I was speaking with a colleague recently who was lamenting the leadership culture she was working with in a client organization. Her criticism concerned conversations between senior leaders about desired leadership behaviors. In her words, leaders kept stressing behaviors such as decisiveness, action orientation and accountability rather than collaboration, communication and flexibility. I commiserated with her and agreed that all of those characteristics are valuable leadership behaviors depending on the circumstances. She offered the conclusion that these executives did not value these behaviors and, perhaps, needed further training so that they would value collaboration and flexibility as much as decisiveness and action-orientation.
It was a typical response to the problem she faced. Clearly, if leaders understood that valuing these different leadership behaviors would help their company improve, they would change their thinking and approach. More education was obviously the answer – except, it wasn’t.
Training and education do not have the power to fundamentally change behaviors and culture. While they are important components in driving the recognition that change must occur, and the skills needed to make the change, they are not the drivers of change itself. What organizations reward and punish are the real drivers of behavior and culture. However, most organizations do not put sufficient energy and resources into changing cultural rewards and punishments. We shouldn’t view training and education as an end in themselves but as a potential catalyst for change. At the end of the day, people do what they are measured against and what they are rewarded for, and they don’t do what they are punished for.
The answer to why training won’t change the culture lies in understanding why people behave the way they do. The is not education and awareness. I know well that I should exercise for at least 30 minutes daily – yet I hardly ever do. I have seen many things, working in organizational development for over 20 years, and one of the most striking things I see over and over is the belief that education, awareness and training change behaviors and, therefore, culture. They do not. They never have, and they never will. They are only part of a solution.
Let’s take the example of the executives who value decisiveness, action orientation and accountability. Is it because they don’t think collaboration is a good idea? Probably not. The reason they value those behaviors is because they work in a company, in this case, whose primary objective is the delivery of high-quality products on time and on budget through operational excellence. As such, they are measured against those outcomes, with the most effective behaviors rewarded and the behaviors not associated with those outcomes punished.
Think about running a manufacturing company. Typically, the most valuable behaviors are action orientation and decisiveness. The plant needs to run on time, problems need to be quickly and decisively addressed, and there are rigorous oversight and accountability models in place to ensure that employees effectively engage in repeatable processes and procedures. Sure, collaboration and flexibility are important, but secondarily so. So, leaders rightly place primary importance on the characteristics that are measured and rewarded.
Another way to look at it is that the behaviors that are valued are the result of an evolutionary framework. Behaviors that tend to accomplish the goals of the organization tend to be reinforced, while the behaviors that tend to detract from organizational goals diminish.
Organizations who value decisive action reward decisive action. To change behaviors, you must begin rewarding different behaviors. For example, if making sure all opinions are heard is a behavior you want your organization to value, create mechanisms to ensure that all opinions are heard, and then reward those mechanisms. For example, require each person in a room to offer an opinion when a decision is being made, or create a designated challenger to ensure that at least one alternate opinion is heard. Recognize people who challenge the consensus. Praise the most ingenious challenge to the status quo. Punish leaders who do not follow the process. There are a number of ways to reward and reinforce different behaviors. If your organization believes there is real value in changing behaviors, it will dedicate sufficient resources in time and energy to do so.
The value of education is in helping leaders to understand that a change of behavior is necessary and worth spending time and other resources on. The typical shortfall in education is that too many leaders and organizations believe that training is an end in itself and that the act of having the training solves the problem. The truth of the matter is, education and awareness are merely the first steps toward helping people understand that a change is needed.
What we measure, reward and punish are ultimately what drive behaviors, and they are where we should look when we think about changing our culture. Take a look at your change initiatives; I’ll bet that beyond training, there is little energy going into understanding how your organization culturally drives behaviors through rewards and punishments. It takes a great deal of effort to modify rewards and punishments, but that is exactly what you will need to do in order for your culture/behavior change to be successful. If you are stopping at training and education, then you haven’t even really begun.