Organizational Psych

These blog posts are all about leadership, organizational culture, motivation and employee engagement. For more posts on this topic, see

Turning organizational models upside down

By Pam Holloway

What if you could junk your organization as it exists today and start all over? Would you choose the same people? Would you structure things the same?

If you could design the ideal organization, jobs, and work processes, where would you start? I’ve thought about this a lot, and here’s my answer. It’s a simple 3-step process.

First, start with the organization’s goals and objectives. What is the vision of the organization? What are you trying to do or be? What must you do/be in order to succeed/survive/thrive?
What kinds of people do you need to get there? What are the characteristics, qualities, values and skill sets? (notice the order, it’s important)
What kinds of support structures and work processes support these people and enable them to do what they do best on a regular basis? (I’m convinced that if you can do this, you’re 90% there).

The traditional model of organization design starts with structure and fills in the pieces to match the structure. You start with an org chart – CEO at the top, COO, CIO, CFO, CTO, HR, etc. with previously defined and tightly confined jobs and roles underneath each of the CXs.

What I’m suggesting is we turn the model 180 degrees and start with people – the kinds of people we want in the org, THEN build the structure to support those people. Scary way to start? You bet! It’s much easier to re-purpose the old worn out hierarchical org chart and “standard” job descriptions, without thinking about whether they truly serve our needs.

But here’s the reality. Speed, innovation, impact – these are the competencies and success enablers of today. Traditional structures do little to nothing to support these. Hierarchies move too slow. Traditional job descriptions and work design keeps people in boxes, stuck in status quo and not able to respond to challenges and opportunities.

Bottom line: These structures were designed for a different time and place and are no longer effective. You have a choice. Recognize the world has changed and take steps to reinvent your organization to better respond to today’s realities or hold on to the old model and get left behind. It’s just that simple.

Be Sociable, Share!

    Culture – critical enabler of success

    My clients and colleagues are probably sick of me rattling on about the importance of culture, but I can’t help it. Darn near every challenge I’m involved in seems to ultimately come down to culture. Whether it’s attracting and retaining customers, doing more with less, planning for the future, attracting and retaining key talent or reversing the safety trend, culture comes up front and center as a critical enabler of success.

    So what is culture? The academic definition is the “psychology, attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values shared by people and groups in an organization that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.” In layman’s terms it’s “the way we do things around here.”

    Culture provides people with an answer to “What should I do in this situation? Say for example a customer calls unhappy with a recent purchase. The odds of the customer service rep salvaging the relationship and the customer going away a fan, versus the customer service rep making the situation worse and potentially producing an enemy, is directly tied to the culture of the organization.

    What do you tell people, either explicitly or implicitly about how to view and treat customers? Better yet, what do you show or demonstrate through your own actions about how to treat customers?

    What kind of language or tone do you use when you talk about customers? Do you poke fun at the saying “the customer is always right”, point out that customer A is looking to get something for nothing, encourage staff to look for ways to make it difficult to get out of contracts or return a purchase?

    How do you reward people? Do you reward on short term or pennies pinched or do you reward for building and maintaining relationships that yield long term results?

    The problem with culture is that almost everyone appreciates the importance of it, but few understand what it is or how to influence it. Beliefs, values, psychology – all big, scary words that most business leaders cringe at. What leaders don’t realize is the impact that subtle things have on the overall culture and performance of the organization.

    Culture can’t be made or changed overnight. I could argue that it can’t actually be “made” or “changed” at all. Culture arises out of everyday events and behaviors. It is the result of actions and influences over time.

    That said, leaders certainly can purposefully and strategically influence the culture. Decide what you want your organization to do, be or stand for, then identify ways to demonstrate the beliefs and behaviors that build the culture you want. Communicate purposefully and personally and communicate often.

    Revisit job descriptions, procedures and unwritten rules for doing business. Make the implicit explicit. Create “room” and support for people to do what is right. Let people know when they’re doing a good job, celebrate small victories and take responsibility for failures and show how you learned from them.

    It’s true, culture change is difficult and it doesn’t happen quickly. But the payoff is big, really big!

    Want more ideas on how to make positive changes to your culture? Contact me (Pam) at

    Be Sociable, Share!

      Can you rebuild trust once lost?

      One of the most often asked questions deals with trust and credibility and whether once lost, if they can be rebuilt. The answer from my perspective is a resounding yes, and no.  The reason I'm so wishy washy on this topic is that the business of building trust and losing trust, and then rebuilding it again is in itself a slippery slope.

      Can it be rebuilt once lost?  Yes, but if you're the type of person or company that gets into trouble in the first place, are you the type of person or company with the ability to make the kinds of changes that will enable you to rebuild trust?

