up when they recognise problems unfolding around them.

Take hand washing for example. We know there are terrible medical consequences to poor hand washing. But it’s extremely uncomfortable for a nurse to speak up when they see a doctor failing to wash his hands.

However, if a nurse learns to speak up and hold that doctor accountable despite the power differential, they’re going to prevent medical problems and see the organisational culture move in a positive direction.

To make the strides and overcome these obstacles, people need the right skills.

While working with this organisation, we spent four days together introducing these crucial skills to the leaders of this organisation to take to their clinical staff. At the conclusion of our time, we spent an afternoon discussing how to develop an implementation plan for this training programme.

We talked for four hours, and at the end of our conversation, the leader of the meeting suggested a very aggressive timeline for completing the training. Then, he asked the group if anyone had any concerns or reactions to his suggestion.

There was no reaction in the room.

We assumed everyone felt good about the plan and began to move forward. We spent the next few hours plotting out the specifics, making commitments, and moving forward to document this official plan. Then, something interesting happened.

A lone hand from the back of the room was raised and a brave soul named Cynthia began to speak up, “I have to tell you, I’m concerned about this schedule. I think it’s too aggressive. My fear is that the quality of the training is going to suffer. My even bigger concern is that we have so many other initiatives we’re responsible for, something is going to fall through the cracks and we’re not going to feel good about what we’re trying to accomplish as a team. Even worse, I’m worried it’s going to have an effect on our ability to relate to each other and feel engaged. I think our team morale is going to suffer. I fear we’re moving too quickly with this deadline.”

A hush fell over the room. This was a big change in our conversation. Then, something miraculous started to happen. Hands started to pop up all across the room. Cynthia’s colleagues began to chime in saying, “I have some concerns too.”

The conversation shifted entirely. We began to have a productive discussion about what this new plan looked like.

As it turned out, we decided to make some agreements to the timeline and come back in a few weeks to make more adjustments as necessary depending on how things were going.

This was a remarkable shift in conversation — and it all started with one lone hand.

It Only Takes One

One person’s decision to speak up, change, or do the right thing makes a big difference.

It’s like throwing a rock in water. Ripples naturally form because of the one change. Or, think of a line of dominos. Only one needs to fall for the others to follow suit.

The same is true for us. We often just need one person to make a new decision to pave the way for the rest of us.

At the end of the meeting, Cynthia approached me, complaining, “You know what really makes me crazy? Everyone in that meeting — for two hours! — was nudging each other, rolling their eyes, and grumbling under their breath but nobody would speak up!”

Surprise, surprise.

That’s why we were there! Our goal was to equip people with crucial skills for speaking up… and they all struggled with it. Yet her decision to raise her hand and speak up propelled the entire room in a different direction.

Yes, people sometimes need more skills to engage an effective crucial conversation, but they also need a leader to pave the way.

If you’re trying to change the behaviours, if you want to see progress, be the first one. Your decision to act may be the catalyst your coworkers need to start an entirely new organisational culture.

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