Businesses today understand personality – including soft skills like empathy, attention to detail, and conscientiousness – vastly impact an individual’s performance, productivity, and ability to work well in teams.
Many organizations spend vast sums on assessing those personality traits, organizing them, and utilizing them in recruitment, leadership, and development programs. But, for many, establishing desirable traits is difficult, if not impossible, thanks to the many large variables in how and why people act the way they do.
Soft skills are almost impossible to teach, but they can be encouraged, not just on an individual but on an organization-wide basis. Workplace culture is increasingly seen as one of the most significant factors influencing how people think and behave at work, and for good reason.
Why Workplace Culture?
People do as people do. We don’t quite “follow the herd”, but we certainly imitate the actions and behavior of those who are more successful or likeable than ourselves. This is established through the theory of memetics, established by Darwin. It’s further elicited in theories like conformist bias and prestige bias, which show that humans are more likely to do as others do, and more likely to do as successful, attractive, and well-liked people do.
What does that mean? If you’ve ever been in a grocery store shopping for an item and have the choice of two brands, one of which is almost sold out, one of which is hardly touched, you’ve likely experienced conformist bias in a measurable way. Most of us will go for the more popular option if we’re unfamiliar with one or both options.
And one only has to look at the popularity of using influencers, whether celebrities or Instagrammers, to sell products to understand that prestige bias is very much a thing. While the basis of this lies in the fact that it’s simpler and more efficient to use heuristics to determine that something is likely to be better if it’s either popular or is used by someone who apparently makes good decisions (they’re successful after all), memetics have deep and meaningful implications in the workplace.
- People are likely to follow the example of leaders, CEO and Leadership buy-in is a must for culture-change initiatives.
- If everyone is doing something, everyone else will do it too. You can’t “roll-out change” without isolating individuals receiving coaching.
- Introducing new people into a dominant culture will change the people, not the culture and vice versa.
Microsoft’s Culture Shift
In 2014, Microsoft’s Steve Ballmer stepped down and Satya Nadella took his place. This was the first step of one of the most aggressive and effective culture-change missions in a Fortune 500 company. Microsoft (Then a 130,000-person company) was stagnating, no risks were being taken, and in Nadella’s own words, they had become a “Know-it-all” company.
This was, at least in part, because of the leadership style of Steve Ballmer, who punished mistakes and faults harshly and rapidly. No one would take on risk or admit to being wrong (resulting in mistakes and more risk) because they were afraid of loss of stature, privileges, or their job.
Nadella began by taking simple steps to create large, visible changes to how management operated. He famously purchased a copy of “Nonviolent Communication” for every member of senior management. He integrated new rules relating to innovation, required individuals to spend time innovating, and visibly changed performance measures and goals away from perfection. And, in a massive symbolic gesture, recruitment has shifted away from primarily focused on talent, towards soft skills.
Satya Nadella himself spends over a week each year on “Talent Talks” programs, where he sits down to discuss up and coming talent, development opportunities, and potential with the heads of each branch. All of this is part of Nadella’s switch to a “growth mindset” culture, where he hopes that employees will shift to the soft skills needed for innovation, continued growth, and admitting to what they don’t know.
6 years later, that shift is far from complete. Microsoft’s employees claim that culture shifts are incredibly noticeable and growing. People are more open, more able to make mistakes, more able to innovate, and less divided against each other, because people act as teams rather than harshly punished as individuals.
Those shifts have shown marked changes for Microsoft, which had a stock value of $37.82 in March of 2014 when Nadella took office and saw an all-time high stock value of $188.70 on February 10 of 2020. This growth has noticeably been pushed by innovations in cloud services (365, Azure, Intelligent Cloud), many of which would not have been possible without the innovations pushed by Nadella. And, tellingly, Microsoft now employs over 140,000 people.
Setting Up Culture Shift
Creating a culture shift requires a significant investment into training, personal development, or hiring. It requires a massive, organization-wide shift which requires leadership buy-in and a strategy, complete with measurements, transparent goals, and visible gestures for employees.
- Break employees up into smaller cultures. You don’t want silos, but you do want to be able to influence cultures in a feasible way. Microsoft uses Orgs of about 100-150 people. Spotify uses Tribes.
- Gain buy-in from leadership, as well as influential people across the organization. An organizational network analysis will help you identify which key people influence their teams and the people around them.
- Talk to people to truly understand why and how they act. Competency and behavioral management frameworks may be key.
- Update performance management to encourage the desired skills wanted and needed. Use this to flag high vs poor performers. Eventually, you will have to fire key people to relieve negative pressure on the culture.
- Consider establishing teams of people with the “right” behaviors. When you onboard new people – hired to reflect desired company culture – you can implement them into spaces that won’t introduce “bad” traits and behaviors.
- Remain consistent, consider daily measurement and tracking, and implement measures to visually remind employees of desired changes. Microsoft implemented “Growth Mindset” posters across the organization.
- Ground changes on goals and purpose. Nadella linked this to growth and remaining market viable. Link change to something achievable, measurable, and definable to every employee asked to change.
- Implement diverse rollouts, with training, team activities, hiring, and other shifts.
Workplace culture will dramatically affect how people think and act. If your organization needs change, tackling that culture is likely the first place to start. Doing so effectively means identifying consistent behaviors across the workplace (this is your culture), looking for root causes, and reacting to that.