If managing organizational culture is normally a major challenge for leaders, Covid-19 added two more challenges - doing it in a crisis situation and remotely.
What is the mindset that leads to results in a crisis situation and what is the process for creating that mindset when managing remotely? I will answer these questions basing my answers on the content from Partners In Leadership, the leading Culture Management Experts with the award winning accountability methodology. DOOR International is their worldwide representative, and we are through DOOR the representatives of Partners In Leadership in Portugal and Angola. After answering these questions, I will give an example of how we are changing the culture of a company in the current crisis. Along the way, I'm asking you some questions to understand what will have to change now in managing your organization's culture.
The importance of Organizational Culture in times of crisis
Managing the organizational culture of a company, that is, managing the way people think and act in the company, is for most leaders perceived as a critical activity. However, at the same time, organizational culture is felt by leaders as a magical force that few know how to control. So, they end up managing it according to their intuition. In a crisis and remotely, intuition is unlikely to be enough to manage culture.
In fact, crisis destabilizes people emotionally and undermines results and security. In a crisis, having to manage employees remotely still adds a level of complexity, as it is more difficult for dispersed employees to come together under the same vision and culture and feel the emotional support they need. It is therefore absolutely necessary to understand which mindset and which process simplifies and guides intuition to manage culture remotely and in times of crisis.
An example of the importance of culture in a crisis is what the PETRONAS´s CEO does. PETRONAS, a Malaysian oil and gas corporation, was founded in 1974 as a small, 15-person company with big dreams. Today, they have more than 48,100 employees (as of April 2020) with business presence in 80 countries and across multiple business lines, including accounting, engineering, retail, oil fieldwork, and beyond. While differences in location and job description abound, there’s one thing every PETRONAS employee has in common: a shared commitment to the PETRONAS company culture. 2
Accomplishing this unified culture wasn’t always easy. Within 30 days of Wan Zulkiflee Wan Ariffin being appointed CEO of PETRONAS in April 2015, oil prices had been plunging steadily for nearly a year. Wan Zulkiflee knew that to survive amidst this deteriorating market environment, his company would need both clear strategic direction and a cultural transformation to execute it. 2
He shared in an interview by Partners in Leadership: “We have put a lot of time and effort into transforming our culture over the last five years. We started by introducing the PETRONAS Cultural Beliefs in 2015 to anchor and rally the company towards achieving our organizational goals. Our six cultural beliefs are:
- Results Matter: I stretch my limits to deliver superior results.
- Own It: I own the results and don’t blame others.
- Focused Execution: I plan, commit, and deliver with discipline.
- Nurture Trust: I always keep my promise and build mutual trust.
- Tell Me: I seek, give, and act positively on feedback.
- Shared Success: I collaborate for the greater good of PETRONAS.
These cultural beliefs were derived from how we wanted to experience the PETRONAS Shared Values—Loyalty, Integrity, Professionalism, and Cohesiveness—in our everyday work. In response, we have upskilled our workforce on culture change, introduced a common cultural language, and expanded awareness of the importance of a good corporate culture. We continue to work on deepening our efforts in this area. 2
All of us at PETRONAS must take on greater accountability for the company moving forward. We each have the opportunity to challenge ourselves and grow to our fullest potential, benefiting PETRONAS as a whole.”2
What is the mindset that allows you to achieve results in a crisis situation?
The basic principle for managing a crisis is to create a mindset of optimism, even when it is not justified. With the current pandemic crisis, there is every reason not to be optimistic. However, only with optimism can this be successfully overcome. Let's look at the data on people's typical reactions to a crisis1: 10% of people are in panic and 80% are stunned, waiting for help or a solution to come. These reactions are normal, as the human brain tends to be more attentive to negative cues as these can be decisive in its survival. Despite this, there are 10% of people who act counter intuitively, becoming optimistic and, therefore, creative in the face of a crisis. They stay calm, observe the context and find many opportunities around them. They also move quickly to take advantage of these opportunities.
