In high achievement cultures where people are held accountable for delivering on time and their results, there is generally a misconception about what it takes to lead and inspire others. Leaders often believe they need to “be tough” on others to drive results and get the best out of people. If we watch the way these leaders interact with their teams we can immediately know if they are leading by fear or by love. At Axialent, we find leaders who practice compassionate leadership, rather than an iron fist, are more likely to get the results they want.
The first type of leader is 100% result oriented, very focused on the task and the business results. They have a very strong opinion of what needs to be done to expand and grow. Therefore, they generally need to be “in charge all the time”, often using a very directive approach with their teams. They hand out orders to others, correcting people’s behavior on the spot, sometimes providing destructive feedback. Fear of failure (or not delivering results) is so strong and present that they undermine trust, psychological safety, creativity, and innovation.
Although these types of leadership behaviors may achieve business goals in the short term, leaders need to develop a more integral approach to create exceptional sustainable results. An approach that addresses the human dimension as much as the business one. This is what compassionate leadership is all about.
 

Compassionate leadership

 
compassionate leadershipCompassionate leadership does not mean being “soft with people” and not holding them accountable. It certainly does not propose giving up business results in pursuit of caring for people or make them feel connected.  At the heart of compassionate leadership lies the ability to recognize the potential and need of every human being and help them develop and grow in service of the business needs.
It means helping people sharpen their edge with kindness in the service of a bigger goal.
 

Compassionate leaders:

  • Develop a clear and inspiring integral vision.

They strongly provide and thoroughly communicate a clear direction to the desired outcomes and the role teams and individuals are invited to play in achieving the vision.

  • Embrace their own vulnerability and practice self-compassion.

Vulnerability is about showing up and being seen with no control of the outcome (as Brene Brown has stated through her research). Experiencing our own vulnerability and being kind to ourselves is the first step to connecting with others’ vulnerability and feeling compassion.

  • Put themselves in others’ shoes.

They invest time connecting and getting to know their team. These leaders have a genuine interest in them and the challenges they face. They build strong, trusting bonds. Compassionate leaders master the right balance between containing and challenging people to help them get unstuck and carry forward. They understand we all fail and make mistakes, and this is part of our development journey.

  • Speak their truth with honesty and respect.

Compassionate leadership is usually thought of as leaders sugarcoating messages to avoid people getting hurt. They are seen as avoiding conflicts, difficult conversations, or providing any feedback that might challenge people to consider a different perspective. In reality, compassionate leaders do just the opposite. They communicate thoroughly, provide constructive feedback, and have difficult conversations, all in the service of the growth of their people and the business.

  • Are committed to helping people grow and achieve their individual goals.

They will not withhold important feedback that can contribute to others’ development. They’ll own their opinions and express them constructively being true to themselves and being respectful to others.

  • Have a bias for action.

Compassionate leadership is not only about connecting and understanding people’s pain and challenges. It’s also about helping them see what they can and need to do to move forward, overcome adversity, grow their resilience, and encouraging them to do so.
 

Conclusion

How do you choose to lead your organization? How do you want to be remembered? What do you judge to be the most effective way to deliver your business results?
Compassionate leadership is a matter of choice. It helps create a safe container for people to feel cared for, seen, and valued while being supported to stretch out of their comfort zone and learn what’s needed to excel.
 

A lot has been said about COVID-19’s impact on mental health. Research shows that rates of depression, stress, anxiety, and post-traumatic stress have risen significantly in the last year. While we have not yet recovered, some places are slowly recuperating their lost freedom, and others are still finding their way forward. We have all been affected by the pandemic. We have suffered losses in this exhausting process: from loved ones, to jobs, to our own health, opportunities, connection. And we are still mourning and longing for our losses. As organizations and leaders, how can we provide the support our people need and access our own emotional intelligence in times of COVID-19?
In this fast-changing environment where we are permanently looking for instant gratification, we often struggle. We find it challenging to connect with our own emotions and open ourselves to others’ experiences and requests for help and support. It takes a lot of courage to inwardly listen to our emotions instead of sweeping them under the rug and accepting them with compassion and without judgment.
Organizations are starting to take this issue seriously. They want to help people improve their quality of life and their working experience. They recognize the impact wellbeing and work-life integration have on midterm performance and effectiveness. In the last year, we have seen organizations deploying multiple initiatives spread across all levels, offering a complete menu of tools and skill learning to support people through these challenging times.
 