      These kinds of changes are fundamental, values-based and don't happen over night.  You can't buy your way back into trust. Nor can you talk your way back in.  It happens slowly as a result of authentic demonstrations of trusted behavior.

      Imagine that you have a "trust fund."  When you demonstrate trustworthy behavior, you add to that fund.  When you breach trust you take away from it.  A trust fund is generally built slowly over time, but can be depleted quickly by catastrophic breaches, like BP's disaster in the Gulf.

      So the best thing you can do, whether you're a company or an individual, is to make sure you are continually adding to your  trust fund so that when something negative occurs, you have some padding or trust in reserve. In the event that you essentially wipe out the entire account, as BP has, you have to get busy putting trust back in.  How do you do that?

      Start with putting real people in real people-to-people situations.  Give the community (both large and small) an opportunity to get to know the real people of BP, and to see how they are actively working to solve the problem and rebuild the communities damaged by the spill.

      CEO Tony Hayward has said on several occasions that "BP takes full responsibility….. and will do whatever it takes to….."  but these are simply words. Words do not by themselves rebuild trust. We need to see actions.  Give us examples of what taking responsibility actually looks like.

      Rebuilding trust is not an easy task, but it can be done and it must be done in order for a company to survive. We'll talk next time about the effect of trust or lack of trust on the bottom line, and how we can use this motivator to change behavior.

      -Pam Holloway

      Be Sociable, Share!

        Why don’t people trust company blogs?

        I’ve had several conversations this week about what it means to have a meaningful dialogue with your customers.   It seems many companies mistakenly believe marketing is a meaningful dialogue. NOT!  “But we have blogs, they say, and we tweet!”  To which I respond – “And your blogging and tweeting is the same kind of one-way “push” message you’ve been using for years.”  It is not a two-way conversation and certainly not a rich dialogue.

        Lest you think adding a blog, in an of itself, helps “connect you” or build trust, guess again.  According to studies by Forrester Research company blogs are one of the least trusted sources of information about a company.  Not only do blogs rank below newspapers and portals in the Forrester study, they rank below wikis, direct mail, company email, and message board posts. Only 16% of online consumers who read corporate blogs say they trust them. If you’re a corporate blogger or somebody who advises companies, you might want to pay attention.

        And why don’t people trust company blogs?  My guess is because they quickly recognize the lack of authenticity and real dialogue.  We expect a brochure or a website or an ad to be marketing, but we secretly hope a blog isn’t.  If it “feels” like another marketing ploy, then our hackles go up immediately and any trust that might have been established is lost.

        My advice to clients is if you can’t do blogs right, don’t do them at all.  And by “right” I mean a genuine conversation with real human beings responding to real customers.

        Be Sociable, Share!

          How Managers Sabotage Performance by Triggering the Threat Response

          A recent article called “Managing with Brain in Mind” in the Autumn 2009 edition of Strategy+Business provides interesting insight into the social nature of performance. We researched the threat response for our book Axis of Influence and found that the first stop on the road to credibility and likeability is trust, which means dealing with the automatic “am I in danger?” threat response.

          Research available since that time shows us that our friends in the fight or flight department of the brain are alive and well and influenced or triggered by more than just safety. Recent research by UCLA’s Naomi Eisenberger and Matthew Lieberman suggests that the same neural responses that drive us toward food or away from predators are triggered by the way we are treated by other people.

          Apparently Maslow had it wrong. Maslow in his “hierarchy of needs” suggested that humans satisfy their needs in sequence, starting with physical survival and moving up the ladder toward self-actualization at the top. In this hierarchy, social needs sit in the middle. But many studies now show that the brain equates social needs with survival; for example, being hungry and being ostracized activate similar neural responses.

          Being in this threat response state for any length of time is damaging to both individual productivity and organizational performance. It uses up vital oxygen and glucose from the blood making it no longer available to other functions of the brain such as working memory which processes new information and ideas. This impairs analytical thinking, creative insight and problem solving.

          The impact of this dynamic is often visible in organizations. For example, an autocratic manager operating in a carrot and stick mentality triggers a threat response in employees and reduces efficiency, creativity and innovation.

          So what can managers do to minimize the threat response and enable the reward response? Here are 3 of the 5 things mentioned in the article:

          1. Understand “status” stress and look for creative ways to enable status boosts.
          As humans, we are constantly assessing how our status compares to others around us. Research by Hidehiko Takahashi in 2009 shows that when people realize that they might compare unfavourably to someone else, the threat response kicks in releasing cortisol and other stress-related hormones.

