Tanya Fish (TF): Hello listeners. Thanks for joining us for another ITA Group Employee Experience podcast. My name is Tanya Fish, our employee experience solutions lead at ITA Group. In this podcast series, we’ll talk about how to engage in organizational culture no matter where people work.
As I read up on this topic, one thing has become clear. Leaders play a key role in transforming and sustaining culture. And no matter where people are working from, they need communication and support from their leaders.
Today, our guest, Matt Herzberg from Principled Transformation, is going to talk with us about leadership's role in fostering a supportive environment for all employees across all work environments.
Matt, welcome. I can’t wait to capture your wisdom and share it with our listeners today.
Matt Herzberg (MH): Tanya, thanks for letting me be here. I look forward to talking to you today.
TF: Matt, you've worked across many complex companies to transform their culture. Can culture work without leadership engaging in it?
MH: Tanya, great question to start with. Let’s start with two definitions.
The first definition is around culture and the second is around leadership. The reason I'd like to start with definitions is because what I find in most organizations is that people use both of those terms very liberally, and they’re not always talking about the same definitions. I'm going to deliberately define both and then structure my answer around that.
When we say the word “culture,” we're talking about the collective thinking or the shared meanings that exist in organizations, and that organizations use to create a general state of mind. When I say, “state of mind,” that could be mood states, feelings, emotions or energy levels. What this state of mind does, is it inspires and encourages certain actions in the organization—or sometimes what we'll refer to as “organization behaviors.” Those organization behaviors ultimately lead to our ability to get results, or sometimes those organization behaviors create barriers to getting results. For us, the whole idea of culture is the collective thinking that creates a general state of mind, which inspires certain actions and leads to business results.
The second definition is the way we think about leadership. For us, leadership is a process whereby an individual, or a team of individuals, influence another group of individuals toward a common goal. It gets to the essence of why organizations even exist to begin with.
My observation of why organizations exist is that they do things that people have to do collectively rather than individually. If you could get things done individually, you wouldn’t need an organization. Let me use an example.
Think of an airline. If you wanted to run an airline by yourself, you would have to sell the tickets. You would have to do all the regulatory work and the filings with all the different agencies. You would have to maintain and fuel the plane. You would also have to fly the plane, and there wouldn't be anyone left to do any service in the back of the plane. The passengers would be on their own for the entire flight.
The reason I use the example about airlines is that you couldn't do it just with one person. You need to have the whole organization working together. This tie between leadership, organizations and the ability to influence others as it ties back to culture, becomes very important.
So back to the question, can we do culture work without leadership? In my experience, the short answer is no. What our experience suggests is that leadership is absolutely tied to culture, and it's hard to have one without the other.
This concept of influence ties directly to what we refer to as the hidden side of corporate culture in our book. What we point out is that there are certain things that are very obvious when you're talking about culture, and there's other things that are somewhat hidden. When we think about influencing others, what are leaders really influencing? They're influencing the thinking and the states of mind in the organization so that they can affect change in how people take action and the behaviors that get better results. Now, when we think about that, especially at the executive leadership level, influence becomes even more impactful because we not only have that ability to influence others, we also layer it on top of a hierarchy.
What we find is that typically human beings, and organizations, tend to be hierarchical. And when you're in an executive leadership role or an executive leadership team, you're influencing the entire organization below you.
It's a concept we call “the reflection of leadership” or “our leadership reflection,” and it's an incredibly powerful concept. Here's why we call it the “reflection of leadership.” The first is that organizations tend to reflect their leadership. What you see in an organization is usually created by how people interact with one another, through what they model and what they reward—through either appreciation or a physical reward. And maybe most importantly, what they tolerate because that becomes the standard for the organization.
The other reason we call this “the reflection of leadership” is that about 20 years ago in Austria, a group of neuroscientists discovered what are referred to as mirror neurons. And the reason that it's such an incredible discovery is that we all have them in our brain, and their only role is to really track what people are doing around them. It's kind of like a radar. These mirror neurons are influencing us, and we don't even know this process is going on now. So if we think about this through a cultural lens, we've known for a long time that the sociological and psychological phenomenon of culture exists. But now we have something that suggests that there's a physiological basis of culture. And that's fascinating when we think about how leaders really influence those around them, not only in terms of their own effectiveness, but also the effectiveness of those around them.
TF: Matt, I love how you brought this back to the definitions of culture and leadership. To get people to operate with collective thinking, to create a general state of mind—using key behaviors that you want represented in your company—you really need leaders to be modeling those same behaviors. The reflection of leadership’s behavior is that those behaviors are repeated by their teams.