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence in Times of COVID-19

 
Emotional Intelligence in times of COVID-19
Of all the skills we can learn, developing emotional intelligence might be the “make it or break it” key capability for this new era. It is the key skill all leaders need to cultivate to lead effectively, caring for their people. And it has never been so collectively relevant.
Emotional intelligence refers to our ability to recognize, understand, and manage our own and others’ emotions. When we can manage our emotions, we respond more effectively to any given situation vs responding instinctively in a fight, flight, or freeze mode (behaviors led by our reptilian brain).  It helps us deal with stress and see clearly, making better decisions in our life. It builds up our resilience: the ability to bounce back in the face of setbacks.
Developing emotional intelligence also helps us improve our relationships and increase collaboration. It helps us empathize with how other people are feeling, putting ourselves in their shoes and feeling in our own body how others are feeling.
While many of us agree that emotional intelligence is a key skill, most leaders lack it. The good news is that we can train our brains to master our emotions.
 

Increasing Emotional Intelligence

 
Recognize:  The first step is to acknowledge what is happening. Listening to the emotions in our body, mind, and heart, connecting with the feeling it brings along, and sustaining its discomfort. Naming our emotions can help surface them and bring some perspective.
Understand: Our emotions are feelings created by conscious and unconscious thoughts and interpretations and they all are impulses to act. Every emotion has a message and requests an action from us. Self-inquiring uncovers meaning for our emotions and the story underlying the emotions.
Express /act constructively: Regulating our response our to own emotions and others’ emotions is crucial (it is thinking before reacting). It is about being able to share our interpretations and the thoughts underlying our emotions with honesty and respect. Sharing our core truth, expressing what really matters to us, in an impeccable and effective manner, without hurting our relationships and being true to ourselves.
COVID-19 has been emotionally devastating for many of us. It has put us to the test and has reinforced the need for and importance of developing our emotional intelligence to navigate in these unprecedented times effectively caring for ourselves and others.

We expect leaders to move quickly and decisively, demonstrating agility when responding to challenging situations and emerging opportunities. At the same time, they are expected to collaborate effectively across boundaries, actively solicit ideas from others before making decisions, and foster a team culture where every person feels valued, included, and connected. How can we manage the balance between agility and inclusion?

“There is more to life than simply increasing its speed.” ― Mahatma Gandhi

This may seem like an impossible ask. Can we invest the time to learn each person’s unique opinions and ideas and meet pressing deadlines? Can we genuinely foster an environment where everyone feels included and valued while moving at lightning speed?This apparent dilemma may have deepened during the global pandemic. Organizations realized that they could move faster, be nimbler, and get things done quicker than they ever thought possible. However, some of this newly found agility and speed was the outcome of crisis management, inadvertently creating insider/outsider dynamics. As we move from crisis management to a more sustainable approach, we should take the time to discuss how to manage the balance between agility and inclusion.
Balance Between Agility and Inclusion
The first step is to acknowledge that there is a natural tension between speed and inclusion. In some instances, a more collaborative, inclusive approach can take longer than the situation will tolerate. However, speed and agility do not have to come at the expense of inclusion. A conscious leader can consider trade-offs and be intentional on the best approach to get things done.
If you are looking to manage the speed and inclusion balance for your team, here are some ideas you can consider:
 

Start by defining your intention

In conscious business, we believe that our actions respond to our mindsets, and our mindsets are shaped by our values and intentions. Being an inclusive leader requires working at the “being” level, as well as the “doing” level. Start by reflecting on what inclusion means to you. How do you want to be perceived as a leader and how your actions are reflecting that intention? Also consider how other values, such as fulfilling commitments and achievement, may be in alignment or in conflict. Check the story you are telling yourself about the situation. Are you creating a false dichotomy between getting things done quickly and being inclusive? Are you inadvertently asking others to choose agility over inclusion instead of finding a balance?
 

Tap into the wisdom of the team

Often, it’s not inclusive behaviors that slow down decisions and actions, but the ways we make decisions and collaborate. Organizational sluggishness is often the result of a lack of clarity around goals and roles in participation and passive-defensive cultural norms where people are expected to agree, gain approval, and be liked by others. If this is the case, the best way to drive change is to call out the problem, bring awareness to the situation, and ask your team and peers for ideas to balance speed and inclusion. Employees understand the need for agility and making decisions quickly. They also value a workplace where people feel that they belong and where their opinions and ideas matter. Ask them for feedback on how well the team is managing the balance and ideas on what can be done to foster more inclusive and agile collaboration.
 

