A recent conversation with a high-profile executive demonstrated a trend we’ve seen since the pandemic: For some companies, organizational culture was actually better during the pandemic.
Sounds counterintuitive, but a closer look reveals why it’s not. This executive told me that when the pandemic first hit, his company was overwhelmed with orders. They’d never worked so hard and had never been so exhausted. But they were all focused around a single goal. They had a mandate to survive, bringing out the best in employees, even though it threatened to burn them out. “You should never let a crisis go to waste,” he said.
Now, amid an uneven economy and stubborn unresolved supply chain issues, that same executive says the culture is utterly different. His teams are exhausted–but for a different reason.
The promise of the painful pandemic was that, eventually, life would be different. There would be a time when everyone would be able to take it down a notch. Instead, the adrenaline rush has turned into a crash. Many CEOs and other executives are asking just as much of their employees if not more, while also waging battles against work from home and other policies that have demoralized the people they’re counting on.
It’s as if they’re saying, “Thanks for your heroic efforts – but now we need more.” Unchecked, this is a recipe for culture collapse. During the pandemic, everyone was playing not to lose. They were on defense. It was a mutual effort of blood, sweat and tears. Now those same groups are looking for a hit of oxygen.
The challenge for leaders is to figure out a way to recover from the collective organizational cortisol drop. The answer: Find a way to go on offense and play to win.
Continuing to muddle through the day-to-day challenges won’t get your team past the baseline. The job of a leader now is to create focus and identify objectives that will invigorate and empower a workforce by creating a high-stakes, winnable game. This is what it takes to go from the threat of cultural collapse, to a reset, to potential victory.
Why do I sound so confident? I’ve seen it happen during each of the national and global crises that profoundly impact organizations.
There was a hospital executive looking to cut expensive contract hours who was able to set goals and reduce costs by half in a single year. When I went to see her, she didn’t want to talk about numbers. Instead, she wanted to talk about how different it felt to walk the halls six months later.
It’s the age-old question about which is the chicken and which is the egg: Is it culture or is it execution?
My experience would be that the latter influences the former. As I see it, culture is defined by what the majority of the people do the majority of the time. Within that lies the key to execution. How do we get the majority of the people engaged with new and better processes to drive new and better results? When people actually have a demonstrable impact on a goal that matters, engagement rises. Culture isn’t damaged by busyness; it’s killed by futility.
It’s the identification of a high-stakes and winnable goal that creates the most institutionalized form of empowerment I’ve ever seen. It’s precisely what’s needed within most organizations post-pandemic, as well as a method where results are the goal but positive cultural change is the extraordinary byproduct.
The key, of course, is finding that right goal.
It’s like a global technology company’s supply chain struggling to make on-time delivery. There are many departments that must work in harmony toward a common goal. That means looking at the whole system, not just a single department’s performance. It also requires better hand-offs across those functions. This should lead to dramatic improvements in performance and profitability.
If you are looking to change your organization’s world, the selection of your top goals must be priorities that truly matter. Futility is the crusher of the human soul. Identifying 12 different objectives and measuring key results sounds great until your employees realize that checking those boxes doesn’t actually change anything. Goal setting merely for the sake of it will teach everyone that results don’t matter—and they’ll act accordingly.
Most companies are no longer stuck on the perilous platform that is running a business during the pandemic. That’s both a good and a bad thing. What comes next is what you choose to prioritize.