Transforming Workplace Culture with Blake Redding

Host, Nathan Luker, is joined by leadership, culture and transformation consultant, Blake Redding, to discuss the challenges of transforming workplace culture.

In this podcast (29 mins), Nathan and Blake discuss:

  • What is the root cause of poor behaviour in the workplace
  • How should organisations respond to changing employee and community expectations around conduct and culture
  • The importance of psychological safety to build a better culture
  • The role played by data, technology and transparent reporting in transforming workplace culture

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Additional Resources

Here are some additional resources Nathan and Blake make reference to in the podcast that will help you explore the topic of transforming workplace cultures.

Podcast Transcript

Nathan Luker: [00:00:02] Welcome to The RelyOn Podcast, a show that delivers practical insights for leaders to build better organisations where people can live, work and study. I’m Nathan Luker, co-founder at Rely, where we help some of the best-known brands to prevent, detect and respond to culture and conduct issues via our intelligent platform. In today’s conversation, I’m joined by Blake Redding, a leadership transformation consultant at Mapien. And I’m so excited to be exploring workplace cultures, human behaviour and some of our favourite research to talk about how to build psychologically safe workplaces. Blake, welcome to the show.

Blake Redding: [00:00:41] Thank you. Pleasure to be here.

Nathan Luker: [00:00:43] On top of a Master’s in Organisational Psychology, you’ve spent many years advising both the public and private sector on culture change. Let’s start with a little bit more about you. What drives you? What led your interest in human behaviour and changing workplace cultures?

Blake Redding: [00:01:03] I think my fascination with human behaviour definitely started at university when I was learning about the, I guess, those milestone psychological studies into group behaviour where normal in inverted commas, people would follow instructions to the degree that you would inflict terminal electrical shocks onto other humans just for getting an answer incorrect. And then moving into my internship, I had the, I guess, the honour to work on a number of culture review projects at a time where that involved many focus groups, interviews and paper pencil surveys. And it always amazed me in terms of listening to the, I guess, the vivid stories and the impact that culture has on people’s lives every day. And I’d even probably say where the other part of culture that I find quite fascinating is that depending on who you talk to about culture will depend on how people define it. And it’s such an ill-defined topic. Yet when you speak to really high performing organisations, high performing teams or elite athletes, their top three will always attribute the culture in some way or another. So, it’s for me, it’s a two-edged sword, you know, it’s something that is so vague, yet powerful. So how do we influence and change something that’s so invisible yet impactful?

Nathan Luker: [00:02:29] It’s really interesting. You raise you’re referring to Stanley Milgram’s study for the 1960s, the shock experiment. I think that sent a ripple effect through the community. And it’s amazing they still teach that today at university. It is such a wonderful snapshot of being aware of your actions or the lack thereof in authority and really interesting just going on and using that experience. And then your professional experience, what do you think is a root cause of poor behaviour in the workplace? Do you have it? Is there an answer?

Blake Redding: [00:03:01] I think I think when you look at the root cause of any behaviour, poor or desirable, a kind of an elegant frame, but an early one from the 1930s from Kurt Lewin’s change model really looks at behaviour is the outcome of how a person interacts with their environment. And elegant and simple, yet quite deeply complex in the sense that what that looks like in practice is that you might have someone who volunteers for their SES and in a flood response will take charge and be a really strong leader in that situation. And then you might work beside them in an HR team at work and they will self-report and say, yeah, I’m not really keen on taking the lead here, you know, or I prefer to follow your lead. So, you’ve got the same person, different environment displaying massively different behaviours. And so. So, I think when we’re trying to think where the poor behaviours come from, I would say most people are good people trying to do what they think is right and to survive in this world. And if there was something that contributes to poor behaviour in an environment, I would say it is the absence of skilled, difficult conversations where other humans are noticing behaviour that’s starting to not be okay. So that earlier intervention and having a conversation about behaviours.

