Winning at Culture Change: From Closed Doors to a Friendly Floor

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Three years ago, I took over a newly created organization in Notre Dame's central IT department. We were a combination of elements of our infrastructure and desktop support areas, with a number of distinct disciplines involved: databases, identity and access management, server and desktop engineering, and enterprise application management, as well as e-mail, digital signage, and other communication services.

The third floor of our IT building had a reputation for a lot of closed doors, and the teams had not always worked well together or across the organization. As a newly minted senior director, I knew that I wanted to work in an organization that was approachable and friendly, and I set out with the idea that winning hearts and minds was the most important thing I could do in my first year. That meant explaining the three things I wanted everybody in the organization to hear from me:

  1. Do the right thing, and I'll back you on it.
  2. It's okay to make mistakes.
  3. Have fun at work.

I knew that I needed to do more than just display a list of the things that are important to me as a leader, and that I needed to make my goals real for my new department. The first thing I needed to do was make a cultural change that people could believe in, then I could make these real for my staff. Of course, changing organizational culture requires that people believe in the change. Here's how we implemented those three things to effect cultural change.

"Do the Right Thing" (Trust Your Staff)

Very early in the existence of our new organization, one of the managers on my new team called me after-hours to tell me about a major issue his team was working on. The issue was causing university-wide problems and needed an immediate resolution. He wanted to know if he should make the change that would fix the problem.

Wait a second...

I was a bit taken aback. He called me to ask if he should fix the problem? I need to give one of my most trusted employees permission to do his job, and he needs to then tell his staff that it is okay to do what they need to do? Something is broken!

How do you fix a culture that expects punishment for taking initiative? How can you empower your staff to make decisions and to use their expertise, rather than worrying that they're going to get in trouble?

The first thing is to change how you answer when a direct report asks you, "Can I do this?" Furthermore, your staff should be able to answer the questions "What should I do?" and "Can I do the thing that I know I need to do?" with ease and without your help.

So when staff sought my permission, my go-to answer became "Do the right thing," which is what I told the manager who was calling in the example above. I used the same answer each time he called over the next few months, and over time, his calls changed. At first, he would call, ask permission, and then say, "I knew you'd tell me to do the right thing." He still sought permission, but I could tell my answer was having an impact.

After a few more months, he stopped asking for permission and instead called to let me know he was "doing the right thing" — and gave me the option to ask him to do something different if I needed him to.

Of course, he also knew that "Do the right thing" was part of a larger context. It's important to explain what you mean by the "right thing," since we're all likely to disagree about what it is for any given decision. Doing the right thing means making the decision that you believe is best given the circumstances as you understand them. I tell my staff that we may not agree on the right thing, and I may even think they're completely wrong, but that I will back them if they genuinely believe they're making the right decision.

That can sound scary as a manager. Suddenly, you've given up your right to make the decisions. Now you're responsible for things you didn't approve!

What it really means is that your staff know that you trust them. They'll be more empowered — and they'll still let you know when you need to be aware of things. In the meantime, they'll solve problems, help customers, and otherwise will do what empowered, trusted team members do: make things right.

So what happens if what looked like the "right thing" was a mistake?

It's OK to Make Mistakes

Sometimes, the right thing may not be right, sometimes we don't know what choice to make, and sometimes (perhaps often) we fumble and make a mistake.

The same worried attitude that made a talented manager call to ask for permission also made many of my staff afraid of making mistakes. That led to delays in projects as they strove for perfection. It also left us with partial answers to questions, and it often resulted in inaction when action might cause an issue.

That meant that I needed to foster a culture where making mistakes was OK. Then my staff could make decisions and actually feel (and be!) empowered. This took a conscious effort from each member of my management team to change how we talked about issues when we encountered them.

To change how you handle mistakes, it helps to look at them as learning opportunities. The table below shows how questions sound different framed in this way.

Mistakes Framed as Failure

Mistakes Reframed as Learning Opportunities

What were you thinking?

What were we trying to do?

Who made the mistake?

How could we have done this differently?

Why did this happen?

How do we prevent this from happening again?

Did you follow the process?

How should this process have worked?

Can we improve the process?


Mistakes also give us opportunities to learn. Every senior staff member has a story to share about making a mistake and learning a lesson from it. Indeed, they've improved at what they do because of it.

When are mistakes not acceptable? My answer is simple: when you make the same mistake without learning from it.

Have Fun at Work

The last of the three things I told my new organization when we started was that I wanted to make sure we had fun at work. It's a lot easier for all of us to show up for our jobs if we enjoy them, and working in a fun environment helps. Having fun became part of my mission, and it is something that my managers and staff have adopted as part of who we are.

That means that I sneak things into presentations, like the meeting where I placed our leadership team on the bridge of the Starship Enterprise to demonstrate how well we work together (it turns out they really like Star Trek).

Star Trek cartoon characters

Our environment encourages people to play pranks on each other and find other ways to have fun together. When fun and a sense of humor are encouraged, the doors are more likely to be open and people will enjoy their work more.

The focus on having fun at work has even extended to how our teams tackle retreats and planning sessions. Our platforms team built and programmed robots (shown below) as part of a team-building retreat. They were able to include people they had cross-training with from other groups on campus, making it a wonderful team experience.

picture of two small robotic vehicles

Over the past couple of years, many people have stopped by to tell me that our floor is a different place. Doors are open, teams are working across the hallway, and people feel more empowered. We're not done, but we know we're moving forward, and that means a lot to us.

Sadly, there's no silver bullet for changing a dark and quiet work place to an open, vibrant floor, but there is a lot that you can do. Figure out what you stand for, explain it clearly, and support it well. You'll make your own magic!

David Seidl is Senior Director for Campus Technology Services at the University of Notre Dame.

© 2017 David Seidl. This EDUCAUSE Review blog is licensed under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 4.0.