We see that in all our (ITA Group) programs. When we manage the results on the backend, we see that when we have a team lead that's highly engaged, the team mirrors that behavior. They are also highly engaged in their programs. On the flip side, if a leader is absent and not engaging their team, the team follows suit.
MH: Tanya, that's exactly what we see play out over and over in organizations. And this is not just based on our own practice and what we've observed, but also in the research that's out there.
TF: Matt, when we are looking to get leaders equipped to turn a workplace culture around, or to create a sustainable work culture, what's the best approach to develop these leaders with the desired model behavior?
MH: You know, Tanya, our work usually revolves around three areas. The first is “leadership development,” the second is “team alignment” and the third is what we call a “culture transformation.” They're all tied together, but we tend to start with leadership development and how we can help leaders create healthier states of mind, so that they can show up and be at their best. When they're performing at their best, we find that it also allows those around them to perform at their best. So all the work we do starts with leadership development.
The second step is what we call “team alignment.” We ask the question: “Is the team, or the teams at the top, clear about what they're trying to create—and aligned how they want to be?”
Believe it or not, what we find in most organizations is that, while at a very high level, the language sounds much the same. But if you probe with one or two questions, what we see is that the teams are often not aligned or truly aligned. Their thoughts about the goals, their thoughts about the priorities and their thoughts about the strategy are quite different. And in some cases, they're wildly different.
That’s very important because what we find is that those differences are magnified throughout the entire organization. If things are not aligned at the top, they can't be aligned anywhere else in the organization.
The third thing is that when we're talking about creating a culture. Culture is a system-wide phenomenon. When we think about a culture transformation, we’re talking about how to engage the entire organization from top to bottom, so everyone is aligned and engaged.
Sometimes we use the metaphor of blowing glass to explain this concept. If you've ever watched a glass blower, they'll take some sand and lime, throw it into a furnace and heat it to a couple thousand degrees. Then you have this big, energized mass. As soon as they have that energized mass, they transform the glass into whatever they need. If they need a goblet, they can make a goblet. If they need a pitcher, they make a pitcher. If they need a vase, they make a vase. Whatever they need to do, they can start molding and shaping that glass to fit the need.
The same thing happens in culture. When we're talking about culture transformation, we're really talking about two levels of change. The first is what we call “culture shift.” This is creating energy and engagement throughout the entire organization so that there's energy. Similar to glass when we put it into the furnace—to get it hot and ready to move. That's the same thing we want to do with the organization. We want to unleash the potential of the organization.
The second thing we want to do is sculpt or craft the organization in a way that enables it to better execute the strategy. Now, there has to be some kind of discovery about where we're at currently. There are a couple different types of data sources.
The first is surveys that we might have around. We (Principled Transformations) have a proprietary survey that looks at some elements of cultures and whether a culture is more on the healthy side or the unhealthy side or whatever might be the case. We also use existing cultures in organizations. Almost every organization, and every client we work with, has some kind of record of employee engagement that can help us understand what's going on in the organization.
But here's the thing about surveys. While they're helpful, they're somewhat limited in their view of the organization, because the survey can only pick up what it was designed to pick up. There might be other elements that are influencing the culture that you don't pick up in a survey.
In addition to surveys, we want to perform interviews and talk to leaders throughout the organization about what's working in the organization and what's not working. How does that show up, and how does that manifest itself every day? And what does it mean in terms of implications to get business results? We want to understand that.
The third piece is that we’ll often do focus groups to test what we're learning with broader groups of employees to make sure that we fully understand the concept.
The next phase is to get really clear with the executives and leaders in the organization. Let's think about this in terms of the top two tiers of leadership, to have that group imagine what's possible for a better future. What can we improve? What can we do to drive even higher levels of results—and have an even greater impact on the team?
Once we start imagining those possibilities, then we can start aligning around them—including the purpose, priorities, next steps and values—so we're crystal clear as a leadership team on how we're going to lead this transformation. Once we have that alignment, now we can begin to amplify and integrate throughout the entire organization. Again, how do we make sure that the top, all the way down to the bottom, is aligned, energized and engaged around the key priorities?
The final thing we always have to do is measure the impact. Chad (Principled Transformation Co-Founder) and I love doing this work, because it really does help people live in a better world.
Related: How to Spot Emerging Leaders in Your Organization
TF: Matt, that was one power-packed response to the approach of turning around work culture. One thing that sticks out in your book, the Art and Science of Culture, is how you talk about getting leadership onboard with a healthy state of mind, and specifically creating confident and vulnerable leaders. Those aren't two words you often hear together. What does it mean to have a confidently vulnerable leader, and how do they show up in the workplace?
