I suppose I’ve always been a catalyst for change, but it took me a long time to realize that it places me in the ranks of the minority. Everyone wants to grow and excel and I’m just helping. Right?
However, the reality is that most people don’t want to change, especially in a setting and culture where they’re comfortable. They want to maintain the status quo and do well, but not better. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?” is the norm. On the flip side, if they don’t like it, it’s easier to look for another job than it is to change things where they are.
When you are the disruptor who sees the potential for more, you’re dragging people out of their comfort zones. And of course, they’re going to kick and scream, and dig in their heels.
Understanding that not everyone has the same burning desire to make things better is what caused a paradigm shift in my journey as an influencer. When I accepted that my colleagues are in different places and I need to meet them where they are, I started to get better results.
Here are five important lessons I’ve learned about how to positively influence company culture without being a jerk:
1) Get the timing right
When you’re a newbie, you have a certain cache and a window to introduce new ideas — with a little bit of license to blunder. But being too disruptive too soon could make you obnoxious. The “bull in the china shop” attitude means you won’t get buy-in for long-term results. Be careful not to discount the insights and experience of those who’ve been there and done that. Give yourself time to understand the environment too.
But don’t wait too long either. If you set only a conciliatory tone, it’s harder to transition into a change agent. Plus, you don’t want to fall into a rut of complacency yourself.
2) Make it concrete
You may have grand ideas, and lofty goals.
“We need to break down the silos.” “We need a culture of collaboration.” “We have to focus on results.” “We need a strategic plan.”
YOU may see how to get there, but are others supposed to read your mind?
Break that pie in the sky vision down into something more concrete. Define the step-by-step process by which two departments can work together. Show some real numbers — measure the impact and share the findings, in context. If you want to point out inefficiencies — translate them into costs versus revenues or insights from the timesheets.
Meet people where they are. There is no formula for how to connect. Sure, face-to-face meetings are great for sharing new ideas. But if some people find meetings overwhelming, then share a written plan.
3) Take a little less credit, a little more blame
This is where I turn to inspirational quotes. Late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi said, “There are two kinds of people, those who do the work and those who take the credit. Try to be in the first group, there is less competition there.”
If you’re a disruptor, people are probably tired of listening to your next great idea. So plant a seed in someone else’s head. If they believe it’s their idea, they’re going to own it and make it work.
Be helpful and support the action from behind the scenes. Roll up your sleeves and dive in. Those who resist change usually resist it because they don’t want the extra work. If there’s a way you can take that on, it might break down the resistance.
And if things don’t go as expected, find a way to jump in and say “Oops, I didn’t think of that. But how about we try this instead…”
You may not get the employee of the month award but you’ll get results.
4) Work your allies
Chances are you’ll find a few allies directly connected to the workplace. They could be a team member, a peer, a staffer whose work doesn’t even naturally intersect with yours, or a member. If you’re genuine and a good listener, you’ll find these allies. Work with them to vet and roll out your ideas — get their buy-in up front.
In addition, be open to the fact that your allies could come from the outside. Remember that Mark Twain-ism about an expert being an ordinary fellow from another town? This is especially true in the association community. Whenever you can say, “We wouldn’t be the first to take this leap. I heard about another association that did X or Y,” it can assuage the fears of the risk-averse.
Bring in these outside influencers — vendors, consultants, experts, and association peers are all fair game. Whether you read a great article that really resonated or heard someone else speak your mind, invite them to come and present to your colleagues, to spark a dialogue. Or perhaps even, watch a TED Talk together over a brown bag (bonus points if you can find the budget to order pizza).
5) Show what’s possible
You can’t change the culture if all you do is talk at people. You need to show and tell. Within your sphere of influence, there are always things you can do, without permission. I love Jamie Notter’s mantra, “Proceed until apprehended!”
Does every tech decision have to be approved by a committee? Perhaps there’s some scrappy, low-cost technology that’s within your budget — just get it, use it, and demonstrate the efficiencies.
Before you make it an annual project or a permanent change, pilot it. It’s far less threatening, and far more encouraging when you can share some clear wins.
At the end of the day, if you want to introduce positive culture change, you have to stay positive. And patient. And persistent. But it’s truly rewarding when you can move the needle.