You’ve heard the phrase “path of least resistance” right? Have you ever thought of what this means in the context of organizational culture?
I believe culture to be the most critical issue we face as senior leaders. I also believe that organizational culture is something that’s hard to define. It’s easy to spot a healthy culture (or unhealthy culture for that matter) but it’s difficult to define “culture” or to outline the steps a leader must take to create a healthy culture.
The health of culture is everything. It doesn’t matter how many good ideas there are or how well infrastructure has been developed, an unhealthy culture will literally stifle the organization, ensuring failure or at a minimum … mediocrity.
Culture is something that just happens. That’s right. It doesn’t matter what we say as leaders, culture happens and whether or not it’s a healthy culture depends on the behavior of the senior leadership. It’s that simple.
A path of least resistance culture is one with staff who are afraid to attract the attention of the senior leaders. They avoid trying or even proposing anything new. They would be opening themselves up to painful criticism or special attention. If they keep their heads down and “color inside the lines” they know they’ll be safe.
It might not even be an issue of fear. It could just be that it’s less work to choose the path of least resistance. Staff will only try and fail so many times before they will learn that it’s easier to just keep doing things “inside the lines.” The lines, of course, are ideas and behavior that has been successful in the past.
So, how do you avoid a path of least resistance culture? As with most behavior modification, you look in the mirror and ask yourself if, as the senior leader, you’re willing to change your own behavior. You have to stop shooting down or otherwise criticizing the ideas and suggestions of those in your charge. Just because you don’t think it’s a good idea doesn’t mean it’s not. It just isn’t in your opinion. In fact, there are many times when you should let ideas be tried, even though you don’t necessarily think they’re good or the right approach.
Crazy, I know. An approach I adopted many years ago is this: when I’m talking to a staff member about an issue or problem, my objective is to get them to leave my office empowered to implement their own idea … not mine. That’s a leadership win!
If the ideas of others are invited and, for the most part, they are the ones getting implemented, you’re well on your way to a healthy culture. One that encourages risk-taking and coloring outside the lines.
Oh, and one more thing. A healthy culture is one where mistakes are allowed. Staff shouldn’t be so afraid to make mistakes that they are unwilling to try anything new.