Organizational Culture
Marcella Bremer helps make a positive difference at work so both people and performance thrive. We had a chance to speak with Marcella about a wide range of topics including changing workplace culture, cross-cultural collaboration, and more.

Tell us a Little About Your Background

Why did you decide to create Leadership & Change?

I’m an author and culture change consultant for the workplace. It’s my mission to help leaders, consultants, and professionals make a difference at work by positive leadership, culture, and change. In 26 years of working in organizations in different roles, I’ve seen a lot of disengagement and discouragement. In my role as a culture change consultant, even managers tell me they can’t change their organization. Employees often sit out the next round of organizational change. Imagine all the lost potential, the wasted energy, and the chagrin in many Dilbert-like organizations.

After earning my MScBA degree from Rotterdam School of Management in 1990, I’ve been looking for ways to help people and organizations change. I co-founded OCAI online, which provides Cameron & Quinn’s validated Organizational Culture Assessment Instrument (OCAI) online, because culture turned out to be the key to both failed organizational change as well as positive organizations where people and performance thrive. That’s why I developed the “Change Circles” approach in my book Organizational Culture Change, in which small teams of trusted coworkers get together to develop their team’s change plan and the personal behavior changes that are needed to change the team. I publish the Leadership & Change Magazine Blog to help professionals make a positive difference at work, including a members area with white papers, video training, book summaries, and webinars. I felt I had to spread the message that it is possible to make a positive difference – because I tend to notice people who have given up.

What are Some of the Most Common Challenges That Leaders are Facing in the 21st Century?

Organizations need to become better at change, agiler, responsive to the fast pace of technology and global competition, more innovative, and sustainable. All this while leaders often deal with disengaged employees – which is the opposite of what you need to tackle those challenges. People are waiting for the boss to create a vision, to solve the problems, or to give permission. Or they feel unsafe in a political hierarchy and are hiding to protect themselves. The majority of employees is not engaged and contributing as much as they could.

That’s a leadership crisis. We are operating from an outdated paradigm that dictates, “There should be a leader who knows best and tells us what to do. Hence, we, the people, can’t make a difference.” At the same time, we don’t trust many of the leaders in charge. Modern organizations need fast collaboration among autonomous professionals. They are in dire need of engaging leadership. Leaders need to tap into their organization’s collective intelligence and use this potential to upgrade their organizations. That means change that is competent, engaging, fast, innovative, and customer-oriented. Shared leadership and more self-organization may be part of the solution. That requires another paradigm – and that’s the biggest challenge for present-time leaders. It means letting go of tight control and trusting the process of organizing together.

If someone were to say to you, “I think ‘positive workplace change’ is just management corporatespeak for ‘act happier at work,'” how would you respond? I’d understand the skepticism, disappointment, and cynicism behind this comment, since it may sound like the next fad that won’t bring real change within organizations and another way to be forced to smile in front of customers or bosses. At the same time, I’d try to revive the buried or lost hope for a more positive workplace and remind them of their positive agency. I’d tell them, “If you don’t like your workplace, you can do something about it. Shed that victim mindset and decide what would be best for you. Next, do it.”

Positive change is the opposite of an order like “act happier at work.” A really positive workplace engages people to think together and develop ways that work for them – more bottom up than top down. This approach emphasizes authenticity, instead of urging people to fake happiness. In a real positive workplace, genuine questions and constructive criticism are welcomed to improve the organization. But that’s not all. They entice all members to take ownership of issues. Everyone is responsible for doing something about it; there’s no leaning back and criticizing the others or complaining and hiding. Positive change means that everyone engages to improve work or to change.

How can a Leader get the “Buy-in” From his/her Employees Regarding an Organizational Change or a new Company Initiative?

There are four ways to instigate change. The first: just tell people to change and tell them what to change. If that doesn’t work sufficiently, try the second way: enforce change with punishments and/or rewards. The third way is to invite people to participate in the change development process. The idea is that people support what they help create. This third way may create “buy-in” from employees, but “buy-in” isn’t really vibrant with energy. It sounds like: “Yeah, sure, I’ll buy it, boss, since you’re not selling anything else than this.” What you’d really want is an energetic, engaged, effective organization, not just “buy-in.”

