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Leading culture improvement initiatives

What makes a great place to work?

Over his 15-year career in HR and learning and development working in global organisations, Michal Pawlowicz, Head of Learning and Development at HIND Management (An IML Corporate Member) has experienced the breadth and depth of business cultures. Equipped with a master’s degree in psychology and postgraduate HR and competency management studies, he specialises in creating high-performing L&D teams known for their strong culture.

After relocating from Poland to New Zealand in 2018, Michal’s interest and experience in driving culture change accelerated. He shares his insights on culture, how to drive change and the common traits of great places to work.

Culture is by design, not by default

At the heart of Michal’s work in culture is a core belief that culture is by design, not by default. Culture doesn’t just happen. It’s the result of sustained effort and commitment at all levels of the organisation.

“It’s difficult to build a good culture but very easy to destroy it,” he explains. “We build culture every day with even the smallest things, especially as leaders. Everything we do is a building block of the culture.”

The difference between a default culture and culture by design is vast. A default culture is often unremarkable without any exceptional defining traits. A culture by design, says Michal, can be amazing.

From the work he has done, Michal says that purposeful and meaningful work to design your team culture can lead to enhanced collaboration, communication and trust.

“People will be more creative because they aren’t afraid to put forward their ideas,” he adds. “It can change the entire team dynamic.”

A bottom up approach

When Michal first came to New Zealand, he started working at the Auckland Council. Here, he and his team ran a total of 25 Cultural Elements workshops for the 280 staff who worked in the Council’s Regulatory Services team.

Each workshop was a chance for the teams to design their culture, both the elements they wanted in the culture and the elements they didn’t want. Importantly, they took a bottom up approach rather than a top down approach to drive this initiative.

“Every team is different and every team has a unique culture,” he explains. “Using the rides&elephants Emotional Culture Deck, we started asking people what they personally want to see in their team culture. It was crucial that we first understand what matters to them as individuals. We wanted to understand what they wanted to see and experience when they came to work, and what they wanted to avoid.”

From there, the workshops shifted to the team level, combining the personal insights into a purpose-built, Culture Canvas focused on behaviours and actions.

In the process of coming together as a team, Michal said that 70-80% of the time, people ultimately wanted the same thing. However, they also discovered that the same word can mean different things for different people. Or that people can use different words to describe the same thing. That’s why it was so important that the Culture Canvas was more than just words or values on a wall.

“When we came up with the Culture Canvas, we looked at how people wanted to feel and then developed actions to make that happen,” he recalls. “People took ownership because they were their ideas. Nobody told them what to do and what not to do. This has real power in creating culture.”

The pillars of a great culture

While every culture is different, Michal agrees that there are some common threads that run between the best cultures. Similarly, there are elements of workplaces that can lead to cultures that are not-so-great.

On the positive side, great cultures feature:

  • A drive for high performance where individuals work together to achieve goals and continuously improve.
  • Professionalism is balanced with a fun environment where team members can enjoy banter in a respectful way.
  • Respect for all nationalities, ethnicities, differences and opinions.
  • Trust and psychological safety so people feel comfortable to share their ideas and opinions without fear of judgement or retribution.
  • Authenticity across the entire team but especially so for leaders.
  • Recognition that employees are humans with their own feelings, thoughts, emotions and experiences that they bring to work every day.

On the flip side, Michal says that unpredictability, lack of transparency, lack of trust and gossipping are all the enemies of great culture. In his experience, dealing with toxic individuals who damage the team culture can also go a long way to creating a better place to work.

“You might have eight people in your team with one standout superstar who always delivers results,” he shares. “But if that person is toxic and damaging the culture, this can hinder the results the other seven people are capable of achieving. If you have a conversation with that one toxic person, or remove them from the team, you might suddenly find you now have seven superstars in the team.

“I encourage managers to build the confidence and capability to have these conversations. This courage is what is needed to actively shape culture.”

Start with one simple thing

Over the years, Michal has seen many leaders put culture in the too hard basket. They know it’s important. They know they need to put resources towards it. But they don’t know where to start.

Michal encourages managers to do one simple thing. That is, to commit to having an honest conversation that is the springboard for change.

Culture is a shared responsibility where leaders must step back and listen to what people want and learn how they as managers can contribute.

“Your role as a leader is to empower people to be part of the process of designing culture,” he explains. “Have honest conversations with your team and ask them about the values, behaviours and feelings that they want to experience at work. From there, work out how you can create those moments and experiences for your team. If you don’t feel that you have the capability to have these conversations, I would encourage you to bring in external help to support this process.

“The key to culture is to drive it with your team, not for them. Make a commitment and stick with it, together.”


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