Source: Partners In Leadership
These are the ones that must lead in crisis situations to involve those who are stunned and to get them to think about what else they can do to help achieve results. So, in a crisis the important thing is to choose the optimistic mindset and focus on what we can do and what we have some control over. Our brain is a machine that works through beliefs and this belief helps a lot in difficult situations.
“Optimism is a choice. Even when you can't justify it.”
Partners In Leadership
Thinking of you and your organization:
- What is your level of optimism and that of your organization's leaders in the current crisis?
- What opportunities do you identify?
How to create a mindset of optimism to deal with a crisis?
Usually, in the face of a crisis, leaders begin to take actions to react and correct what is wrong. These can be restructuring, hiring or firing, changing processes, training, etc. However, afterwards, they verify that people aren’t involved and unconsciously boycott these actions, ultimately failing to achieve results.
To overcome this recurring situation in almost all changes, we use the methodology of Partners In Leadership, which has very effective results in changing culture in organizations worldwide. According to this methodology, leaders must focus on the beliefs that employees have and not only on the actions that they must perform, because if employees have the right beliefs they will carry out the actions that lead to results.
Source: Partners In Leadership
For example, if leaders find that employees are convinced that "this year is already lost", it is essential that they move to a more optimistic belief of the type "What else can I do to deliver the desired results". Or if they have a low accountability belief that "Managers are going to solve this situation", move on to the more optimistic belief that "I am responsible for finding solutions". If you start to hear employees complain that "There has been a lack of communication lately", it is important that they change this belief to the more optimistic belief of "When I am confused, I ask for clarity". With these changes in beliefs, people move from a stunned state to a creative state, enabling them to carry out the necessary actions to achieve results.
Thinking of you and your organization:
- What are the pessimistic or low accountability beliefs that you have observed in your employees? And in yourself?
- What are the beliefs that your employees have already managed to change?
- What beliefs do you need your people to have now for the results to be achieved?
Source: Partners In Leadership
But how do people's beliefs change?
To change their beliefs, leaders have to create experiences that make employees feel and understand this new way of thinking and acting. For example, a leader will enter a virtual team meeting and think: “What is the belief that my employees have and that I want them to change?” He realizes that it means being “focused on what they don't control” and spending a lot of time on it. So the virtual meeting begins by asking the question "What can we control?" and write what they say. As they think and say the answers to this question, they feel and realize that they have a lot of control in the situation. In 5 minutes, the team has an experience that changes their pessimistic belief that they have no control.
3 other experiences that can help change beliefs and increase optimism and commitment are:
- Giving recognition to some or all elements for having demonstrated a great commitment in the face of a crisis;
- Asking the team to justify their optimism through evidence;
- Tell stories of what it is like to live our mission in the current situation.
These exercises in team meetings will set an optimistic tone that will allow you to increase the level of optimism in the team.
Thinking about your team meetings, virtual or not:
- What experiences do you need to create to change the beliefs you just thought about?
- Out of the 5 examples of experiences I just shared, which one suggests a good exercise for your team?
- What experience will you create at the next meeting with your team?
An example of organizational culture change in the current crisis
To make it clearer how this model can be applied, let us see the example of a company where we are currently making a culture change with the Partners In Leadership Methodology which we will call the company “Nova Energia”. The aim of this project is to improve the engagement, hiring and retention of talent through a change in culture. After making the Culture diagnosis, we started to intervene at the 4 levels of the Partnership in Results Pyramid®: The key results to be achieved, the actions to change, the beliefs needed to have the desired actions and the experiences to change beliefs.
Level 1: The key results to be achieved
As in the vast majority of organizations, this company had not clearly agreed or communicated the key results for 2020. In fact, given the results of the Culture Advantage Index 2020, on average only 14% of employees believe that individuals in their organization know clearly what the key results are. In the current situation of uncertainty, the number is likely lower.
When we asked the employees of “Nova Energia” what the key results for 2020 were, each one said something close to the objectives of their own department. Without clarity about where they are going, people tend to be disoriented and anxious, focusing on their individual or departmental goals, creating the typical “cluster” mentality. The most efficient way to stabilize them and to end the lack of cooperation between departments is to give them a very clear direction to focus on the whole. Another advantage of sharing the direction is that it makes it much easier for everyone to understand the decisions and make decisions in their own area.