I think that leaders should aim for the fourth way of change: to embody the change they’d like to see on the team and in their organization. This change starts on the inside. The leader changes certain beliefs and behaviors. If leaders want more employee engagement, they should change themselves first. After all, there’s no change without personal change. Leaders shouldn’t require employees to participate in the change. But they should ask these employees what they would change, why, why now, and how exactly the change should occur. It’s important to create the space for a genuine dialogue and facilitate true change without coercion. A changed leader triggers different responses from the others, especially if he or she is asking people to contribute, to input their energy and ideas, and to develop the organizational change or initiative together.

This is not prescribing top-down what the change should look like exactly. It may be proposing a vision or direction of change, and then inviting others to participate to flesh out the details, to adjust some of the elements, to find out what would work well in their teams, etc. This is co-creation from all sides instead of coming up with a ready-made-change-plan and selling that to a lukewarm audience. This is not faking positive leadership or positivity, either. If leaders apply this as the latest management trick – to ask people for their input to appear democratic but favor their own ideas – it won’t work. People have a radar for inauthenticity. The third and fourth way combined build trust, authenticity, and energy, and this taps into the potential of the organization. But it requires letting go of the idea that you control the change and that you know what’s best for the organization. Don’t underestimate the ideas and energy in your organization – but do channel them wisely.

What are Some Initial Steps That a Company can Take to Change an Undesirable Corporate Culture?

Culture comes down to “the way we do things around here,” and it evolves in a group of people working together as they copy, coach, and correct each other. Culture is the values, assumptions, and meanings (aware or not) down to daily behaviors. You can see culture represented in behaviors. Are we people-oriented or focused on results? Do I interrupt your rant because we need to force a decision before 5 o’clock? Do we value procedures and efficiency over innovation and growth? Do I reject your new ideas while I claim to be innovative and supportive? Just look around and see the culture.

Next, start to change some of your own crucial behaviors, especially if you’re a leader and thus very visible to others. The fourth way of change is very powerful. Role-model the behaviors you want to see and stimulate what you need more of. Do you want engaged employees? Give them freedom to act with the proper resources. Do you want proactive people? See what controls you can let go of. Do you need to sign for every ten dollars spent? And so on. Organizing focus groups or workshops where a genuine dialogue is possible is another step, because it helps others to “see” culture as well. The first step is becoming aware of the current culture; the next is figuring out what you’d like to change.

What are some innovative techniques or approaches that you’re seeing some companies take when it comes to changing or improving corporate culture? The most innovative approaches are from those companies who experiment with structure, culture, and processes. They experiment with the whole package. Within a traditional hierarchy, working with change circles may be your best bet without changing the structure. The change circle is a way to engage people in contributing to the organization by encouraging them to share their ideas, improvements, objections, and solutions; to become more aware of this organizational system; to reach consensus about what is needed; to take ownership of their work and the changes the organization needs; to use their potential and empower themselves; and to take action together with support from each other.

The circle is a structure that helps people change and persist over time. To truly engage people, the change circle must establish a safe space to exchange, learn, and explore. It’s vital that the change circles are small enough so that everyone is visible. As a result, people will be more inclined to participate, instead of leaning back and criticizing the change in the back row of a large auditorium. For many people, small groups feel safer as well. But most importantly, the facilitator must create a space that fosters true dialogue.

When it comes to cross-company collaboration, how can leaders prevent these collaboration sessions from deteriorating into gripe sessions or “blame games?” This depends on the facilitator or leader of these sessions. Even though people may need to vent at first, when you create a safe space you can lead them to contribute. After all, they have a great opportunity to co-create their future, too.

How will Organizational Structures Have to Change or Evolve if They are to be Successful in the Future?

I think Daniel Pink found the key with his research that people want mastery, autonomy, and purpose. It comes down to offering people the means to develop themselves, and to learn and become masters in their fields. They want autonomy to do their work as they see fit. and they’d prefer to work for an uplifting shared purpose. This means letting go of managerial control as we know it. It means that organizations may experiment with self-organization, shared leadership, job crafting, flexible units, and so on. Autonomy, learning, and purpose are key within these flexible structures, while a strong culture glues everyone together.

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