Corporate Culture Change: Cornerstone of Employee Engagement

Corporate Culture Change: Cornerstone of Engagement

Trust BuildingAchieving growth and innovation is on everyone’s minds these days. Increasingly leaders are seeking culture change and employee engagement as the answer. In this era, being in the driver’s seat requires extreme leadership. It’s hard to navigate the whitewater of global competition, workers who don’t like to be told what to do, and fast-moving change.

So how do corporate cultures become truly engaged?

There is one answer every leader can do more of to change and improve their corporate culture through employee engagement. It doesn’t cost anything. It is guaranteed to increase business results and performance. It does not require gimmicks or manipulation.

It is truly the most serious advice we give our clients:

Build trust.

Trust is in short supply in our larger societal culture. There are complete trust breakdowns happening in every system: Our governments. Our corporations. Our families. There’s a reason for this: We are in the midst of a massive transformation of our human society. It’s systemic, it’s painful, and it’s growing. Any time humans are facing significant change, trust issues surface. Like a magnet, people are programmed to fear change that is forced on them. They polarize against it. Since the pace of change is increasing, it is directly impacting employee engagement and is redefining what it means to be an employee and leader in our companies today.

In business, trust is the foundation of everything – including your corporate culture, employee engagement, and productivity problems. In our book Transforming Corporate Culture, we use the analogy of trust being like the sun – it is the life-source of an organization. When trust is weak or cut off, productivity suffers. Unless you are a solo player, you cannot drive engagement, motivation, and passionate action. No matter how many surveys, initiatives, or technologies you deploy, unless people trust their leaders (and vice versa) you won’t achieve maximum productivity. That’s true whether your organization is 5 people, 50, or 5000. Campbell Soup CEO Douglas Conant says it this way:

You have to inspire trust, and once you earn people’s trust, you have permission to do some amazing things. Trust gives you permission to give people direction, get everyone aligned, and give them the energy to go get the job done. Trust enables you to execute with excellence and produce extraordinary results. As you execute with excellence and deliver on your commitments, trust becomes easier to inspire, creating a flywheel of performance.” (excerpted from Gallup Management Journal).

Culture change and employee engagement are never about resources, strategy, or technology.

There are three common misunderstandings we have observed in efforts to drive culture change and employee engagement. They are about the role of trust in today’s workplaces:

1) Relationships are seen as “soft.” We don’t have a resource problem on our workplaces. We have a relationship problem. Employees are disengaged and untrusting because they’re not connected to each other – and their leaders – through the strength relationships create. If that sounds airy-fairy, think about this in your own life. You’re far more committed to following through with a boss or client you like and trust. You’re much more likely to make a change you are personally motivated by, and when you’re willingly accountable to someone you like and trust (think of your personal trainer). If you need to be convinced about the link between trust, engagement, and the bottom line, you probably shouldn’t be leading a P&L statement!

2) Trust in leaders is automatic, and they ought to be blindly trusted to make decisions and communicate on a “need to know” basis… while employees should remain grateful and “live with it.”  Trust in leaders is not automatic anymore; unfortunately, it’s the reverse: People mistrust leaders until they’ve proven otherwise.  Trust must be given for it to be received – and leaders must lead that effort. You will not generate a high-trust workplace unless you show you trust others you trust them through your actions. The opposite is also true: You cannot expect to make secretive decisions that impact people’s daily lives and livelihood, announce them via email – and generate trust. The cost of this common mindset is extremely high, and growing worse by the day. Given the truth about change and polarity and the level of change, organizations are facing, a continued steady diet of force-fed change is like junk food to our organization’s cultural health. Trust is at an all-time low and it’s significantly impacting workplace engagement and productivity.

3) “If I trust my people, it means I’m letting the animals run the zoo.” Trust is maintained by mutual personal responsibility.  In the face of massive gaps in effective communication, trust is considered a contractual agreement rather than a relationship agreement – and is too often left to lawyers and judges to figure out. Trust between two human beings and the dialogue that fosters tolerance, understanding, and true problem-solving is rare. Given that trust is the life-source of any organization, this is an alarming trend in our view. For example, in a company culture, an agreement to “Treat each other with respect” (a common value) needs conversation that creates common meaning and widespread buy-in. Rarely does that dialogue happen beyond a poster on a wall. The topic “how we treat each other when things don’t go as agreed or planned” is considered soft and fluffy. And yet, trust is fostered primarily through what happens when the going gets rough – not when everything is groovy.

The First Rule of Trust

To build more trust within your team or work environment, the first step is to WANT to create an environment of trust. Then you must demonstrate that in your behavior as the leader, by assuming positive intent, over-communicating your decisions, and giving people bad news in person. Learning to create a culture of positive intent is the “first rule of trust.” This brilliant description of the power of positive intent by Indra Nooyi, Chairman and CEO of Pepsi illustrates the point.

One of our clients used the power of positive intent to change the culture in his IT organization. (He was CIO of a Fortune 50 company). He noticed one behavior in the culture was eroding trust more than anything else: The tendency for people to criticize others and seek blame, especially when there were problems with a project. After learning the “positive intent” rule, he started a simple practice. Every time one of his team members complained about someone (usually who was  not in the room), he would ask them; “Do you really think Joe got up this morning, looked in the mirror, and said, I’m going to drive the IT guys nuts?” “I assume Joe’s intent is positive, but we don’t understand something he’s trying to do, or maybe he doesn’t understand what we’re trying to do. What do you think his intention really is?”

Our client reported that it took a while for his positive intent principle to catch on, but after enough time, the culture shifted significantly – and permanently. With a bit of support and lots of repetition, this change spread beyond his team to the entire IT organization.

Lisa Jackson is a corporate culture expert and co-author of 2 books including the brand new “Culture Builder Toolkit: A Step-by-Step Guide for Assessing and Changing Corporate Culture.” She specializes in teaching companies and leaders how to align and transform their corporate culture to maximize profitable growth, productivity, and innovation.

For free tools and resources on culture change, visit or follow her on Twitter at

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