Nathan Luker: [00:04:40] It’s a slippery slope, isn’t it? Because it’s that day to day interaction as well that sets the tone. And what role what role do leaders have and managers have in that day to day? We recently did a podcast with another psychologist about incivility and how actions on the surface might seem as minor as looking at an email and a meeting begins to set a tone and said it’s a problematic action that can even be arguably worse. All of those actions stacked in the day, in all the meetings across all the of the entire organisation, can cause more harm than a bullying event on its own because it’s causing a greater impact. What do you think? Do you think those data actions are contributing to poor workplaces? Are they setting the scene that you just mentioned where dictates behaviour or puts those guardrails up?

Blake Redding: [00:05:34] Absolutely. If we sort of home in on leaders, you know, leaders will have what I call a disproportionate impact, you know, on behaviour in the workplace because of an increased level of attention that we place on people of higher status. So, the behaviours that are okay by them when they are not watching are okay when people aren’t watching. And if we are in an environment or a group that may not, as you say, use guardrails or check in or observe or just notice at the very least behaviours that might be slipping, you know, into not okay mode. That’s the slippery slope.

Nathan Luker: [00:06:16] Yeah, that’s right. And particularly important when we are dealing with ambiguity and are unsure about the appropriate way to act. And that can happen when you’re new in an organisation, when I can think of a fast-scaling business where those management structures haven’t caught up to the scale. And there’s a range of other examples where those guardrails may need to be higher or lower, depending on the level of ambiguity, because we know that people are going to follow the leader, basically.

Blake Redding: [00:06:44] And I think this is it’s in that context. I guess for me, definitely in my earlier years, both as a practitioner and an employee, I guess values were something that were something that you would have. Yet I probably overlooked the impact or the importance of values and working in an industrial relations firm where a lot of the investigations or grievances relate to perceived behaviours that are really more severe, violate a particular process or rule of protocol. The values of values, I believe, is really where there’s a way that we see behaviour as being okay. When we start to violate a particular value, we might be working within the rules, within the law, within ethical guidelines. But if we’re not within that values framework, that’s the guardrail. That’s the permission to have a conversation and understand, not assume guilt or intent, but help people understand. And I guess for me, that’s what connects the dots with what is organisational culture. I think, depending on who you ask, will depend on the definition you get. At the simplest form I’ve heard is it’s the way we do things around here, a term or a definition. I heard it was Corinne Canter while I did my human synergistic accreditation, and it was really poetic. I’ve not seen it in a textbook, but it expresses what all the textbooks try to say in a sense, that culture is behaviour, and so a culture are those behaviours that in a particular group, if you display those behaviours, you fit in. If you don’t display those behaviours, you don’t fit in around here. It’s interesting that that is really powerful. When you get a sense of values, help us understand or predict what those behaviours are and depending on when we get them right or wrong. If this is where the courage to have a conversation about a particular behaviour is, the. Is the guardrail for poor behaviours, but it’s also a tremendous pat on the back for the behaviour that you want to see, because I believe that to steal the energy from poor behaviours, humans need clarity of the desired behaviour.

Nathan Luker: [00:09:08] It’s interesting that behaviours and values are a wonderful way to position it. I wonder, is that where psychological safety meets? Is that where that intersection there as well? And what do you think about that and how important is that to building safe workplaces and better cultures?