Embed new habits

Identify small, but impactful habits that drive both inclusion and agility and make them part of your ways of working. For example:

  • Conduct check-ins and check-outs in meetings. It makes meetings more productive by aligning participants’ expectations, understanding context, and creating meaningful connections, even in virtual settings.
  • Be intentional about who weighs in on decisions and has the opportunity to participate. You may be inadvertently relying on the same ‘selected few’ because you trust them or like them more, instead of leveraging the talents and experience of every member of the team.
  • Make it a habit to challenge yourself and the team when making decisions. Questions like these can help you do a quick check and foster constructive debate:
    What points of view have we not considered yet?
    Who needs to be involved to get the best possible outcome in the least amount of time?
    How can we simplify or shave off time?
    What are the trade-offs?
  • When launching a new initiative, ensure that there is a project charter meeting and regular check-ins where the team can discuss the following:
    What is the best way to move quickly while keeping everyone in the loop?
    How can we create a safe space for team members to share their thoughts and feelings, even if they are dissenting?
    How will we discuss learnings and share them with others outside the team?

 
To become more agile, many established organizations have adopted the mantra “move fast and break things quickly” from the start-up world. Similarly, the key to finding more inclusive and agile ways of working is approaching the process with intention and a learner mindset. Experiment, learn from it, do it better next time, and foster a safe space for others to do the same.
 

At Axialent, we are not experts in Agile. Our expertise lies in helping organizations build the cultures they require, in light of their business strategy, and develop their leaders to be living proxies of that culture. In the last two decades, agile has emerged as an unstoppable practice among organizations, and it is changing their cultures. The question for us is: are you managing the resulting culture change intentionally? Is agile shaping your culture by accident or by design?
agile shaping your cultureAdopting an agile way of working can be fraught with challenges. We experienced this first hand when we launched an Agile Leadership Program at a leading financial services company. I’d like to share the lessons we learned behind the scenes of what was probably the most audacious adoption of agile in a non-tech industry. We accompanied the top 200 leaders of this organization, in 24 cohorts, across 11 countries, in a 6-month long journey that combined coaching them individually and as leadership teams. This gave us a privileged vantage point to observe their struggles and the gaps they were trying to bridge.
In this first article of a series, we will focus on the specific challenges we witnessed, because we follow this principle: ‘no gap, no coaching.’ Clarifying the gap before we intervene helps us gain a deep understanding of the problem, empathize with our client, and offer higher chances of finding an adequate solution to prototype, test, and learn.
Here are some of the conclusions we reached after exposing the gap:
 

1. Agile brings about a new leadership paradigm and not just a more effective way of working.

It is hard to imagine companies embarking on an agile transformation and taking it lightly. They aim to become much better in terms of quality, time-to-market, productivity, and, above all, employee engagement. Most believe that adopting agile unleashes talent, makes team members accountable and generates one-team dynamics. Other firms might be driving a similar shift, but they’re not calling it an agile transformation. The name is not what matters. Beyond the rituals and ceremonies they adopt, or the frameworks they embrace, the essence of today’s business transformations lies in changing how leadership is felt, conceived, and performed, in a way that is radically different. This happens in most cultural transformations. The difference that agile brings is the context.

2. From rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership to servant leadership 

In this company’s context, the gap for leaders was shifting from a rigid, hierarchical ‘command-and-control’ leadership style to a servant leadership style. This change required the top-most executives to give up being the center of the organization. They were now expected to be at the service of the teams who worked closer to their clients than the leaders ever were. They were supposed to coach those teams, instead of giving them detailed instructions. Leaders’ main focus now had to be on removing any and all obstacles that prevented those teams from delivering value to the customer as quickly and effectively as possible. Even if those obstacles were the leaders themselves.
Can you see how counter-intuitive this could be for an executive who climbed the ranks by being a good soldier, was promoted for being a great soldier, and just as he or she was about to reach the summit of a 2-decade-or-more climb is told ‘sorry, the glory is down there?’