MH: In all our years of working both inside corporations and consulting with organizations, what Chad and I asked was, “What is the one leadership trait that predicted successful (culture) transformation?”
And every time we would deconstruct a successful transformation we had been part of, there was either a leader or a leadership team who exhibited this trait that we call “confident vulnerability.” What confident vulnerability is, is a paradoxical mix of absolute confidence that the job will get done and a deep level of humility that they don't know everything.
And because we don't know everything, we have to be curious to discover and to learn more. Now, you know, a lot has been written, especially in the last 10 years, about this concept of vulnerability. And even earlier, referred to as growth mindset or learning agility. The reason that this concept of vulnerability is so important is that it leads to leading authentically.
It's the core of leading authentically. Without vulnerability, there is no authenticity. And authenticity is key because it's the basis of all trust in organizations. When you pair that with confidence and self-assurance that you’ll be successful, our experience is that it becomes very powerful.
The reason for that is because people tend not to follow people who are not confident. If the leader's not confident, how can anyone else in the organization be confident? Now, if I were to get down to what confidently, vulnerable leaders look like, they tend to be self-assured and humble. They tend to be successful and open. They tend to be knowledgeable and curious. They can get things done, but they make efforts to improve.
TF: Matt, I love that you brought this back around to trust. There's so much being discussed around building trust in organizations today. The way I'm hearing you describe this confidence is when somebody can trust and believe in the direction a leader is taking an organization, the vulnerability aspect is believing that they have a voice in that path as well, and that they will be heard and respected as a part of the journey.
MH: Tanya, that's exactly right. In fact, Chad and I were just on site with a client a couple weeks ago. One of the people there was talking about the leader of the organization, and they said he (the leader) asked a lot of questions. They sensed that he really wants to know what employees are thinking about, so he can make even better decisions. And this is an individual who everyone recognizes as an incredibly successful person. But that success is also based upon that willingness to listen and learn from others and to be even more aware of what's going on around them.
TF: Matt, when you're working with organizations to enhance or build their culture, what are the top three things you would encourage leaders to do to promote culture among all employees, regardless of their work location or situation they may be in?
MH: The first is taking time to quiet your mind. What quieting your mind does, is it allows you to be present in the moment and to also tap into your innate wisdom.
The second thing I would recommend is, once you're able to quiet your mind, take notice. Notice what's going on inside of your mind. Because, again, our thinking drives our state of mind, which leads to our individual actions and results.
If we really understand what's going on inside of ourselves, in our thinking and our state of mind, it leads to asking, “Am I at my best right now?” And maybe you are less than your best right now, so what are the implications of that when you're in a leadership role?
The last piece, if you're able to quiet your mind and notice what's going on around you, is that we can take what we call “deliberate, intentional and purposeful action.”
What we find over and over is that during the rigors of the day, we get caught in autopilot. We are operating on what we've learned in the past and are not paying attention to what's going on in front of us. That creates situations when we're acting one way, while the situation is calling for us to act in a different way.
If we can quiet our minds, notice what's going on and get more curious, we can take deliberate and purposeful action, which enables us to amplify our effectiveness in the situation. Especially amplifying our effectiveness as a leader in this situation.
TF: Matt, you're making me think about something I heard years back, regarding good leaders. That a good leader will sit quiet in a meeting. Listening then pausing. Quieting their mind. Noticing what's going on around them. Noticing how they're reacting to what they're hearing.
And at that moment when a quiet leader speaks, you definitely want to listen, because they've been gathering all the information to show up with confidence in what they heard and where to go next.
MH: Exactly, Tanya.
TF: Matt, thank you so much for sharing your experience and expertise with our audience today. It's clearer than ever, for me, that leadership is critical to transforming culture.
Listeners, if you want to learn more about leading with a healthy state of mind or about the art and science of culture, as Matt teed up for us today, check out The Art and Science of Culture, a book published by Matt Herzberg, who we've had join us today, and his business partner, Chad Carr.
Matt, thank you. We appreciate your insight and wisdom today.
Before we depart, if our listeners would like to access your book, The Art and Science of Culture, what's the best way to go about doing that?
MH: We have a website set up for the book: artandscienceofculture.com. On there, you'll see links to buy the book on Amazon. It's also available as Kindle and Audible versions. Thank you.
Find more resources—and research—on work culture, employee engagement and leadership skills with our Employee Experience Insights.