Be Positive as You Shift Your Organisational Culture

06 February 2017 -


The latest in our series leading up to the Management Book of the Year awards

By Management Book of the Year shortlisted author Jeff Gold

In organisations, one of the most difficult and complex issues is how to bring about changes or shifts in cultures.

One of the persistent findings in our research is that leaders and managers assume that everyone in their organisation has the same interest and concern about future direction and purpose as they do. But this is unlikely and variations of interest and concern can make change and culture shift a very difficult problem.

The Culture is Sinking

A large public sector organisation (which we will call PublicOrg), employing 8,500 people, faced a serious problem; there were statutory targets to meet but continuous cuts in budgets and resources.

PublicCo’s leaders commissioned a culture audit to understand staff views and were not surprised to find a lowering of morale, lack of engagement and a disconnection between leaders and staff at all levels. Based on the findings from the survey, leaders could state how the culture was sinking:

  1. Engagement
  2. Trust
  3. Confidence
  4. Review and Feedback
  5. Leadership
  6. Decision-making
  7. Silo-working
  8. Change

Rather than dwelling on the reasons for these, we helped PublicCo leaders consider a culture shift by setting a process to achieve improvement based on Appreciative Inquiry.

Seek the Positive

Appreciative Inquiry is an action mode of research that focuses on holding conversations with people who have knowledge of what is working in an organisation.

Talking to people appreciatively encourages them to reveal what they value about work, producing knowledge for action that elevates what is good and right.

In PublicCo, using this basic process, an action learning group of seven leaders was formed to work together for five months to focus on what was working.

At the first meeting, they agreed to focus their conversations on good work practice for engagement. They also agreed to hold two conversations per week over four weeks and record the results in a log.

Find the Positive

At the first review, each leader was able to share findings. The positive conversations had provided energy and satisfaction to others in PublicCo and there were many examples of good practice relating to engagement.

Some key themes emerged as actionable knowledge concerning communication, consultation, attitudes, challenge, reward and recognition and ideas for innovation.

One immediate action was for leaders to understand the complexity and sophistication of communication, resulting in a Communications Workshop undertaken by Division Leadership Teams in the six divisions of the PublicCo.

Further cycles on issues of trust and leadership produced ideas for action and after the third cycle, the leaders were ready to find four others to form local action learning groups on other issues.

Did the culture shift?

As we suggested, culture shift is fraught with difficulty but responses from the groups pointed towards improvement and an upturn in morale

A survey of attitudes taken in 2016 highlighted more positive features relating to trust, leadership and consultation. More importantly, leaders had found an ongoing process to appreciate and act from the value attached by staff to what they do.


Jeff Gold is one of the authors of A Guide To Professional Doctorates in Business and Management, which is shortlisted in the Management and Leadership Textbook category of the 2017 Management Book of the Year awards


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