3. From micromanagement to  autonomy, engagement, and empowerment 

For employees, the central gap was shifting from a culture of micromanagement to one where autonomy, engagement and empowerment are expected, exercised, and promoted. The intention was to evolve from being managed and having linear career expectations to self-managing themselves and their own career. Why? Because this company believed that it would help them shift from feeling resignation, skepticism, and fear of feedback to feeling engaged, empowered, and looking at feedback with openness and acceptance. The logic was attractive. However, change was not automatic.
 

From Do Agile to Be Agile

At Axialent we believe that, for any change that truly matters, it must operate first at the Be-level. It’s in that mushy place where thoughts & feelings, values & beliefs, and needs & wants reside (and that top execs seldom look at from so high above) where we have found the most significant leverage. From there, the leaders and those they lead can shift behaviors more effectively at the Do-level. Training people how to do agile was not enough. They needed to dive deeper and actually be agile.
In that deep side of the pool, there is anxiety, tension, and even fear among leaders and team members alike. “What will happen to me and my career in this company?”, “How can I protect my safe haven?” “Will we increase risk by letting go of control?” “What do you mean that control is ‘bad’? We’re a regulated company! Control is not only good – it’s mandatory!” Reconciling these dilemmas was suddenly part of their job description. They looked at their toolkit and realized they needed a different set of tools to deal with this new reality. So, we set off to replenish them from our stock.
Understanding these gaps helped us walk in our clients’ shoes as we embarked on this journey alongside them. In the following two articles of this series, we will explain the design principles we followed and the most prized lessons we have learned and would apply in the next opportunity that comes our way. Come along for the ride!

According to Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., procrastination is a common human tendency. About 20 percent of adults have regular bouts of procrastination. She claims it is so common that no one can ever completely avoid it. Psychology researchers say that procrastination is characterized by the “irrational delay of tasks despite potentially negative consequences.” How can we overcome this paradoxical challenge that so many of us are facing?
Recently, I committed to writing an article for our website and, at the time that I did, I was energized and enthusiastic. Time passed, other work piled up, and… ahem… I admit I was tempted to renegotiate the deadline. The challenge is that at Axialent, our culture frowns upon the behavior of making excuses – one is expected to be a player, own up, and honor commitments, or renegotiate the terms of the agreement.
Bummer.
The victim in me was agonizing, wanting to say, ‘I don’t have enough time.’ A more culturally acceptable version of this at Axialent is, ‘I prioritized other commitments.’ But what about my commitment to write the article? What happened to my willpower in this situation? In any case, that was not the best version of myself.
Instead of letting this angst go to waste, I decided to use it to jumpstart this article. I wondered whether others who may read this could be beating themselves up for similar situations. And I thought that those readers might find it helpful to know that, 1) they’re not alone, and 2) there’s a science-based method out there that allowed me to put this article together and get-it-done.
 

So, what can we do when procrastination gets the best of us?

 
What happens when procrastination gets the best of us?
If you think that I listened to a pep talk that made my fingers glide across my computer keyboard, think again. The fuel that got me going was something I learned in one of Axialent’s newer programs called Optimal Me. There was no motivational speech, just scientific facts on how the brain works, how our mind works, how our body is this smart machine that I had neglected. Among many other provocations, this one nugget of wisdom stuck with me: better than having the motivation to do something is having a motive. Why? Because motivation depends on my emotional state, while a motive will always be around when I need it.
So, as all my anguish poured in at the thought of submitting this article, I turned to my motive. I just had to remember that the ultimate reason I had for writing this is not to produce a perfect literary piece, comply with a deadline, or respond to a colleague’s request. My motive is to share less-than-extraordinary experiences that could make ordinary people’s lives a little better. It’s to be of service and maybe help others out.
Once I connected with that, my energy reset. My mood was out of the question. I put in the work. A less than perfect first draft came out. I trusted my colleagues to edit it with due professionalism. And got-it-done.
 

