The End of Culture Change Confusion

Raphael (Raff) Louis Vitón
5 min readFeb 15, 2021

CQ Shorthand #1: Red Creates Dread

Psychological safety is hard to find in aggressive defensive cultures. It doesn’t matter that courage and innovation are your espoused core values or that you’ve invested gazillions in agile training, innovation centers of excellence and top talent. Fear, avoidance, conventional thinking and self-protection will be the behavior patterns and muscles that your culture is strengthening most often.

CXOs with power will openly blame the “cowardly” VPs and midlevel managers that don’t behave aggressively like them. VPs and midlevel managers will privately blame the “abusive and dictatorial” CXOs. There may be anomalies — pockets of unsustainable short-lived success… but the majority of the organization will be frustrated and burned out.

The CEOs vision for the company’s courageous culture platform, necessary for growth and rapid adaptation, will be a fictional story told to analysts at quarterly earnings conference calls.

RED EXPECTS MEMBERS TO APPROACH TASKS IN FORCEFUL WAYS TO PROTECT THEIR STATUS & SECURITY (NOT TO BE EFFECTIVE)

RED norms (i.e., power, perfectionistic, competitive, oppositional) are misguided and outdated when it comes to organizational effectiveness. Based on decades of Human Synergistics global research across all industries and geographies, aggressive defensive norms negatively correlate to the desired, sustainable outcomes associated with constructive (BLUE) cultures which benefit from plenty of psychological safety, a balance of attention to the task & people, openness/transparency, high- achievement, personal satisfaction, extensive teamwork, sharing, learning and experimentation. RED increases turnover and stress — good luck with that.

CULTURE CHANGE IS EASIER IF YOU HAVE THE CQ SHORTHAND

There’s no shortcut to creating your ideal organizational culture — but there is a simple cultural intelligence (CQ) shorthand available to help end all of the culture change confusion. Culture change is a lot easier and less confusing when leaders are better supported to effectively focus on the technical aspects of strengthening culture competency.

It makes sense that your people are stuck and confused about what to do with regards to culture change… because your leaders are stuck and confused too. This is a great opportunity to learn together; which btw, that is exactly how culture changes more quickly and deeply. Culture is formed by shared learning experiences. Over time and instantaneously, we learn the way we are expected to do things around here. We learn invisibly, implicitly and explicitly what behavioral norms (socially accepted patterns of behavior) reinforce how we think, relate and act in the context of the business goals, the tasks, the team and our own security.

“BUT RED IS HOW WE GET THINGS DONE” — REALLY?

You already know that politics, aggressive/intimidating behavior, autocratic power plays and hierarchical BS are toxic to talented people and to high-performance teams that you need to be at their best. Yet your senior leaders complain that they have to be tough, challenging and stay on top of people to keep execution and productivity high. Why is that exactly? According to some bosses, it’s because people are “either lazy, too comfortable, or they just don’t get it.” Which is exactly what it sounds like when leadership is protecting themselves by putting down others (e.g., misguided thinking).

“ARMORING UP” IS THE #1 BARRIER TO TRANSFORMATION

While RED may challenge people, it’s generally to discourage rather than encourage them. Red drives performance at an unacceptable cost to innovation. “We have to be in a culture that neither rewards nor requires armor.” Dr. Brené Brown said during a recent Slalom conversation with CEO Brad Jackson. Aggressive Defensive norms (RED) create Passive Defensive norms (GREEN).

If your org is experiencing burnout, high stress, an abundance of fear and imposter syndrome stories, then aggressive defensive norms are playing out.

If RED is a recognizable behavior pattern and leadership style within your leadership ranks, just know that you are in for a counterproductive road ahead when it comes to mastering adaptability, digital transformation, customer centricity and change. Learning & adaptibility intentions that are planted on defensive soil are bound to fail. Check with your SLT… is your leadership intent is to nicely ask people to be obedient, compliant and fearful all the time? Are you ok with that? If RED norms are consistently experienced, then that is the messaging they are hearing, whether you intend it to be or not.

THE PROBLEM IS DEFENSIVENESS

All the posturing, hiding and acting-out adds up. Bob Kegan and Lisa Lahey, describe it like this in their opening of An Everyone Culture (HBR Press, 2016):

In an ordinary organization, most people are doing a second job no one is paying them for. In businesses large and small; in government agencies, schools, and hospitals; in for-profits and nonprofits, and in any country in the world, most people are spending time and energy covering up their weaknesses, managing other people’s impressions of them, showing themselves to their best advantage, playing politics, hiding their inadequacies, hiding their uncertainties, hiding their limitations. Hiding. We regard this as the single biggest loss of resources that organizations suffer every day. Is anything more valuable to a company that the way its people spend their energies? The total cost of this waste is simple to state and staggering to contemplate: it prevents organizations, and the people who work in them, from reaching their full potential.

Defensiveness stifles growth. It keeps us striving to “be right” and “look good,” and prevents us from seeing our blind spots. Trying to learn when you are in a defensive stance is like having one foot on the gas and one foot on the break.

THERE IS AN EASIER PATH TO CONSTRUCTIVE (BLUE) CULTURES

If organizational effectiveness is what you want more of, then focus on increasing your BLUE norms and reducing the RED.

RED (aggressive defensive) norms just create more RED or more GREEN (passive defensive) norms….fight, flight or freeze.

Before you do anything though… get some objective, data-rich clarity on what you currently have to work with (i.e., current culture) and alignment around what you want (i.e., ideal culture). If you don’t first get clarity & alignment on that — you’re screwed — just armor up and endure the suffering.

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Raphael (Raff) Louis Vitón

We're always building something - let's focus on building what matters most. First things first, Build U. #iamaninnovationproject