7 mistakes people make when thinking about people and culture

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A company cannot thrive without its people and culture. It is as simple as that. With technological anxieties and fears of automation, it has become unwittingly easier to lose focus on developing people and culture.

If this type of thinking becomes normalised, you will lose what made your company, your business, your brand so great in the first place. The people and culture behind it.

So how do we keep our people engaged? To keep bringing innovation, agility and collaboration to their companies?

The “tried and true” ways of the past are not always relevant.

In order to expertly adapt to rapid change whether it be new technologies and shifting cultural norms, tradition has to be shaken up. We need to embrace fluidity, systems thinking and a coaching and feedback culture.

I have worked 10 years at one of the most disruptive organisations in the world — Google — and have recently leapt into the hectic life of the startup world, starting my own people and culture agency, ThinkChangeGrow with my partner, Hiam Sakakini.

Through these experiences, I have seen the mistake of shifting aside developing people and culture in favour of other areas made over and over again.

Here are 7 mistakes people make when thinking about people and culture:

1. Hire for subject expertise rather than adaptability

The truth is, the job which we are hiring candidates for today won’t be here tomorrow.

According to the Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA), 40% of current Australians’ jobs will be replaced by automation by 2030. Leadership in a fluid environment requires emotional intelligence, self-awareness and adaptability.

Subject expertise is good as long as that subject stays stable.

Leaders need to identify what the individuals in their teams bring to the company. People’s talents extend beyond their subject matter expertise. Your people need to be adaptable, capable of thriving in an environment of rapid change and open to continuous learning.

2. Think and (re)act in linear, rational, predictable and controllable terms rather than in system terms

Think of your company as a complex adaptive system. How is it working? How do you ensure that it continues to do so?

Every cog, every employee will have their own distinct and unique agenda, interacting interdependently in various manners. These recurrent interactions are naturally unpredictable and non-linear. Employees adapt to this complex system in accordance with their own needs, goals and priorities.

This means that if we are to understand the cultures of our organisations – we have to examine the behaviours that emerge from these interactions rather than solely through the action of individuals. It is a mistake that I have seen many organisations and leaders make.

They continually operate on the assumption that linearity or command and control limit their ability to view the company from a holistic perspective. For example, if a team is not performing, the common approach is to focus on the lowest performing team member (that is, find the scapegoat).

In an agile environment, the more effective approach is to look what is going on in the whole team or in the whole organisation. Analyse the significance of the embedding context, the culture, in the role it plays in conditioning both success and failure.

3. Manage people rather than coach them

Remember when I said that tradition needed to be shaken up?

Managing people in the traditional way of focussing on tasks and bottom-line results won’t get you there.

You need to actively foster and support autonomy, competence and relatedness to enhance performance, persistence and creativity.

The best way to do this is by regular and skillful coaching and real-time feedback. The traditional model of annual performance reviews lacks the agility to respond to the current environment.

4. Talk about the need for innovation but don’t establish a safe-to-fail environment

An “Eureka!” moment doesn’t happen overnight.

Innovation is a word that many like to utilise but as they say, actions speak louder than words. Innovation is not a switch that can be turned on at one’s convenience.

It can only happen if people feel safe to take risks and voice “crazy ideas.” To do this, they need to know their team and leader will have their back and will allow them to trial and fail.

How many “crazy ideas” that initially failed have changed the world?

Companies that are hierarchical and bureaucratic prevent grassroot innovation from occurring, stifling genuine innovation. We can see that with James Dyson whose products dominate the world where he took 5 years and 5, 126 prototypes for James Dyson to develop the world’s first bagless vacuum cleaner.

5. Confuse inclusion with diversity

A diverse team does not equal an inclusive team. You may have members that represent a range of ages, cultures and experience. That’s great. However if these members aren’t contributing equally, it is not an inclusive team.

More and more, people work in teams to solve complex problems and for these teams to function optimally, psychological safety is essential. Individuals feel included when they have confidence that the team will not immediately reject their ideas or embarrass them as individuals.

Inclusive practice means allowing each member to contribute equally and in an environment that is safe, supportive and encouraging.

6. Reward best performing people with management positions without developing them

Are leaders are born or made? It’s a question that has stirred controversy over the years but I believe the answer is not supposed to be as clear-cut as one of the two options.

Rather, leaders are developed. To stop developing best performing people is a grave mistake.

An effective team member requires continuous development, mentoring and coaching from their first day within the company. With this approach, when they are promoted to manage others, they have some of the necessary tools in their tool bag.

New leaders will, as people managers, continue to learn through trial and error.

This experiential learning, along with their early leadership development and with the consistent coaching and mentorship from their manager or other experienced colleague, will reap ongoing benefits, not only to the new manager, but to their direct reports and to the overall company.

7. Fail to invest in people and culture

Despite all the talk of leadership development and positive organisational culture, many companies still make the mistake of treating the investment in people and culture as an afterthought. Often, in tight times, the first budget cuts hits staff development.

Organisations with thriving cultures, such as Atlassian and The Physio Co. which are recognised as a great places to work by Forbes and others, don’t make this mistake.

They emphasise on the significance on their people and culture as the unit that allows them to smoothly function throughout the years.

Their success demonstrates that by genuinely and authentically investing in their workforce and culture reaps benefits, including to the bottom line.

With Hiam Sakakini, Monika is the co-founder of ThinkChangeGrow, a people and culture consulting agency.

Monika draws on over 10 years’ international experience in Google sales management, learning and development and program facilitation and has a comprehensive understanding of implementing training which produces lasting, positive outcomes.

She successfully led the peer-to-peer program for Google APAC and was the strategic partner for diversity and inclusion initiatives.

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