The Optimal Me method

 
Optimal Me is not a recipe book from where I took this advice, plugged and played. It’s a journey that exposed me to thought triggers from a carefully curated stack of knowledge about our well-being. More importantly, it enticed me to experiment my way to better-being (yes, I just made that word up). How? The course’s experimental nature made it attractive because it became a game that I was happy to play – albeit without gamification.
I’ve participated in development programs before where learning outcomes were based on knowledge consumption. Others, the transformational ones, relied on double-loop learning. This program is different in that the main goal is to learn to experiment for the sake of experimentation. Knowledge was not there to be consumed but to shape my experiment. I was free to pick the topic that I was more drawn to among all the curiosity triggers I received. I felt empowered to shift mindsets and learn!
This comes with a bonus: I, the participant, reaped the benefits of this program in full. I did not learn something that I was expected to ‘pay forward’ to my team (like leadership skills) or ‘pay back’ to my company (like technical skills applied to my job). What I learned by experimenting with productivity directly affected my well-being at work. What I learned after experimenting with nutrition, sleep, and exercise affected my body.
Given the constant uncertainty we’re living in these days, more and more companies we engage with are earnestly concerned about and caring for their people’s well-being. If you work at one of those companies and want to explore a non-threatening, enjoyable, and science-based method to address this pain point now, I recommend you give Optimal Me a try. Experiment. It will be worth it.
 

If you would like to see the recording of our live Optimal Me webinar with Oseas Ramirez, click here.

If you ask any leader, “What has been one of the most defining moments in your career?” most likely, the answer will be related to leading a significant organizational change.  This is not surprising: our brains are wired to remember peak moments more vividly. These are experiences that capture us at moments of achievement or courage; or moments that change our understanding of ourselves and the world around us.1
Organizations place a lot of value on leaders who can effectively lead others through change.  In fact, effective change leadership is a common competency used to identify and develop high potential employees.2 However, despite the importance that both leaders and organizations place on change leadership, many organizations lack an intentional strategy to help their leaders become effective change-makers.  Many of us are guilty of having used the ‘sink or swim’ approach disguised as ‘on the job learning’.  Intentionally or not, we throw our up-and-coming talent into leading changes in an environment that is increasingly complex and unpredictable without the benefit of a foundation to help them along the way.
For on-the-job learning to be effective, it needs to reinforce the behaviors we are looking to shift or embed. This means that we need to define the guiding principles of how we should lead through change and the experience that we want to provide our change-makers, employees, partners, and clients.  The benefit of talking about ‘how we lead change’ goes beyond leadership development. It sets clear norms of behavior and common expectations of how we will measure success while empowering our change-makers to ask for what they need.
 

How can we best prepare our current and future change-makers? 

It’s useful to think about the actions that we can take preemptively, through more structured leadership development, coaching, and resources. We should also consider the ‘just-in-time’ support we can provide to help leaders navigate a change event.
The good news is that there is significant overlap between what makes an effective change-maker and what makes an effective leader.  Development activities (such as training and coaching) that encourage leaders to increase their self-awareness and growth mindset and help them become more resilient, inclusive, accountable, and collaborative, will also help them be better change-makers.  In addition, change-makers need to be good at storytelling, influencing, and systems thinking. To maximize impact, we need to be intentional in helping them understand how they can apply these leadership skills in a change situation.
 

As they get ready to embark into a large-scale, high-impact change, we can support change-makers in two dimensions:

  • Change acceptance – In order to lead, change-makers need to be willing to move. In many situations, we ask leaders to take on new initiatives on top of their current responsibilities.  You can increase their willingness to lead by creating a space to intentionally discuss how this initiative fits into the broader organizational picture and what’s in it for them personally.  When they intentionally set their personal goals – whether it is to accelerate their development, build their network, gain a broader enterprise view, learn new skills, or do something with impact – they will feel valued and more energized to take on a new challenge.
  • Change-related skills – Leaders need to feel able to lead the change. Beyond the resources and information needed to execute the ‘what’ of the change, they also need access to practical, ‘just-in-time’ change management guidance and tools. Instead of providing theoretical change toolkits and training that few people will use, employ a design thinking approach to uncover what would be most useful for change-makers as they navigate large-scale change.  This may include practical tools, like a change playbook tailored to your organization, and targeted coaching/advice to discuss ideas and overcome challenges.

Our change-makers can survive a change event, or they can consciously experience and lead the change.  This will not make the change less complex or challenging, but it will help them approach the experience with a different mindset, less fear, and a higher level of confidence.  It will also help advance the business goals that the change is looking to achieve and help build organizational agility and resilience.
 