Blake Redding: [00:09:26] If for me, when I learned of psychological safety, it was almost like, you know, for my team as well. We found a calling card in a sense of why we do what we do. It provided a beautiful way of thinking about the way culture can work for humans, you know, in in life and work. And although it’s not new, it too is a construct that can be differently defined and sometimes can be mixed up with trust. And so for me, I think psychological safety, if we don’t have it, a culture will become stale and cause an overdependence on something that is called like a bypass strategy. So, if you don’t have psychological safety, therefore you have to increase funding and investment into structure, processes, systems that mean that human’s thinking and behaviours doesn’t matter as much. It’s very expensive, hard to sustain. And you contrast that with, again, what psychological safety actually is. I sort of look at it. There are four factors to it. Most people stop at the first one, which is you’re safe to be yourself at work, to be your true self. The other part of that is that I’m also able to learn, which means I can actually make mistakes in this environment, but it doesn’t stop there. It’s also about that sense of it’s also okay for me to make a contribution to other teams, to other people without fear of retribution. And then finally, the fourth piece, which is the magic piece, which is it’s okay to challenge. It doesn’t mean I’m right in how it challenges, but it’s okay to do that. Again, this is the these are the characteristics that start to help an organisation have the invisible guardrails that keep us on track. And then I guess this is where, where trust is what I define it as something that’s more interpersonal, where I’ll trust an individual, whereas psychological safety is that judgment that I make about a group of people. You know. So, when I step into a room, I instantly gauge, consciously or unconsciously, how safe is it in here? And that’s the part that is psychological safe.

Nathan Luker: [00:11:53] That’s a really good point. Like we both know through our professional experiences how difficult this can be for organisations and how difficult can be to just define psychological safety in their own workplace. From your perspective, what have you seen that works? What interventions are needed by leaders?

Blake Redding: [00:12:11] Sure. So, I think with psychological safety to make any difference in that part, I think my head sort of swimming between targeting interventions at a team level and then how that might translate to a more organisation level intervention. And so, where I’ve seen it or been a part of projects where psychological safety is increased has usually been when working with teams. And I think this is where there’s some research undertaken at University of Queensland by Professor Haslam into identity leadership, which is really trying to say, hey, many models of leadership perceive the hero to be the leader. We develop them, we plug them into a team and they work. Leadership is actually a group process. And when you think about it in that lens, it aligns really nicely with Lindsay O’Neil’s work around the advantage. And I say this not because to name drop but more just a reference to the Giants on which I stand on in the work that I do. But this is where working with an executive team, you know, where there’s. That genuine commitment that it isn’t safe. We’re struggling to bring up the tough issues. There’s something not right here. What is it? And so, then the focused effort is coaching. Coaching can be an individual intervention, a team intervention.

Blake Redding: [00:13:45] You can even do it to yourself. But team coaching, for me, you know, that’s the powerful approach because. A good coach listens and listens hard, you know, with an interest to. Identify a goal or an outcome that should same purpose. We build that together. Then we start to understand the options around how do we need to behave? That then gives us the opportunity to make commitments and hold each other accountable. And by revisiting that commitment is where we can start to actually home in on specific situations or incidents that are helping psychological safety strengthen or stealing in a way. And so, this is something that we’ve seen sort of play out over 12 to 18 months where you’ll see some breakthroughs with the team in six months and others after 18 months and breakthroughs in the form of things like. We’re having conversations now that we couldn’t have a year ago. What that actually means is that we can. Get our leadership team around the table. Talk about a target operating model. Define what it actually is in a day. Instead of outsourcing this project to a group of people to come in and talk to us for weeks and weeks.

Nathan Luker: [00:15:08] It’s interesting. I think talking about a silver bullet is dangerous in most situations. It’s not that simple and generally as false and as minimal utility across organisations. But picking up on your advantage example, I think that’s great. It’s a wonderful book. Hearing your example and talking about the interventions, would that hero not so much be that leader? I hear we’re saying that social identity. Is it the pillars? Is it the framework? Is that the hero here? Is that getting close to a silver bullet? If we have a repeatable framework that builds a leadership team, it creates safety, trust. And the pillars that you mentioned earlier talks about clarity and overcommunicate. And then it reinforces if we if we create a structure and there are many of them. But is that the structure that outlives the people? And that structure, if that’s true and it works, that intervention may take six months and take 18 months. But if you work your structure, it’s going to work. Is that something that you see?