          As a manager, limit stressful comparisons like forced ranking and 360 degree reviews as well as negative “feedback.” Provide praise and opportunities to learn new skills, two critically important status boosters.

          2. Be transparent, open and clear about what’s going on.
          When a person encounters a familiar situation, his or her brain conserves it’s own energy by shifting into a kind of automatic pilot. The pattern has been established and minimal energy is taken up. The opposite is true when the brain registers ambiguity or confusion. Uncertainty registers as an error, gap or tension and draws energy away from other functions.

          Not knowing what will happen next can be debilitating because it requires extra neural energy. This diminishes memory, undermines performance and disengages people from the present.
          Leaders and managers can help create a perception of certainty by sharing business plans, rationale for changes, and by breaking large projects into smaller more manageable chunks.

          3. Stop micro managing and let people make their own decisions
          A perception of reduced autonomy – for example of being micromanaged – can easily generate a threat response. Presenting people with options, or allowing them to organize their own work and set their own hours, provokes a much less stressed response.

          Full article here –

          Be Sociable, Share!

            Use Individualized Strategies to Motivate Employees

            Ever wonder what makes some people work really hard while others seem to do as little as possible? Why some need no prodding at all, yet others must be constantly guided, prodded, and incentivized? And just how much influence can a manager really have on the motivation of employees?

            Understanding motivation is not has difficult as you might think. And yes, a manager can have a great deal of influence. So can peers, the work environment and nature of the work itself. The key is recognizing that motivation is an individual behavior, not an organizational one, and as such the focus must be on the individual. Each has past experiences and psychological baggage that influence their perception of the world and the people around them. These all influence motivation.

            There is no such thing as a “one-size-fits-all” approach to motivation. What works to motivate John may not work at all to motivate Bob. Because each person has a different psychological make-up, motivational strategies must be unique and different. Motivation is tied closely to values. Values are the qualities, principles and priorities that each of us holds most dear. Values guide our decisions in life and in work. They explain why we do what we do. Values drive and motivate us. Some examples of work values include:

            • Achievement
            • Autonomy
            • Comfort
            • Prosperity / Money
            • Recognition
            • Safety
            • Status
            • Learning

            Categories of Work Values Work values tend to fall into these three categories: Environmental Social Self Environmental values are things like comfortable working conditions, a secure position or job, a variety of tasks and fair compensation. Social values include things like – the opportunity for recognition and advancement, managing people, helping others, or having close social relationships with co-workers. Examples of Self values are: a sense of accomplishment, the opportunity to achieve, learn, grow, be creative, or make decisions autonomously.

            Values as Outcomes Another way to think of values is as outcomes. What is it that the employee most wants to achieve? What is their ultimate outcome? If you know this, then you know how to motivate them. In my case, my highest work values or ultimate outcome is freedom, a sense of accomplishment, and continuous learning. If you want to motivate me, give me a job that will provide me with those outcomes. How can you use this information to improve motivation? Here is a step-by-step process for improving motivation.

            1. Recognize individual differences and develop individual strategies. The first step in developing individualized strategies is to determine what outcomes each employee values. In other words, what drives the employee? Once you determine their values or the outcomes they value, then you can individualize the rewards. If for example, you determine that I value Recognition, then you can figure out ways to ensure I get the Recognition I need to keep me motivated.

            2. Match people to jobs that enable them to use their natural strengths and talents. When people are properly matched to jobs that provide them with an opportunity to regularly use their natural strengths and talents, they will be naturally motivated. Think about it – the things that you do the best are typically the things you love to do. When you are doing something that you love to do, you don’t need any external motivation. Typically you don’t need much in the way of training either. An added bonus and saving for the organization.

            3. Determine what kinds of behavior you/the organization want and articulate it clearly. We often talk about things like “good performance” but we don’t specifically define what that means or looks like. We assume everyone knows. Wrong! I may be highly motivated, but motivated to do something completely different from what the organization wants or needs. You can’t blame the employee if you haven’t specifically defined what it is you want. Describe the goal. Be specific about how it is to be performed (but without micromanaging). When possible, provide an example, a sample, or a model.

            4. Link organizational desired outcomes to individual desired outcomes. Perhaps the toughest part of the process is syncing up work in the organization – in particular the organization’s desired outcomes with individual desired outcomes. How do you accomplish what you need to accomplish as a company or organization and at the same time have the employee get what they need?

            Although it seems like a daunting task, it’s not as difficult as you might imagine. If you’ve done a good job hiring people who’s core values match those of the organization, you’re already half way there. If you’ve done a good job at matching people to work that they are naturally inclined to, then you’re three-quarters there.

            Be Sociable, Share!