References
  1. Doll, Karen. (2019). What is Peak-End Theory? A Psychologist Explains How Our Memory Fools Us.com
  2. Fernandez-Araoz, C., Roscoe, A., Aramaki, K. Turning Potential into Success: The Missing Link in Leadership Development. Harvard Business Review, November–December 2017 Issue

There is a deep link between leaders’ change and culture change. The impact of their behaviors is probably the most difficult aspect for leaders at the beginning of a culture transformation process.
Leaders usually understand intellectually the logical connection between their behaviors and the resulting organizational culture. In our work at Axialent, we have never seen leaders rejecting their responsibility in that. What seems harder for leaders to envision from the beginning are the implications for their own personal transformation.
 

Communication Is Not Enough

The initial tendency many leaders show, even when they are enthusiastic about the culture change process, is interpreting that leading it means just politically supporting the change. That they only need to be openly and explicitly in favor of the transformation. A well-intentioned leader may think their scope of responsibility includes declaring their support and demanding that others support it too. There is a general interpretation that this is simply a “communication process”. Enthusiastic leaders tend to easily accept the need to re-design structures, processes, and symbols. All of those are necessary conditions, but are not enough.
leaders' behavior paves the wayThe moment of truth comes when leaders become aware that they need to address a deep insight into their personal beliefs and values as a necessary step for culture transformation. The review and transformation of leaders’ individual mental models is the real “work” they’ll have to do to get ahead on the culture transformation highway. Any culture change process that omits this condition will be weak. Without it, there are more chances for resistance to the transformation.   People in the organization may perceive that “all that culture stuff” is just another example of “lip service”. The attempt at culture transformation then runs the risk of becoming another case in which leaders quickly learn to declare and describe the change they want, but appear incompetent to model it consistently through their behaviors.
 

Mental models

For the new behaviors to emerge and be perceived as sincere and legitimate, the mental models in which they are grounded need to change too. For this awareness and commitment process to be possible and agile, the visible connection between the organizational culture gap and the individual leadership style gap needs to be identified. The sooner this happens, the better. This connection must then become a reference to share mutual feedback, to assess progress, and evaluate impact.
One of the most important learnings I’ve had in the 12 years I’ve been managing culture transformation processes, is that culture is built upon the messages RECEIVED by people, not merely on the messages “DELIVERED”. This means that at the end of the day, what matters most is how the organization is reading the leader and how people are interpreting their behaviors. These interpretations could be quite different from how they were intended. A leader’s behavior is a central message carrier in building culture. At the same time, the subjective interpretation of this behavior shows us a critical path to culture change that unavoidably involves the leader’s personal transformation.
 

Leaders must change

So, to be effective culture builders and transformation agents, leaders need to have more than highly developed communication skills. Even if they perceive themselves as “good communicators,” that’s not enough. Transformational leaders need to step up and be aware of how much their behavior alone is sending messages. Messages that are much louder than those coming from their nice words.
 
Watch this live webinar recordning where two of Axialent’s culture transformation experts, Thierry de Beyssac and Anabel Dumlao, will be talking to Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, about the importance of intentionally managing culture and leadership development in an integrated way.
 
This article is part of a series on integrating culture and leadership change in culture transformation work.
5 Reasons To Integrate OCI-OEI And LSI Diagnostic Tools In Culture Transformation
Culture Change: Culture and Leadership are Intimately Connected
Culture Change: Measuring the gap makes the invisible, visible

As my colleague, Elena Ortega, wrote in her recent article, at Axialent we define culture as a set of values, norms, beliefs, and assumptions that govern how we work and what we do. So, how do we go about setting these values, norms, beliefs, and assumptions? Some believe that to define a company’s culture, its leaders simply have to state what they want the culture to be, the values, and mission statement. Having a clear vision of your ideal culture is an important step toward building a strong one. However, behaviors and decisions from leaders will always be the strongest representation of what the company’s culture truly is. Culture and leadership are intimately connected.

Culture and leadership: You cannot truly understand one without the other

Team working together with their leaderOrganizational culture and leadership go hand in hand. To understand the culture of an organization, you must examine its leaders and leadership styles. Employees learn the culture of the organization through the messages they receive from its leaders. Whether the messages are consciously sent or not, we observe what is encouraged and discouraged and usually learn to act accordingly (or are forced out).
Culture also plays a role in shaping leaders and their styles. Those leaders that “fit in” to the current culture will thrive. On the other hand, a new leader who brings a different leadership style that is not aligned with the company’s current culture will come up against a lot of resistance from the organization and its people. Culture is a strong force and leaders also receive messages about what they should and shouldn’t do to fit in. If leaders want to change the culture, all leadership must be on board to do so.
These are some of the reasons why we use the  OCI® (Organizational Culture Inventory®) and OEI® (Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®) in combination with the LSI® (Life Styles Inventory®). The culture assessment tools (OCI-OEI) allow us to take a deep dive into the current culture. We invite a cross-section of employees to answer the culture surveys in order to truly understand their experience of the organization’s culture. At the same time, we measure the top leaders’ thinking and behavior styles with the LSI tool. Because of the links between these tools, the results provide a powerful way to connect the dots between the leaders’ styles and behaviors, and the current culture.

