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Leaders are familiar with the challenge of making a cultural transformation. To signal changing expectations, execute carefully considered symbolic actions.
Why did a leading global agriculture player order small rubber elephants adorned with the company’s logo for its meeting rooms? Far from being mere props, these elephants were symbols to facilitate desired behavior shifts in employees.
The organization was undergoing a cultural transformation to become a higher-performing, more innovative company. Leadership realized that to achieve this goal, employees needed to become more open and comfortable having the candid conversations required to move ideas forward—they needed to be able to put the elephant on the table. To encourage this change, leadership sought a way to signal the beginning of the transformation and role model the new behaviors.
Leaders across industries are familiar with the challenge of making—and sustaining—a cultural transformation. To signal that cultural expectations are changing, leadership should execute one or two carefully considered symbolic actions.
Make expectations clear through role modeling
Beyond Performance 2.0 discusses the importance of senior leaders employing symbolic actions—highly visible acts or decisions that indicate change in the organization—to demonstrate their commitment to the transformation. Symbolic actions can augment critical, but often less visible, day-to-day behavior shifts among leaders, addressing a common frustration: “I’m doing things differently but no one is noticing.”
Our research shows that transformations are 5.3 times more likely to succeed when leaders model the behavior they want employees to adopt. We also found that nearly 50 percent of employees cite the CEO’s visible engagement and commitment to transformation as the most effective action for engaging frontline employees.
Symbolic actions are most successful when employees connect the dots between the act and the broader change message, facilitating both a mindset and behavioral shift. For example, employees at the agriculture company were initially confused when they discovered the rubber elephants. But their confusion subsided when they saw leaders pick them up and put them on the table as they raised difficult topics others might have felt uncomfortable surfacing. The practice was eventually adopted by other employees when they too needed to call out the elephant in the room.
Develop a portfolio of symbolic actions
Leaders can identify the right symbolic actions for their organization and evolve their approaches by undertaking three key activities:
- Define the purpose of and audience for potential symbolic actions. Leaders should identify what specific changes they want to facilitate and which group should be part of the symbolic action. Being clear on what is being symbolized and for what purpose will focus energy on the ideas that will have the greatest impact.
- Brainstorm symbolic actions. Go for quantity over quality when generating ideas. Use external examples for inspiration and adopt design-thinking tactics, such as empathy mapping, to better understand the audience. Categorizing the ideas according to design dimensions such as who will execute the action and the frequency of the action (one-time, periodic or ongoing) helps the group iterate.
- Review and prioritize ideas. Evaluate the list as a team and identify options that you feel will be the most effective, shifting the focus to quality over quantity. Prioritized actions should be consistent with broader transformation messaging and should be designed to appeal to the different sources of meaning that motivate and inspire employees, such as doing good for society, supporting their working team, or enabling personal gain.
The behavior change and the broader culture change transformation catalyzed by the elephant on the table ultimately paid off for the agriculture company. Its employees now have more open, candid conversations, enabling improved performance and health of the organization. The company climbed to the top decile of organizational health in McKinsey’s Organizational Health Index database—an achievement that our analysis indicates correlates with clear improvements in financial performance. For shareholders, there is nothing symbolic about those returns.
For more on leading successful large-scale change programs, see our book, Beyond Performance 2.0.
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