The senior leadership of an industrial client of ours in the midst of trying to transform itself into a digital solutions company is obsessed with the idea of empowerment. ‘If we just empower our people to be bold, take risks, stop waiting around for permission to take initiative’, and so forth, then ‘we could really transform’. Or so goes the idea.
Our client is not alone in this belief. Thousands of CEOs, consultants and pundits of all stripes are convinced changing culture and driving transformation is fundamentally about empowerment. And why not? After all, empowerment has been a core tenet of the corporate culture movement since Douglas McGregor at MIT first introduced the concept of ‘Theory Y’ in the mid 1970s to suggest that employees, contrary to preceding decades of belief, are inherently self- motivated and seek fulfillment and meaning by doing good work. Management’s task under Theory Y is to support employees by fostering their creativity and interdependence. The obsession with corporate culture sprung from this compelling idea and spawned thousands of books and decades of consulting work, powering what is now a billion-dollar culture industry.
Unfortunately, if it was just about empowerment, trenchant organizational and social problems such as racism, sexism and other forms of systemic bias — or shaping entire organizations into emancipating environments for the actualization of human potential — would have been solved long ago. How to transform a centuries-old manufacturer into a digital platform, or scale a start-up into an organization of thousands without stifling dynamism would be relatively straightforward; the recipe would be widely known.
It’s not. Most deliberate culture shaping fails to produce desired outcomes. Instead, it winds up costing millions of dollars and thousands of hours in misguided energy and resources.
Part of the problem is empowerment.
The problem is not the idea. Empowerment is often necessary but never sufficient to achieve complex change because it is a shallow behavioral approach to a deep and complex problem.
Culture is not how employees feel, or their attitudes, or how they behave. These might be its manifestations, the tip of the iceberg, but it’s not culture itself. When companies try to change how people feel or how they behave in trying to change culture, they chase the wrong variable.
I might feel empowered to exceed my departmental budget. But will I? And will I when I know the corporate practice is to fire managers who habitually over-spend? Feelings and attitudes (and such) might be compensations for more pervasive cultural assumptions.
Furthermore, our attitudes do not often show in how we behave. Studies on the relationship between people’s self-reports of their own attitudes and observed behavior show, at best, weak correlations. Feeling empowered does not always, or even often lead to acting empowered.
When senior leaders attempt to empower their teams to behave differently, this is often a proxy for absolving themselves of the need to do anything different themselves. It’s a false flag, sending the signal that because the solution lies with those lower in the organization, therefore the problem must as well. This sidelines the possibility that senior leadership is part of the problem.
So if empowerment is not enough, what is? Here are 5 things leaders intent on changing culture can do:
1. Get smart. Commit to approaching culture in a more sophisticated way. Cultures have been studied extensively by anthropologists since the end of the 19th century; the idea wasn’t invented by consultants and CEOs. Culture is complex; be skeptical of simplistic solutions.
2. Get aware. Culture is knowledge. It lives in our brains as neurochemical processes. It takes shape as shared rules, beliefs, assumptions, and bits of know-how that run below conscious awareness, much like the OS in our mobile devices. We can’t be conscious of these processes unless we become aware of them.
3. Start noticing. Pay attention to your organization’s prevailing taken-for-granted rules, beliefs, and assumptions. Is there a common logic, or logics, to them? Can you name the logics? Logics are the ‘source code’ of culture.
4. Start Tracking. If there are common logics, how and where do they show up in everyday habits, routines, and processes (i.e. practices) across your business? What do these practices optimize for (e.g. are they all about minimizing risk? All about the customer? All about maximizing profit?)
5. Focus on Practices. Brain chemistry changes when we change habits and routines, so if you want to change culture you need to change the habits and routines of the collective. Senior leaders usually control and allocate the resources that make changing practices possible.