Leading Workplace Cultures Into The Future - Proteus Leadership
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Leading Workplace Cultures Into The Future

Most leaders are searching for ways to eke out performance improvements from their team. An improvement in the order of 10% or even 5% is regarded as a big ‘win’.

We’ve learned that the capacity for substantial performance gains, lies at the feet of leaders – it’s their workplace culture.

Recently we conducted research that incorporated the following question:

If the culture of your workplace was to become as good as it realistically could, how much improvement would there be on people’s performance/productivity?

Despite having worked in the domain of corporate culture for over 20 years, we were shocked by the responses provided to this question.

A total of 89% of senior leaders felt performance would improve by 20% or more if the culture was realistically improved. Of the non-manager respondents, 69% felt there would be a 50% or more improvement in performance if the culture was realistically improved to become as good as it could.

These are staggering results.

When I’m working with a leadership team, I will often ask this question, and I’ll often get answers of 40%, 60% or bigger. I put to these people that even if their estimates are wildly over-optimistic, they are still of such a size that serious priority ought to be directed towards cultural improvement.

But we’re focusing on culture

Many leaders will say that their company is focusing on their workplace culture. These people will posit that one or more initiatives are in place to improve the culture – and these may include promoting the company’s values, or the implementation of a code of conduct, or the introduction of a reward and recognition programme or the like.

Yet, if we consider the essence of workplace culture, such initiatives risk being at the periphery – in fact, they risk doing damage to the culture, because they fail to address workplace culture front-on.

So what is culture?

There are many, many definitions of corporate culture. And most are too complex to be of practical value (which, as an aside, contributes to culture change being managed poorly).

For that reason, more than 20 years ago I created the concept of UGRs® – or ‘unwritten ground rules’. UGRs are defined as people’s perceptions of ‘this is the way we do things around here’. Sample UGRs I have come across in the workplace include:

  • At our meetings, it isn’t worth complaining because nothing will get done
  • The only time anyone gets spoken to by the boss is when something is wrong
  • The company talks about good customer service, but we know they don’t really mean it, so we don’t really have to worry about it

The paradox of UGRs is that they drive people’s behaviour yet they are seldom if ever talked about openly. It’s the UGRs in a company that constitute its culture.

The UGRs in a company are it’s ‘real’ culture. Change initiatives (including those directed at changing the culture) can be, and often are, thwarted by the UGRs. So it follows that enabling change requires a focus on the UGRs.

Getting a fix on the current culture

Around 15 years ago, two Australian universities funded world-first research into UGRs. A major breakthrough occurred.

We discovered that it was possible to unearth the prevailing UGRs simply by inviting people to think about ‘the way we do things around here’ and to anonymously complete the sentence to what we now call ‘lead-in sentences’.

In the research for example, we asked people to complete the sentence to ‘Around here, customers are…’. Responses included:

  • Complainers, some think we’re slackers
  • A necessary pain – without them I would not have a job, would not be able to achieve my goals in life. But they are not very well informed about our business and this makes my job harder!
  • Very demanding; don’t know what they really want; don’t provide realistic timeframes; expect the world!

These responses came from employees in companies that had wonderful documentation proclaiming their commitment to customer service.

The research uncovered the fact that management ‘speak’ and marketing materials count for little if the UGRs are not aligned.

How are UGRs created?

There are three broad ways in which UGRs are created:

  • People watch what gets noticed. For example, if someone gets into trouble for speaking up, then a UGR might be ‘Around here, you’re better off not to speak up, even when you’re asked’. Conversely, if bosses say that service is vitally important, and someone is rebuked for not providing good service, then a UGR might be ‘Around here, we’re serious about service’
  • People watch what doesn’t get noticed. For example, if someone speaks badly of a leader, and nobody suggests they shouldn’t talk that way, then a UGR might be ‘Around here, it’s fine to criticise bosses’. Similarly, if a person goes out of their way to help a colleague and no one recognises that extra effort, then a UGR might be ‘Around here, it’s not worth your while to help others out’
  • People watch for any differences in terms of what people say and what they do. For example, if a manager says ‘In this organisation, we care for our people’, and soon after that same person treats a person without respect, then a UGR might be ‘Around here, the bosses say one thing and mean another’

How to change UGRs – and therefore the culture

A number of elements need to be covered off to achieve culture change using the UGRs concept. These are:

  • Envision – Clarify the Key Cultural Attributes (KCAs) necessary for the organisation’s future success (or alternatively, reaffirm the organisation’s Value Statements)
  • Assess – Get a fix on the current UGRs in relation to the KCAs (or existing Value Statements), and implement improvements based on that evaluation
  • Teach – Familiarise as many people as possible, and especially leaders, with the UGRs concept
  • Involve – Involve people in creating and prioritising aspirational positive UGRs – linked to the KCAs or Value Statements – by which they would like to characterise the organisation into the future
  • Embed – Identify and implement strategies to embed the aspirational positive UGRs

It is well documented that changing culture can be a difficult and lengthy process. Yet in companies with which I’ve worked, culture change has been far less complex and time consuming than the conventional wisdom might suggest. That’s the power of UGRs.

By Steve Simpson
International speaker, consultant and author who created the UGRs concept. info@ugrs.net


Proteus Leadership is one of Australia’s premier leadership training and development companies. Proteus Leadership provides leadership courses and management training to a range of industries and assists organisations to build positive workplace cultures, implement change and Create Great Leaders. Proteus also facilitates a range of world-class management courses, workshops, conferences and events across Australia and beyond with the sole purpose of bringing leaders together to connect and grow.

“Our core purpose is to Create Great Leaders that will in turn build Great companies and develop Great teams.”