Five Ways Executives Model the Way for Culture Change

Posted on by CATALYSIS

An organization’s culture is comprised by the behaviors demonstrated by individuals within the organization. If leaders are serious about building a continuous improvement culture, then they need to model the way by setting the standard through their own behaviors, as well as help hold others responsible for theirs.

In the book, Becoming the Change, John Toussaint, MD and Kim Barnas describe how to use a radar chart with five behavioral dimensions to help leaders assess and reflect on their own leadership behavior.

Here are some ways executives model the way for culture change:

Willingness to Change

To lead in an improvement culture, executives must be willing to change their approach and actions and should demonstrate that through their behaviors. They need be willing to learn and adapt.

While you can’t observe willingness to change, there are observable behaviors that indicate willingness. For example, a leader who is willing to change would make time for reflection. Designating time for reflection is important. Not just thinking about things on your daily commute but setting aside specific time for reflection on a regular basis. During reflection time John and Kim recommend asking yourself:

  • What did I do that unleashed the creativity of my team?
  • What did I do that shut my team down?

This key is to set time to reflect and stick to it. Don’t forget to make adjustments based on the answers you give to these questions.

Lead with Humility

In a culture of continuous improvement, leaders need to lead with humility. By this we mean acknowledging their limits and understanding that they do not have all the answers. There has been evidence shown in research that humble leaders have better results from an organizational perspective; like this research by Jim Collins and this article in NEJM.

An observable behavior for humility would be a leader going to observe the work in the gemba. This demonstrates that they are interested in understanding what is happening within the organization and that they realize they do not have all the answers. But remember the purpose of being in the gemba is not to embed your solutions, it is to learn and help people think differently.

Demonstrate Curiosity

Curiosity is an invaluable trait for anyone leading in a continuous improvement culture. This doesn’t necessarily show up in leadership books, but to create a continuous improvement culture you really have to care about what is going on within the organization.

As with the previous two leadership dimensions, you cannot see curiosity because it is not an observable behavior; however, asking questions is observable. A leader who wants to work on demonstrating curiosity would be seen asking open-ended questions, empathetically listening, and using A3 thinking rather than jumping to solutions.

Exercise Perseverance

A leader within a continuous improvement culture will need to be persistent in the face of difficulty. Changing your behaviors can be challenging, but it is important to stay committed. 

An observable behavior for perseverance is a leader who seeks the support of a coach or buddy to give them direct feedback on how their behaviors are affecting people. Most often leaders choose to find an outside professional to serve as their coach; but some select a trusted colleague to take on the role. Either way, it is important for your buddy or coach to be disciplined and respectful.

Practice Self-Discipline

The area of self-discipline tends to be where many executives have gaps. By self-discipline, we mean the continual regulation and correction of one’s own behaviors.

One way for leaders to practice self-discipline is with leader standard work. Leader standard work should include activities that add value. Some of these activities include going to gemba or coaching team members. Leader standard work defines what the leader should be doing, when the leader should be doing it, and how the leader should be doing it.

We encourage you to think about how you might rate yourself in these five areas and how well you demonstrate these behaviors. Pick an area to focus on and see what results you get. Remember that executives determine the organization’s culture through their behaviors. If you want to change the culture of your organization, you must first start by changing yourself.


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Lean Healthcare Transformation Summit

Book: Becoming the Change by John Toussaint, MD, and Kim Barnas

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Catalysis Physician Lean Leader Forum

Catalysis Healthcare Value Network

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