Leaders define the ideal culture of an organization

Leaders have the power to define the ideal culture based on what they value and believe leads to effectiveness. In turn, they shape the organization’s current culture through the messages they send about what is acceptable and unacceptable. In our culture transformation projects at Axialent, we like to take our diagnostic process a step further and define the ideal culture using another Human Synergistics tool: the OCI Ideal. Combining these tools allows us to get a complete look at the culture and the work that needs to be done to achieve the optimal culture for success. The OCI Ideal shows us where the leaders of the organization want the culture to be. The current OCI results show us where the organization is today. And the LSI tool allows us to examine the leaders’ role in the culture and create a game plan to make lasting change.

Conclusion

Culture and leadership are not two separate entities but are intimately connected. One influences the other and vice versa. This powerful information can be an important driving force in creating and maintaining the culture your organization needs to be successful.

Watch this live webinar recording where two of Axialent’s culture transformation experts, Thierry de Beyssac and Anabel Dumlao, talked to Tim Kuppler, Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, about the importance of intentionally managing culture and leadership development in an integrated way.

This article is part of a series on integrating culture and leadership change in culture transformation work.
5 Reasons To Integrate OCI-OEI And LSI Diagnostic Tools In Culture Transformation
Culture Change: For Culture to Change, Leaders Must Change
Culture Change: Measuring the gap makes the invisible, visible

psychological safety - image of a lighthouse beacon in the dark
 

“A shared belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns or mistakes.” Amy Edmonson

 
As leaders we have heard about the critical role psychological safety plays in team effectiveness. Amy Edmonson first identified the concept back in 1999. In 2012, Google, through its Project Aristotle research (How to build the perfect team)*, concluded that psychological safety is the most important condition for a high performing team.
No one can argue against the importance of providing a safe place and environment for team members to voice their opinions freely without fear of retaliation, punishment or humiliation. This is a key element to team effectiveness and to an environment that prioritizes innovation and agility.
It seems like common sense, and yet in our experience working with different teams across the globe, it is not necessarily common practice. The need to nurture psychological safety is often a blind spot for leaders. It is a perfect example of disconnect between intent and impact in leadership. Most leaders genuinely want to leave a legacy through their people, they act and lead from good intent. Yet how a team interprets the actions and decisions of the leader determines the impact of their leadership.
 

Leadership behaviors that diminish psychological safety

There are some very visible leadership behaviors that drive disconnect and diminish psychological safety. These are things anyone can identify while observing a team interacting. For example: blaming others, using hostile and aggressive language, dictating what needs to be done, shutting people down, killing another’s ideas, monopolizing the conversation, combative listening, excluding people from conversations.
As well as these very visible behaviors, there are also other, more subtle, behaviors and symbols that diminish psychological safety. These are less visible and ones that we don’t necessarily pay as much attention to, and yet can have the same impact.
The following are some of the most common examples I have observed when working with teams:

  • Missing the connection: Diving directly into the agenda at the start of a meeting without dedicating some time to connect and acknowledge each other’s state of mind.
  • Nonverbal signs: According to research only 7% of messages pertaining to feelings and attitudes are in what we say. The rest of the messages are in facial expressions and tone of voice. Our body speaks louder than our words.
  • The leader opening the conversations and voicing own opinions first: This sets the tone of the conversation for the rest of the team and establishes a hierarchical message that the boss speaks first.
  • Asking rhetorical questions: Asking something with a desired response in mind shuts out other ideas and triggers defensive behaviors.
  • Being spaced out in a meeting: Multitasking, checking phones etc., while other team members are speaking and sharing ideas.
  • Going along with “just kidding” excuses: Playing along and tolerating jokes and topics that could be sensitive to people, possibly leading to feelings of discomfort or exclusion.

 

How can leaders increase psychological safety in teams?

