Are You Creating a Culture to Thrive or a Culture to Survive?

Many companies will be familiar with the universal need to act, think and behave like a challenger, that’s great but what does that really mean from a leadership perspective?

Every challenger management manifesto can set out the rules they want their teams to follow and the behavior they want them to adopt, but outside of putting great big words on walls, what can you do as a leader to ensure that your teams really deliver on these, sometimes lofty objectives?

Having studied the dynamics of many companies, some that just ‘talk the talk’ and some that actually ‘walk the walk’, we’ve noticed some key behaviours outside the challenger credos, needed for a challenger culture to exist and deliver transformational results.

So first and foremost I’m assuming that if you’re reading this you will already be familiar with the challenger mindset which has been set out by great people like Adam Morgan and Simon Sinek to name drop a couple of my personal favourites. If you’re not familiar with them it might be worth checking out some interview or content to understand some of my commentaries.

I’m not here to reinvent the wheel, the work that those sagely thinkers have already done and shared with the world is more than good enough and frankly far more interesting than anything that I could come up with.

But as with all great thinking, there are some steps that you as a leader, will need to think carefully about before you start banging the drum. That’s if you want to make an actual difference that creates true value both in the short and long term.

I’m not going into any great depth here but just for context, at its heart adopting a challenger brand strategy is open to everyone who isn’t the market leader (and even that’s up for debate). Essentially the premise is that by doing the same thing you will only achieve at best incremental improvements.

To add any transformational value, you have to do something different, something that changes behaviours and challenges the status quo. This can come in any number of ways and by definition, no two challengers can be the same… or they wouldn’t be challenging…

As a side note if you need help on working out how you can create change in your business from some fresh thinking you may want to get in touch… but plug over let’s get back to it.

This piece is not about how you go about challenging, but how you as a leader you can set up a culture that fosters and encourages the individuals in your teams to live breath and behave like challengers.

Going back to basics I’m sure you will agree that all businesses are about people, so to understand how to guide behaviours we need to look at the reasons why people behave the way they do and what triggers them to do so.

Humans or to adopt our more scientific name ‘homosapiens’ are arguably the most successful species ever to walk the planet. (Depending on your definition of success). It’s fair to say we have managed to dominate our environment and all other life forms.

The simple and most widely accepted reason for this is our ability to work together and at the heart of this lays the ability to communicate and share common goals and objectives.

Put simply when we work together with a common goal, that’s larger than ourselves there isn’t much that we cant do.

So you’ve worked hard to build your team, you’ve screened them all at interview and none of them ticked the ‘I’m actually a psychopath’ box on the isometric tests. You’ve put some bean bags in the breakout areas and bought a pool table. But you’re not getting the kind of dynamic results you want and need.

Odds are if you’ve put thought behind your vision and purpose and clearly communicated to your people, then there’s nothing wrong with your strategy, however, if it’s not working, you might have a problem with your culture.

And before you move on you are going to need to get this right.

So as people our anthropology dictates we are all pre-programmed to adopt behaviours that lead to a successful outcome. We are part practical intellectual problem solvers and part emotional animals. And it’s this that keeps us alive and makes us so successful.

It’s actually a simple matter of biology.

When we feel threatened, our body reacts by producing chemicals like cortisol, which alerts us to something threatening, this is the stress hormone that stops us in our tracks and makes us feel ‘fear or panic’ as well as adrenaline and that’s the good old fight or flight response and to be clear we ALL have this.

Most people will be aware of this, what’s less commonly known is how these chemicals affect us on a physiological level. So we can flee or fight effectively, all non-essential functions are shut down; so all our energies can be focused on muscle performance etc. In this list of nonessentials goes things like cell regeneration, digestion, healing and ….wait for it …..cognitive processing… and it’s this, that we need to be aware of, at least for this argument.

In short, feeling threatened directly affects your ability to think.

In today’s modern world where sabre tooth tigers and fire-breathing dragons are no longer a direct threat, our bodies still adopt the same base functions when we feel threatened.

The fear of being eaten has been replaced by other fears but the results stay the same. If you want to ensure you create a culture where cognitive ability is fully optimised you have to make sure that your teams feel secure and, for want of another word ‘safe’.

I can almost hear some of you groaning and switching off but bear with me, this isn’t about creating a fluffy, warm and fuzzy culture where everyone is wrapped up in cotton wool, far from it, in truth if it was that easy we’d all be doing it, it’s  actually much harder…. there did I get you back?

In order to achieve the optimum culture for people to reach their full potential and for you to get the kind of results you want from being a challenger, there’s actually more to this.

The second part of the story is based on our ability to function as a team or tribe, we are at our best when we work together and we believe that the people around us are motivated and delivering at a high level.

To be clear, we’re not talking about adversarial competition the likes of which you might see in a back room sales team all fighting for the next lead, we are talking about knowing that the person to the left of you and the right of you is at the top of their game and doing a great job for the betterment of the wider goals of the tribe, and by implication actually protecting you. This is a big difference.

One environment inspires and motivates and doesn’t threaten, the individual wants to hold up their end of the bargain and protect the people to the left and right of them, pushing themselves towards bettering the group purpose.

By creating an adversarial culture where individuals feel threatened by the person to the left or right of you, the cortisol flows and people protect themselves, they actually can’t do anything else, and that’s just our biology.

For people to adopt a culture of challenging they have to be empowered and inspired both by the people around them and the goals they’re working towards. They have to feel brave and willing to take chances. That’s the only way true challengers can work. When feeling threatened our cognitive ability depletes, as does our willingness to try new things.

We become introverted and look towards the safety of things that worked in the past and stay in our ‘comfort zones’.

Here are a few steps to creating an environment to thrive

  • Be careful about the people you bring into the group hire on personal values and experience

  • Once in, make people feel ‘safe’ but reassure them that they all have value

  • Make your goals and objectives clear

  • Set your people an ambitious challenge that unites them and forces collaboration

  • Celebrate successes sincerely

  • Share the failures

  • Don’t victimise mistakes, they happen, learn and provide the opportunity to improve.

  • Be genuine and open

If you would like to speak to us about creating ideas that challenge conventions and create measurable transformational differences in your business then we’d love to hear from you.