Blake Redding: [00:16:08] Yes. Yeah. For me, in terms of to see a shift in culture, it definitely takes that the leadership team interventions to pan out because in that corporate environment where we are always there’s never enough time to get done what needs to be done. Whereas fighting for our function and often overlooking that person next to us as another leader who is probably facing the same challenges, but we are conditioned to compete. So, the only way that we can shift that conditioning or mental model is to get some emotion in the room, build some vulnerability, have some conversations, create those commitments that start to shift that frame to say, Hey, it’s okay to talk to you when I actually don’t know what’s going on, you know? And in fact, when I learned that you’re experiencing the same way, we’re actually now starting to work and how to make this restructure work. And so that’s the that’s the behaviour, you know, that sees an uplift in things like an engagement survey or the capacity for a project to hit a particular time frame or what might not happen usually is to hear about the assumptions that a project was hinged on that are actually incorrect.

Nathan Luker: [00:17:29] And having the space to know that you can have those conversations and fail. I think the failing part is and challenging to really important elements that have done poorly. And I think as a leader in our business, I focus on heavily. I think essentially that’s my role. And part of the culture piece is to constantly talk about my own and our group’s failings, what we’ve learned from that, and demonstrate that it’s safe to do so and also that we can challenge isn’t decisions by consensus really work? However, knowing that people can challenge and we can debate productively and disagree purposefully is a really important element of creating that trust at our workplace, at least. Focusing on that framework and taking it further. If that relies then on a range of elements we’ve spoken about, including transparency that links well to some research I read recently around organisations that are more transparent, more authentic, etc. do a better job of uncovering problems. They invite employees to join the conversation and to talk about what’s not working. And it might manifest itself in a hand up in a meeting or a comment. In a meeting it might end up in whistleblowing, but the point is, is the information is taken out of the shadows. What roles, data and technology play to encourage this over time to support that framework and build that better workplace culture?

Blake Redding: [00:18:56] Sure. There’s probably a piece I would sort of jump on where you mentioned the transparency in terms of sharing data. There’s an industry that has done this well is the aviation industry where the regulation approach to that industry is the sense that if you self-report incidents, early penalties are much, much lower. And the genuine reason for that is it helps us as an industry improve that keeps our people safer. So, there’s a lot in that in a sense that it takes transparency, but something that reaches beyond sharing information. But there’s a genuine purpose behind it. And so, I think with transparency, it must be followed up with the space to actually understand and then commit to action. So then when we’re looking at data and technology, this is something where technology is making it easier to gather information about our people. And though it’s not yet making it easier for leaders or people to interpret and understand that data. Make choices. Execute them. And so, the opportunity that I think is evolving in the space of data and technology is how can we start to connect the dots and integrate both human data with performance data so that it becomes more natural in how people perceive what performance actually is that? I guess a colleague of mine, John Adcock, shared a metaphor with me that I love when we’re thinking about the use of data and technology to gather information, it is think of it like getting your blood pressure checked. When you get your blood pressure checked, there’s no health benefit of getting it checked. The health benefit comes from. What is that you do with that information? Do you choose to make a shift? So, the data technology combined with the time space and permission to decide, I guess, what are key result areas or semantic objectives or the meaningful next step to take is, is the piece that I think is escaping a lot of businesses at the moment. We’re getting better at measuring. Some are better at understanding. And then usually if we’re better at the understanding, it enables the commitments to be made that lead to action.

Nathan Luker: [00:21:40] Turning issues into insights.

Blake Redding: [00:21:42] Yeah, insights and action. Yeah.

Nathan Luker: [00:21:44] Actions action and preventative action to get to a root cause and to see patterns and begin to use some intelligence to decide, okay, I’m going into that next region or I’m hiring this type of team or opening this type of store. What have we learned? What am I? Risk factors built on actual intelligence from our supply chain or from our employees. Yeah, you’re right. That that is a critical thing to do. It’s also an important thing for a leader in an organisation to take a stand and decide enough’s enough. I’m going to start admitting this practice now. We’re not going to hit our ideal state today, but we’re going to make a commitment to beginning to gather intelligence. And it’s a scary thing at a big organisation to do. Where do you even start? And there are ways to do that. And you can rely on great vendors, you can rely on in-house data analytics, but beginning making that decision to consolidate all the disparate sources of information into a consolidated approach and begin that journey is an empowering one. And it’s one that takes it takes a courageous leader to do so.

