Why workplace culture needs systems thinking

Changing from the inside out

In our work with companies to measure and improve employee happiness, it never takes long before our conversations with clients venture into discussions about how change happens. For some of our clients it is their starting point: they are looking for a fresh survey approach, which supports them to go beyond measurement into meaningful action. Once the technical aspects of a new people survey are in place, clients naturally start thinking about the integration process of new data & insights into day-to-day working life. How do we set up for success? Do we need top-down planning? Or bottom-up action? How do we scale what works? What else should we be doing to move from ‘audit’ to ‘action’?

The answers we give to these sorts of questions are informed by systems and complexity thinking. These schools of thought about why and how change happens are increasingly being applied to business, design and human development to help individuals and organisations get better at positive change.

Why? Because culture change is not something we can plan, predict or control. Workplaces are not laboratory environments; each workplace and worker is unique. And people do not always respond to interventions in a rational and predictable way. So an approach that is effective at helping people work together today, may evolve into something that looks quite different tomorrow.

Why culture change fails

Culture change is big picture stuff but it actually takes place at a human scale – the micro-moments we share in email exchanges, corridor chats, management meetings – and it builds out from there. Top-down initiatives struggle because they feel like they are somebody else’s project. These projects often get off to a false start because they don’t engage employees, so they don’t manage to incorporate the business intel help by different people in an organisation. For example, what people at the front end of client servicing see, senior execs don’t. A diverse array of experience and behaviour matters for effective social change, which means inspiring the participation and feedback of a lot of people, at roughly the same time. Culture change from the bottom up is also difficult to achieve because it struggles to win over the hearts and minds of decision-makers. Bottom-up initiatives don’t feel safe to leaders for good reason: they don’t always have the resource or influence to respond to what’s popular

Change from the inside out

A complex systems approach to culture change finds viable ways employees and decision-makers can act together. We start with happiness at work because this is common currency, enabling both sets of people to act collectively in their own best interests. We emphasise to clients the power of changing from the “inside out”. Teams are diverse in the life experience, personalities and motivations of their individuals but strong in their sense of collective identity, purpose and belonging. This makes them a powerful, but often neglected, starting point for whole systems change.

When enough teams within a business are self-organising around happiness – looking at their data and doing something about it – then we see things begin to shift in the culture of a workplace.

While every workplace is different, the starting conditions for change processes have a lot in common. Here are three things we advise organisations do to enable teams to protect and promote their happiness:

Measure and evaluate: The intervention we prioritize for teams is regular measurement. From years of experience influencing big institutions like the government and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) we learned that what we measure influences what we care about. Organisations can help themselves move towards happier cultures by providing information to points in the system – individuals, teams, senior leadership – that can act on it.

Lean data into action: if complexity science has taught us one thing, it is that from simple rules, new possibilities emerge. The Five Ways to Happiness at Work – Connect, Be Fair, Empower, Challenge and Inspire are positive actions teams can reliably use to move themselves towards happier work arrangements.

We provide data to the Five Ways to signal points of learning and opportunities for improvement. We built our survey platform so it embodies these ingredients – so we help connect people (with idea sharing features), are fair (through transparent reporting), empower (with real time data), challenge (with feedback) and inspire (with trend data that shows the direction of travel).

Take an agile approach: Positive experiences combine and recombine to have bigger, more tangible effects. Even fleeting positive emotions have stable psychological effects on individuals and teams. So we tell our clients to encourage teams to have a go at changing things they don’t like in small, iterative and fun ways. We foster a curious approach to learning about the experiences, actions and social interactions that influence work cultures in the most powerful ways. Humans do well together when they innovate together, so we design support services that encourage conversation, participation and social learning.

Systems thinking has taught us that happy work cultures at larger scales (e.g. whole organisations) have a similar structure and process to happy work cultures at smaller scales (e.g., teams, individuals). The ‘structure’ is characterised by positive emotions and the Five Ways to happiness at work. The ‘process’ is repeat cycles of measurement, action and learning at the team level. Organizations can go a long way on big picture culture stuff by catalyzing new conversations and legitimizing change from the inside out.

Jody AkedJody has been improving lives with applied behavioural science for over twelve years and helps our clients kick-start positive change from the boardroom to the factory floor. Jody has vast experience consulting with a diverse range of organizations both public and private, and developed the Five Ways to Well-being alongside Nic, which went on to form the foundation of public health advice across the globe.

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