We spend a lot of our time with leaders discussing issues like trust and delegation. What leaders need to do – more of, or less of. Taking big decisions about strategic direction and what to stop doing.
Leaders need to work out what to pay close attention to. And what they need to let go of.
Yes leadership is about the balance between control, influence and acceptance. But importantly, it’s also about paying close attention to what matters.
The Culture Change Pyramid is inspired by my work in the field of health and safety for over ten years. In that field they talk about the ‘Bird Pyramid’.
In my Culture Change Pyramid (right) the bottom rows represent the everyday; the 2 green pillars are priorities. The larger bricks above are the things that go wrong when the priorities and the everyday aren’t to the team’s highest standards.
It’s also a great way to make the distinction between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’.
It sounds lyrical but, in essence, the Bird Pyramid is just a way of saying that, if you have a high number of low-level H&S incidents, you increase the likelihood of having a higher level incident and fatalities.
Made popular by Frank Bird in 1969, it’s a way of categorising behaviour and helps people to challenge the prevailing culture.
Some people viewed that as a predictor, I see it more as an indicator. I also believe that the same is true of staff engagement and behaviours.
Towards the bottom of the pyramid are the behaviours that staff display every day. As long as we’re happy that they are competent and making intelligent decisions; sticking to agreed processes and protocols, there’s no need – as leaders – to micro-manage.
What happens, however, is that poor practices slip by un-noticed in the busyness of the everyday. These only come to the attention of management when something visibly goes wrong.
- A deadline slips
- The auditors turn up
- Customers complain
These are good indicators of something going wrong at the fundamental level. Unfortunately, the behaviour itself may not be significant enough, in isolation, to be picked up. That’s why monitoring of low-level problems is useful. You can see the overall picture.
And when we have these negative outcomes, the tendency is to deal with them in isolation, rather than to see the bigger picture. If a customer complains, we’ll deal with that. Possibly tracking back to the root cause of that single issue. Rather than asking “what’s the pattern here?”
Because if we don’t deal with a negative pattern of behaviours – the cultural norms – they’re going to create the bigger negative event. In health and safety that’s typically a fatality. In a business it might be the loss of a customer. In the public or charity sector, the loss of a grant – or a programme of work.
One way of achieving this is to increase the pride in work delivered. Acknowledging staff for their effort and their successes – at the same time as nailing the issues. Not allowing poor quality to go unchallenged.
- By partnering pride with productivity, people feel more engaged with their work.
- Put simply – we all need to feel appreciated.
We feel fairly treated and happy to be part of teams when leaders and managers acknowledge our effort. Especially when rewards and promotion are harder to come by. This is what culture is – ‘the way we do things around here everyday’.
So what’s the difference between ‘management’ and ‘leadership’ in this context?
For me it’s about leaders paying close attention to what matters: the pillars. Managers are entrusted with the responsibility of seeing that the everyday gets done. Leaders have the luxury of stepping back and seeing patterns and priorities in that busy-ness.
They also need to demonstrate that trust in their managers. Leadership is often about subtle course-correction, not wholesale change. This means acknowledging what is working – and just shifting where it isn’t.
Leaders need to ask questions that will identify what creates success in this situation or context:
- What works?
- What do people do well?
- Which behaviours contribute to success?
- What matters?
Even in asking those questions, most leaders will also hear about what’s not working; what isn’t going well; what’s contributing to failure.
The answers give those vital clues to leaders about what to pay attention to. In all the day-to-day pressures, there are some priorities that are greater than others. By setting, and upholding clear standards and goals around successful behaviours – and not diminishing other good work – leaders create a culture of engagement and success.