Much has been said and written about this, adding to Amy Edmonson’s suggestions based on her research. Following are 8 key things I believe every leader should do and pay attention to in order to increase psychological safety:

  • Be aware of your own leadership style and impact on others: Learn how you perceive yourself, and how others perceive your leadership style. Identify your own strengths, derailers and blind spots, and the impact you have on your team.
  • Connection before context, and context before content: Take time to connect and receive each other in each interaction. Then set the intention for your meeting and align on the agenda before jumping into the content of the conversation.
  • Agree on operating principles: These are the rules of the game, they sum up how the team will interact together. Team members must commit to honoring these principles; not only agreeing to comply to them but also to speaking up when any of these principles are not being followed.
  • Balance airtime: Make sure all voices are heard; consciously plan team dynamics to ensure everyone can provide their feedback and contribute to the discussion. Listen and ask clarifying questions to check assumptions before sharing your opinion.
  • Turn feedback into a habit: Ask questions to the team. What’s working? What could make our meetings more effective? How can I help you become more effective? What would you like to see differently in the way we interact? What would help you improve your experience at work? Be prepared to receive others’ points of view without resistance.
  • Address undiscussables: These are the unspoken topics everyone knows about, and team members choose not to address. Put things on the table with compassion and express your truth with honesty and respect.
  • Call out uncomfortable / improper comments: Walk your talk and demand others to comply with your standards. Create an inclusive environment where everyone feels valued and respected.
  • Respect and honor your relationships: Make this a priority. Invest time in strengthening your relationships and letting people into your circle of trust. Get to know each other, learn from one another’s journeys and understand how you complement each other.

 

Creating a safe environment

Psychological safety is not something that can be taken for granted. It can take time to build and seconds to break, and should be part of every leader’s agenda. Creating a safe environment where people can openly express their opinions freely is our ultimate responsibility as leaders.
 
https://web.mit.edu/curhan/www/docs/Articles/15341_Readings/Group_Performance/Edmondson%20Psychological%20safety.pdf
*https://rework.withgoogle.com/print/guides/5721312655835136/

The truth is, sometimes I dream of going back to February of this year when the coronavirus had not yet come to challenge us and change our lives. Other times, I think that COVID-19 has stimulated reflection and accelerated innovation that we had been resisting. Living this calamity at the head of a company breaks every seam in any comfort zone. At the same time, it has given us a unique opportunity to learn about disruption and management, to understand the importance of corporate culture in navigating the storm and to realize that in the end, it is always people who matter most. Leading a company through the crisis of COVID-19 presents us with continuing challenges we never thought we would have to face.
Leading a Company Through the Crisis of COVID-19: two leaders walk side by side
 

Leading in uncertainty

In these months, the ability to find meaning in the midst of uncertainty has been critical. And to be able to do that, we must have an open mind, practice curiosity, be willing to listen to different opinions, and learn from others. We also must be willing to experiment and accept failure when it occurs.
We have spent a lifetime talking about vision in companies. Never has the ability to frame a vision and to get others on board been so Important. We used to theoretically analyze exponential acceleration, now we need to create an exciting story that gets people on board, quickly.
The ability to relate within and outside the company, to influence, negotiate, and communicate genuinely is also an important lifeline. It becomes essential when a company’s survival depends on convincing those at home that we have to tighten our pay belts and those outside that they should finance you at an uncertain time or continue to hire your services in the midst of an unknown recession.
In a new and challenging environment, of which we don’t have any previous examples to refer to, supporting people, especially those you work with directly and who manage teams, is another key management skill. Application coaching, focused on management challenges, is a very useful tool in business leadership.
 

Leading a Company Through the Crisis of COVID-19

The pandemic has changed the game for all of us. Now it is no longer a question of predicting the future, but of inventing the present. To lead in times of pandemic is to invent. It means managing change by making thoughtful and courageous decisions that design new scenarios. This requires promoting a culture of learning at all levels while providing what is needed to foster resilience. We are living in an emotional, economic, and social roller coaster. A leader’s best contribution is to empathize, help, and provide some certainty so that people find meaning in their work.
If I had to recommend one thing to leaders in these uncertain times, I would tell them to be ambidextrous. Be able to live between the old and the new. Be able to manage what is happening now and help create what is yet to come. Understand human resistance to change and accept innovation and disruption. Dare to dream and make the new normal a better normal than the one that the COVID-19 has taken from us.