How to use crisis behaviors to evolve your company’s culture

08 July, 2020

Deniz Caglar
Principal, Financial Services, Strategy&
Varya Davidson
Principal, People and Organization, Strategy&
Carolin Oelschlegel
Director, The Katzenbach Center

Leaders who struggled with cultural inertia are finding themselves in a surprising situation: Employees spontaneously adopted positive behaviors during the crisis.

For years before the COVID-19 crisis, a US bank struggled with three major issues: execution, accountability and collaboration across silos. Top-down efforts to tackle inertia would show some improvement for a while, but any behaviors that would lead to a substantial change wouldn’t catch on. The bank was an extremely hierarchical place, so each decision had to move through several layers of the organization: The executive floor at the top of the office building was the perfect manifestation of it.

When COVID-19 struck, most workers had to shelter in place in their homes, which untethered minds and schedules and caused employees to behave differently.

Instead of the usual series of large meetings designed to share information, solve problems or make decisions, it required one person to take ownership and set up one call, with just the right number of people from across the organization to sort things out. Bureaucracy that was common in previous times seemed to vanish.

Teams showed a new focus on action and a determination to identify critical stakeholder issues. The levels of hierarchy didn’t slow responses: Leaders explicitly empowered employees “to do what you need to do to keep the business running and serve customers,” and employees on the front lines were empowered to make decisions.

Sound familiar? Maybe your organization experienced something similar, but you haven't yet recognized this as an opportunity to sustain, or even improve, your company’s new ways of working for the long run.

While a sense of urgency and being “in the moment” of a major crisis are not sustainable, many of the positive behaviors companies initiated during the crisis likely can be continued. To retain these behaviors, start by understanding what changed to make them possible. Then, work quickly to keep the momentum going for the behaviors you want to continue — or even accelerate.

Find your standout behaviors

Ask yourself: What were the standout behaviors you observed during this crisis — faster decision-making, ownership and accountability, or collaboration across the organization that put customers first? Did employees step up and take ownership of solving customers’ problems, rather than simply doing their part and passing the baton to someone else?

We’ve heard countless stories of people caring for each other. Employees stepped in to help when colleagues needed support, and leaders put their people first by prioritizing their health and well-being.

To get to your company’s standout behaviors, you first need to find them and then understand not just the results, but what people did to make those results possible.

For example, when leaders instinctively value performance over hierarchy, the behavior — what they do to get the desired result — is measured in how those leaders create a singular focus on what’s essential, what really counts. It’s measured in how they delegate work and give employees the right information to perform that work successfully. It’s measured in how leaders empower people to take ownership and accountability.

You may have done this yourself, by encouraging staff to “go do it, you don’t have to come to me for approval.” Or you may have signaled to people that it’s ok to make small mistakes when they’re moving fast.

When leaders value the well-being of their employees, the behavior is measured in acts of empathy. CEOs who said “layoffs will be a last resort” stood out by keeping frequent, clear and authentic lines of communication open. Leaders at every level showed vulnerability during the crisis. They got used to not having all the answers, and they took off some armor to show they were struggling with the crisis too. They showed gratitude and meant it. They became much more visible and accessible to employees through frequent direct communication and more informal interactions.

PwC’s Workforce Pulse Survey shows that these behaviors are valued. Caring leadership — with an emphasis on humility, empathy and compassion — is the top request of employees during today’s cautious reopening of workplaces. It's the number-one thing leaders can do now to help people become more confident in their ability to do their jobs during an unprecedented time of uncertainty.

Feel something, do something

Many standout behaviors were instinctive — brought on by emotional responses during the crisis. People’s feelings led them to take action. Decades of research into organizational cultures show that emotions influence people’s behaviors. And behaviors are the most powerful determinant of real change: What people do matters more than what they say.

For many organizations, the standout behaviors during the crisis tapped into an emotional reservoir that already existed: people’s need to find purpose in their work. Employees want their work to mean something; they want to understand the contributions they’re making to the company, as well as to the world overall. According to PwC’s latest look at purpose (before the crisis), 83% of employees said finding meaning in their day-to-day work was important to them. In that same survey, half of business leaders (52%) said tapping into that meaning at work helped drive business results.

The result in this crisis? Employees saw the impact of their work directly. They received immediate feedback that what they were doing mattered, that they mattered. They received appreciation from customers and supervisors for being responsive and helping solve problems. In some industries, they saw a new purpose in their work serving local communities. Others saw their purpose in keeping the country’s financial systems running, making sure the food supply wasn’t disrupted or keeping essential businesses open.

Hang on to the behaviors you’d like to keep

Now is the time to help sustain and spread your company’s standout behaviors. It’s hard to imagine that you won’t need some of these behaviors as you begin to rebuild the top line in an environment that’s likely going to require even more change.

Make no mistake, culture can be used to help you emerge stronger from the crisis, but it has to be an issue that’s urgent and undeniably essential for your organization. Many companies are feeling cultural strain now. In our latest global culture survey, 80% of respondents agreed that their organization’s culture must evolve for their company to succeed, grow and retain talent.

Committing to some new behaviors can lead to a tremendous boost toward cultural evolution and uniting your people. Here’s what you can do now:

Distill what was different in your organization and why. Collect anecdotes and stories that focus on what people did — behaviors that could be observed and repeated. Find out why it worked at the time and how it made people feel. This will help you understand what sparked the change and the conditions that made change possible. Was it a specific leader? People on the front lines taking care of customers? Others who pitched in to help?

Discern the few things that have a positive effect on performance. This is not a time for comprehensive approaches and broad top-down initiatives. The idea is to choose a few critical behaviors that could have great impact on performance if put into practice by a significant number of people. Be sure that people feel good about doing these things, so that you can tap into their emotional commitment.

One company, for example, is choosing to stop putting hundreds of hours of preparation time into internal meetings. They’ve tested this in the crisis and are receiving better feedback. At PwC, we’re focusing on well-being behaviors because we know they can help influence an employee’s intent to remain with the organization. We also know that when these behaviors are practiced broadly, we can see better team and client outcomes.

Check your formal policies, performance measures and incentives. Once you have your critical few behaviors, check your formal policies, performance measures and individual incentives. Some companies may update process-level decision rights, for example, so that people closer to the front lines can have more autonomy to address a wider range of customer issues. We’re seeing many companies change their formal policies on flexible work arrangements to accommodate the millions of office workers now working from home. This includes policies around data security, technology support and collaboration tools needed to help make remote work seamless for both employers and employees.

Codify your choices and empower people to act. Start by asking leaders, both formal and informal, to translate what “good” looks like in a normal day for their working groups. Ask them to model the behaviors and hold them to it. Give them easy ways to share stories of people doing the right things, as well as easy ways to recognize those who are living the change you’d like to see.

This could be as simple as asking people to use an existing real-time recognition program, or it could involve a social promotion on the company’s internal networks. You should provide constant reminders of what’s celebrated in the culture. Be sure to place these celebrations where employees are most likely to notice them, appreciate the effort and feel encouraged to act in similar ways. Soon, a few critical behaviors — practiced more often at every level — can help shift the culture and accelerate broader change.

Also contributing to this article were Reid CarpenterKristy Hull and Alex Pearlman.

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