Nathan Luker: [00:22:50] Blake, interested to talk a little bit more about the framework but also to organisations have a choice now because I say that with the connectivity that we have across the globe now in the early nineties, employer branding came out and it was it was all the rage. And in a way it’s always been there but kind of fell into the background. But it’s never been more important. Organisations are on trial every day to public opinion. We can see things from the large tech companies in Silicon Valley. We can see protests happening with attempts to silence workers. There’s been MeToo, Black Lives Matter, just to name a few. There are many of these happening now and in the past that are causing movements and lifting the expectations, the community’s expectations of what an organisation needs to do, their expectations of conduct and culture, and how leaders decide to take action. Make that decision we just mentioned, to turn issues into insights. What’s your opinion on how leaders should respond to those changing community expectations?

Blake Redding: [00:24:06] Sure. I guess the part of it, I think, is to acknowledge the. How hard it can be, you know, for a leader and a team, you know, that’s seeking to balance the relentless demand for productivity and. An enormous level of change that’s coming from within. And then it shifts to the environment that are really testing the way that things are done day to day. So, I think with that, I’m sort of sharing a bit of empathy, which is probably key for me, is really the skill, not a trait, but the skill, you know, for leaders to strengthen and know when to use it. But I think the other part of it is probably a couple of parts. One would be also I’d say that. You can’t blindly accept it. Nor can you blissfully ignore them. I mean, you can you. But it just isn’t good for your business or your people. But I think if you use my words, I hope it sends the right message of would-be critical acceptance. So, I use critical acceptance deliberately because to critically accept something means that you’re reflecting on your own values. You’re reflecting on what’s in front of you. And genuinely trying to understand where the differences are. I’m not in the space of trying to prove my values right or trying to blindly accept what you’re telling me. But until we engage in a kind of conversation with friction, you know, there’s human emotion in there.

Blake Redding: [00:25:36] It’s okay for these items to arise. We’re actually going to get stronger through it. And accepting that and accepting that everybody is okay here. That’s what I mean by critical acceptance. I think that that way of thinking would fit with people’s values. And if it doesn’t, there’d be an easy way to map out how and then look, look for opportunities to make that work, be it integrity, be it excellence, whatever value fit your core. That’s critical. Acceptance is key. I think the other. Part of it that I think we are more blind to as humans is, I guess, an openness to perhaps change habits that hurt others. So, there are things that we do. Irrationally and by habit, without any conscious effort that affect and upset others. They’re probably the hardest shifts to make because we don’t even know we’re doing them, nor do we want to be doing them. There’s no intent behind it. I guess an example could be where if you walk into an organisation and they might be doing a leadership program and have pictures of leaders, the inspirational leaders, white Americans, or when we send emails, you know, we are saying, hey, you know, like something really subtle without any intent, though, they can be habits that can harm others.

Nathan Luker: [00:27:04] That’s really fascinating. I think critical acceptance is a wonderful way to label it. I haven’t heard it before. It’s a terrific way to think about frameworks, psychological safety and culture. Blake, this been absolutely fantastic catch up. We want to finish on a sentence. We ask all our guests for you to complete the sentence. And that’s great cultures rely on….

Blake Redding: [00:27:30] Great cultures rely on people pursuing purpose and values that go far beyond profit. And they prioritise human connection. Well, maybe a bit long, but you know, that’s it, I guess.

Nathan Luker: [00:27:52] Yeah, that’s it is long, but it hits on every point and it’s critically important. It’s fantastic. Blake, thank you so much for joining us.

Blake Redding: [00:28:03] Thanks for having me.

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