Thus, to align all employees, “Nova Energia”'s Management redefined the 3 key results for 2020, adjusted to the current situation and communicated them to all employees. The results were defined in a realistic way taking into account the crisis and also in a simple way so that all employees are able to perceive and retain them. As we are in a crisis situation, defining annual results may no longer make sense, and we may decide to share only the key results of the next 60 to 90 days. In this company, they decided that the objectives would be until the end of the year.
Another way to increase the clarity of the desired results is to highlight the purpose of the organization. In another company we were working with during this crisis, together with the CEO, we communicated the new purpose of the company and created experiences that confirmed that purpose. Even more than the short-term key results, the purpose gives a noble meaning to the work and therefore increases the commitment, focus and the ability to make good decisions with autonomy.
Level 2: Actions to change
After all the employees of “Nova Energia” knew the key results of 2020, each one clarified with their boss how they could contribute, that is, what their actions would be, for each of the 3 key results. Management also made the action plan to achieve the key results, deciding on several rapid changes in the processes and structure to adapt to the new situation. As they were in crisis and working remotely, they were even more careful in explaining and emphasizing the reason for these changes and in being accessible to all employees, breaking the usual distance of the hierarchy. In fact, when communication remotely is only possible and we are in a crisis, managers must greatly increase online communication with employees, making sure to keep the camera on to increase transparency and make communication more human. In these situations, it is necessary to communicate much more, and in a BIG way. It is necessary to facilitate the dialogue so that all doubts can be answered directly or in documents containing critical information. A reassuring message from the CEO shows employees that their concerns are shared at all levels of the organization and can help to build trust. At the moment, transparency is the most valuable organizational currency.
"Communicate, communicate and communicate!" If it is in a genuine and honest way, it is central to a positive culture in these times of crisis.
Level 3: Changing beliefs
To avoid the action trap, in which the defined action plans are constantly boycotted by the way employees think and act, the “Nova Energia” Management, with an extended Culture Management team, defined with us the beliefs that people needed to have in order to achieve the new results. Through the Partners In Leadership Process, they defined 5 beliefs that are necessary to foster in the organization. Two examples of beliefs to be fostered were “I innovate with passion” and “You and I are us”. These 5 new ways of thinking and acting were the ones that were considered necessary for the new goals to be achieved, contrary to the current way of thinking and acting.
Level 4: Experiences to change beliefs
In "Nova Energia", to feel things themselves and believe that these beliefs are really here to stay, the Change Management team created several experiences, adjusting them to the crisis situation and to remote relationships.
For example, regarding the “I innovate with passion” belief, 3 of the experiences they created were:
- Communication by the management to all employees of the stories of innovations that are meanwhile emerging within the company.
- A creativity challenge as a selection test to create an innovative experience at the beginning of the relationship with the company, which would select candidates who are aligned with this belief.
- Recognition cards, when discovering some innovation within the company, the team or the management write and hand over the card highlighting how this behaviour reveals the new belief and how it contributes to the key results.
For the “Me and you are us” belief, which was necessary for the situation before the pandemic but now even more important, “Nova Energia” has also created several experiences:
- Using an informal communication channel on whatsApp to promote social interactions, in order to reduce the feeling of isolation and maintain the social ties between employees, that was previously achieved by having lunches together and conversations over coffee.
- Having more virtual team meetings and started each meeting with a few minutes reserved to ask about how they have been living the situation and how they feel.
- Organizing a trip to go down a river all together for when it is possible for everyone to be together.
These social experiences are now much more important and have been met with much more enthusiasm than before the crisis and confinement would have been.
Source: Partners In Leadership
Operating at the 4 levels of the Results Pyramid® makes culture management much clearer, more structured and efficient, by achieving a great competitive advantage in this new, accelerated and customer-focused digital world.
Take advantage of this crisis to build the culture you want to have in your Organization and turn these “darkest” moments into opportunities for growth. Difficult times can provide opportunities for you to use your influence to bring employees together and show the way to a Brighter future.
Isabel Freire de Andrade I Bright Concept Partner