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Max St John

The role of leadership in creating a ‘social’ culture

I’m starting to do more work with leadership teams around change for more socially engaged and digital business. I thought I’d quickly share some observations on one of the common themes and an approach that I’m enjoying finding useful.

Process change vs culture change 

For a long time we’ve been helping to develop policies, write processes and guidelines, create reports and workshop campaigns and activities with our clients, all with the aim of creating more digitally engaged organisations.

As more of our work becomes about wider business and behaviour change, and we start to engage more systems thinking, we are better able to see the patterns of ‘stuck-ness’ emerge – to explain with an example: we identify a need and a solution with our client, it’s in line with a corporate strategy to deliver digital transformation, or create a more innovative and collaborative culture, but somehow it repeatedly gets sticky, and we all struggle to get it off the ground.

One of the most common barriers is the dominant culture and the associated organisational behaviours.

To clarify – when I talk about developing as a social business, I’m not talking about becoming better at social media marketing or embedding a social CRM strategy.

What I mean by social business is an organisation that’s more responsive, more open and honest, more collaborative and inclusive, one that creates the conditions for innovation and taking more risks, strives to be less hierarchical – even has more conversations about what really matters and what we’re actually here for.

But even just taking more risks is a big shift for many businesses, especially when the prevailing culture is often about risk management, the control in the hierarchy and a need to paint a positive picture instead of sharing in our failures and learning from our mistakes.

What management say vs what leaders do

The funny thing is that management often say that they’re all for it. The messages that staff hear might be all about the need to innovate: “We want you to take more risks” or the need to be more involving with customers using social media: “We want you to be more open and collaborative.”

But what I’ve noticed is that this outward positivity doesn’t always match the inner belief, and the knock-on effect this has on culture and wider behaviour can be significant.

This is one explanation for how a seemingly forward-thinking organisation feels far from ‘forward-doing’ . If management don’t have the understanding or confidence around the basics of social media, and what it means to be more open, authentic or collaborative online, then no matter how positive the words, their decisions and behaviours will reflect this. And as the old saying goes ‘actions speak louder than words’.

I also think this is where I might differentiate management from leadership - management is often about managing risk and maintaining status quo, while leadership is about courage to show the way or creating the conditions for others to do so – and neither of these roles or behaviours need be contained to the top level of the hierarchy.

But, if you are focusing on the behaviours of the most senior people, how do you take these very busy people through a journey of personal change?

Taking people on learning journeys

One of the ways to help senior teams understand and embrace this kind of very personal change (there are many approaches, I’m not saying this it the only, or ultimate – just one I’m finding helpful with my clients) is using the Action Learning Set methodology.

Action Learning Sets are sometimes referred to as ‘reflective learning’ as they’re a way for individuals to go on a bit of a personal journey, around any issue, with a group to help them reflect on the experience. It’s an approach that’s particularly suited to adult learning, as it relies on experience through action over time, instead of being told by an expert, and is one that’s widely used in business.

In an Action Learning Set, each person in a group sets themselves a question that relates to the topic or issue, and an action that they’ll take away to help them explore that question. Periodically (typically every 4-6 weeks) they return as a group to share their experience and hear the other’s reflections and questions, to help them understand things a bit deeper, before going on to set a new question to take away.

The methodology is pretty simple but requires careful facilitation to keep the group from deviating too far from the core of the topic, and more importantly, from talking about themselves and their individual learning. It’s very easy to talk about things, and actions, but the reason this approach can be so effective is that it encourages deeper, more introspective and ‘reflective learning’.

We’re working with their senior teams to help them demonstrate ‘social media leadership behaviours’ – with the aim of them role-modeling a desired change for their wider organisation.

Why take this approach for social media?

It’s pretty obvious that social media isn’t the real issue – the understanding and the cultural change we’re all usually trying to instigate is where there’s more collaboration, less perceived control in/reliance on the hierarchy, more willingness to take risks, etc.

As I’ve said, the drivers for culture are a relatively complex and myriad, but if you’re starting from a point where hierarchy is important, then leadership behaviours and beliefs, and how they manifest in the decisions that get made, are pretty powerful.

This post was filed under Digital transformation, Innovation, The future, Working culture and tagged , , , , Comments are currently closed.


  1. Nice piece Max.

    I think this is incredibly common – people saying one thing and doing another.

    And above all it is a very effective strategy to avoid any kind of change.

    Chris Argyris, the legendary organisational psychologist described this, distinguishing “espoused theory” from “theory-in-use”.

    As he pointed out, It is often fear that drives the return to theory-in-use.

    When we get scared, even if we believe something different very strongly, we revert to pre-existing behaviour.

    This is one reason, I think, why developing emotional intelligence – through action learning or any other activity – is so important.

    Often people don’t know they are saying one thing and doing another.

    But if people can become more conscious of themselves and their emotions then the possibility exists of getting past that fear.


    Posted 9th May 2013 at 5:20 pm | Permalink
  2. Thanks Max – there’s a lot to think about here. My experience to date is that encouraging colleagues to own up when projects don’t work as well as we hoped, and blogging about them publicly, is a good first step. I think it’s crucial that the reflection process doesn’t become too internalised (read: ‘safe’).

    Posted 16th May 2013 at 3:23 pm | Permalink
  3. Thank you Tim, that’s an enlightened and healthy approach to admitting mistakes and making sure everyone learns and develops in the process. I love the level of transparency, and robustness it shows by making it visible to the outside world. Thanks for sharing.

    Posted 17th May 2013 at 2:40 pm | Permalink

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