I had just finished a speaking engagement recently when a man came up to me to ask a question. His question was: “How can I change the culture of my company when I’m not senior enough?”
What he was really asking me was how do I drive change from the bottom up when I don't feel I have enough influence?
Influence – the action or process of producing effects on the actions, behaviour, opinions etc of another or others. In an organisation, it can sometimes seem overwhelming to drive change in the culture and people often perceive it would be easier to influence if they just had the positional power that comes with a senior title. However in reality, powerful influence can be exerted from the most unlikely places and you don’t need a title to be influential.
My advice to the man was the same advice I give to everyone who feels powerless to drive change: Be the change you want to see and never underestimate the power of demonstrating what’s possible through your own actions and behaviour.
As an example, most would have heard by now of 15 year old Swedish school girl Greta Thunberg who only late last year, skipped school, sat down outside the Swedish parliament and inadvertently kicked off a global movement. Global student led climate strikes have now taken place in 71 countries and more than 700 places and counting. At the age of 8 when she first learned about climate change, she was so appalled that adults did not seem to be taking the issue seriously, that she took matters into her own hands and started a global movement. The unprecedented scope of the movement that Thunberg began is evidence of an actor for change who persisted despite her young age and inexperience. She was passionate about her cause and she showed this through her behaviour and actions, which influenced others to follow. Only a few short weeks ago she was on the cover of Time Magazine, described as a next generation leader.
The critical ingredients in her ability to influence were belief, perseverance, resilience and passion. If we believe in something passionately enough, this can propel us forward to take sustainable action. If we are resilient and persevere through the naysayers and the setbacks, our ideas have the potential to inspire at a scale that might have seemed initially unachievable. Ofttimes there is passion but not resilience and perseverance. It’s the special person that remains focussed and resolute in the face of consistent judgement, ridicule and criticism and who finds themselves most successful here.
It reminds me of the wildly popular You Tube video, “Leadership Lessons from the Dancing Guy” (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hO8MwBZl-Vc ) which shows a man at a music festival dancing by himself in a unique and unconventional way. He is an amusement at first and then, as others start to join him, he amasses followers adopting his crazy dance moves. The video is an instruction in leadership behaviour, demonstrating the ability of an individual to change the behaviour of others by taking action on something they believe in, and showing others how good it can be.
How powerful it would be if all Australian companies had the dancing guy's pioneering spirit or Greta Thunberg’s belief, passion, perseverance and resilience in their workforce, with all employees working in concert to, for example, restore customer trust or implement a strong risk culture. The reality is, they most likely already do have this in their workforce, it’s just probably never been allowed to flourish.
Unfortunately, what often happens over time in organisations is that demonstrating passion, initiative and a pioneering spirit is subtly discouraged. This discouragement can come from all sorts of well-intentioned places. Perhaps it’s coming from leaders just trying to minimise risk. Or it might even come from within the team as it self-regulates in favour of the status quo. Regardless of all the good intentions, the encouragement is to abandon the big ideas and fall into line, and the net result is that companies can miss out on inspiring an entire workforce to solve their big problems.
Research tells us that Australian workers are longing to work for companies that allow them to step up. People want to be asked their opinions, invited to contribute, given free rein to initiate, and they want to feel like they’re making a difference and solving big workplace problems. They also want to work in inspiring cultures and if they don’t, they want the licence to improve it. This is particularly evident with the younger generations joining the workplace right now. It’s hard to imagine Greta Thunberg joining the workforce in a few years and being happy to accept the status quo as ‘just the way we do things around here’.
That man that asked me the question that day might not have been able to change his company’s culture on his own, but he could certainly change himself and he could definitely influence his immediate environment through his passion, actions and behaviour. If he believed in what was possible and was passionate enough about making a difference, he could influence change with how he led, communicated and interacted, regardless of how far down the organisational hierarchy he was. If he created something really special in his team and department, others would want to join him and the word would spread. With enough people following his lead, and with perseverance and resilience, he might finally get the culture change he so eagerly wanted to see.
As a leader, some questions for you:
Do you regularly discuss what your team members are passionate about and whether this passion could be directed towards a needed change?
Where might you be inadvertently discouraging your teams from identifying the need for change and taking action?
What could you change in your leadership to ensure you had passion and energy in your teams for the road ahead?
How high are the levels of resilience in your team to persevere when the going gets tough?
If you would like some help in identifying ways to energise your workforce to drive change, I’d love to hear from you.
 Watts, J. (2019, March 11). Greta Thunberg, schoolgirl climate change warrior: ''Some people can let things go. I can't. Retrieved from amp.theguardian.com/world/2019/mar/11/greta-thunberg-schoolgirl-climate-change-warrior-some-people-can-let-things-go-i-can't