4 ways to nudge the workplace culture

 In Culture, Leadership

Changing work culture is a long-term and complex exercise. It cannot be done in a single session because as humans, we don’t like change. 

However, there are things you can do to nudge the culture of your workplace. It starts with changing our social norms. 

Social norms are the shortcuts we use to understand how we need to behave in a particular setting or group. 

Think about your traditional family setting. Every family has its own way of doing things. It sets the pecking order. For example, every family has that embarrassing uncle, aunt, or grandparent who gets away with being rude or shocking. We let things go a little because we understand both our role and theirs within this social structure. 

There is a set of understanding within the family about who gets to speak up, who needs to defer and from whom we hide the Christmas sherry before it’s too late. 

Our workplaces operate in the same way. We have a set of unspoken rules based on social norms were we defer to those higher up the chain. 

How social norms have changed 

Our workplace social norms were set for a different time. 

Workers came to work, followed orders and expected bosses to have all the answers. It worked. We all knew where we stood. 

We had a shared set of social norms – a list of SHOULDS and SHOULD NOTs a bit like this:

  • We SHOULD focus on efficiency and productivity.
  • We SHOULD NOT deviate from the plan
  • We SHOULD do what we are paid for
  • The boss SHOULD have all the answers
  • We SHOULD not question the boss
  • We SHOULD find the person responsible for any failures
  • We SHOULD cc lots of people we don’t know on emails. 
  • We SHOULD NOT share work across silos until it’ll make us look good
  • We SHOULD attend a lot of meetings even if we don’t need to be there. 
  • And then we SHOULD go up the career ladder rather nicely. 

These models of leadership are based on a hero boss and task-based workers. It is an outdated model not fit for the modern workplace. In fact, organisations need the complete opposite: people working together to find solutions to new problems. 

Instead, our SHOULDS need to be a bit more like this: 

  • We SHOULD speak up when we see something not working
  • We SHOULD be bringing new ideas and experimenting
  • We SHOULD be trying things that might not work and learn from it
  • We SHOULD NOT expect the boss to have all the answers
  • We SHOULD be getting as many diverse views as possible 
  • We SHOULD expect to fail sometimes.

These social norms empower lots of voices to come up with innovative and creative ideas to problems. It opens the space for opportunities and allows for mistakes to happen so the team can learn from them. 

Accountability is valued more than a vertical management structure. Our new social norms should promote a horizontal way of working. Where leaders bring out the best in their teams rather than tell them what to do. 

Four tips to changing the culture

To achieve all of this we need a mindset shift because what we are talking about here is changing a work culture that has been ingrained into our society since the industrial revolution. 

A switch from vertical leadership to horizontal collaboration should not be under-estimated.  That’s going to be a head spin.

This is how we do it:  

1. Role model the new social norms

Creating new social norms means role modelling a different list of behaviours. Shifting people from those vertical expectations to horizontal ones. And what’s interesting is a lot of those assumptions come from how we interact with each other. Our conversations set those social and behavioural norms. 

The autopilot behaviour you want in teams is for them to speak out and share their great thinking. You don’t want them to stay silent and waiting until the boss speaks. That’s no good. 

Now resetting those social norms doesn’t happen overnight.  Just like moving into a new office takes a lot of work and effort. As does creating a new set of social norms. You need to teach people the new rules and expectations. 

You need to teach them how to behave and the best way to do that is by leaders role modelling the new behaviours they want to see in others. Which brings us on to point two. 

2. Understand the influence of leaders

Research by Megan Reitz and John Higgins in their excellent book ‘Speak Up’ shows that:  “getting people to speak up is often less about the less powerful having a voice and more about the more powerful really wanting to listen to others throughout the organisation.”

Leaders that understand the invisible social norms that come with their position are in a more informed place to create the shift to a more horizontal culture. 

Some things need to be said out loud and explicitly in order to create space for change. The first step needs a leader willing to test their vulnerability and say they can’t have all the answers anymore. Instead, they want to create teams that feel free to come up with answers. 

Creating a culture that allows this is called psychological safety. It’s an important driver of change.

Give leaders opportunities to practice their new behaviours. They’ll need to practice how to act well when someone falls or makes a mistake, not answering every question they are asked, and learn how to say they don’t know. 

It’s going to be a bit like learning to walk again for a while. Think of it as group therapy – to work this out through conversations with their peers how to change their norms. To hear other lessons and hear that everyone is doing this. To get comfortable themselves with not needing to always be the hero. 



3. Build relationships

With horizontal working, you give permission for more human and relational culture. Empowering teams, not hierarchies. 

Be very overt about this but also look to see where practices like performance reviews and bonuses, place the culture back in those old norms of pitting people against each other. 

You’ll need to unstick some of your old practices at the same time as introducing new ones. Celebrating asking questions, speaking up with ideas, seeing mistakes as opportunities for learning, and using feedback well. These are all the things we cover in our 12 video tips.  

These processes build relationships – where people talk to each other and learn. Working in teams gets your people out of email and having conversations again. 

4. Teach people to listen

Listening is the magic ingredient to getting people to speak up. People often miss that there are two aspects of speaking up. The person who speaks AND the person who listens. 

No-one wants to speak up when they think the boss has all the answers.  Listening is another skill to learn, especially if you are a leader (did we mention we have a video on that?). 

Now everyone thinks they are great listeners but in our experience, this is rarely the case. What they are really doing is listening to judge what they think the problem is and then thinking about what they want to say back. 

They not listening – they are too busy constructing the answer. Everyone needs to practice listening. This means being more curious. Rather than thinking ‘what is the answer here’, reframe your thinking to ‘what can I learn here.’ That question will change how you listen. 


How we help

Changing social norms takes conscious work. You are working against years of culture that pre-date not only your time at the company.  But the value of making these changes means you get the best out of your teams. 

We help organisations introduce new thinking and to reset those social norms. A great way to start is with psychological safety. It offers a new set of social norms that enable this new way of team-working.

If you would like to find out more about how psychological safety could help your team. Book a 30 minute free discovery call with Sandie




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