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Five Barriers to Creating a Growth Culture and How to Overcome Them

Have you ever noticed how fast the language of leadership changes? It seems like every day there’s a new word or phrase to add to your vocabulary. One I didn’t like when I first heard it was “culture.” To my ear, it sounds like a germ! Yet, I’ve spent my career cultivating that very thing.

What we’re really talking about is a workplace environment that allows people to thrive. Too many organizations set their priorities out of order: they’re so focused on making money and beating the competition, their employees can take a backseat. Effective leaders understand that an organization’s people and their growth is the key to winning. First, you support your team’s capabilities, then you satisfy more customers, and then you make money. This is my long-held formula for success.

You won’t achieve a growth culture—or whatever you prefer to call it—overnight. Changing a workplace culture takes patience and the participation of your whole team. Here are my strategies for overcoming five challenges you may encounter along the way.

 Establish the essential

You’re sailing against the headwind if you don’t know your team’s current perceptions, habits and beliefs. Before you can turn a culture around, you have to take the time to fully understand how each person views their environment and themselves. Begin by asking direct questions—and receiving answers with an open mind and open heart. How would you describe your current capabilities? What are your goals and ambitions? What do you need in order to grow? And a variation on my favorite question: What would you do if you were me to foster more growth?

Once you’ve acquired this knowledge and understanding, you can establish your must-haves: the training, tools, and resources necessary to the continuous growth of your team.

This is not a one-and-done exercise. A “people process,” as I think of it, regularly identifies untapped potential, plans experiences that promote growth, monitors progress, and rewards success.

Your must-haves for growth may vary. Whatever they are, establish them early, share widely, and tend to them regularly.

Be a coach, not a boss

Gaining insights may require a hard reset on the dynamic between you and your team. Far too often, employees tiptoe around leadership, afraid to criticize, push back, or ask for what they need. They think nothing is more important than giving the higher-ups what they want or telling them what they want to hear.

In these environments, employees are constantly craning their necks to look up the chain of command—out of reverence or out of fear. I tell people, “Don’t look up, don’t look down, look straight ahead!” We’re supposed to be working together towards a common purpose and should always keep that in our sights.

 To encourage a growth mindset, work with your employees instead of casting a dark shadow over them. Think of yourself as the head coach, equally concerned with the development of every member of your team. Demonstrate respect for each individual and their impact on the company by asking for input about how you can best support them.

Get the buy-in

Most people are starved for growth on the job. No one wakes up every morning wanting to be part of something mediocre or stuck in a rut. But when you change your workplace culture, not everyone will get on board from the get-go. Likewise, employees joining your organization may need time to adapt.

Sure, you can recruit people from similar environments, but you still have to provide guidance on the behaviors you expect. Just as you can set the expectation that your team will stick to a budget or meet exacting standards, you can establish that constructive feedback or recognizing the work of others is essential.

Beware: telling isn’t selling. Give people the blessing of time and experience so they can see for themselves how the formula for success drives results. And if they still can’t get onboard, after plenty of support, then it may be fair to conclude they’d be happier somewhere else.

Face the fear factor

One of the biggest obstacles to growth is fear. You’ve got to be willing to acknowledge where you can improve, which doesn’t come naturally to everyone. Some people try to hide their mistakes and inexperience or get defensive when problems are pointed out. They might even claim other people’s ideas as their own.

In a successful growth culture, employees aren’t afraid of feedback—they look forward to it. They see it as a sincere and generous offering that will help them reach their goals. I call this “the gift of feedback.”

Before you can give them this gift, though, you need to build trust. Here are some of my favorite strategies:

  • Provide opportunities for team members to get to know each other and break down the barriers that inhibit trust.
  • Ask permission before coaching someone to make sure they’re open to receiving your help.
  • When offering feedback, begin with what you appreciate about a person, then move on to how they could become more effective.
  • Encourage people do a self-evaluation to promote a high degree of self-awareness.

And one more: when people fail, have their backs. Let’s face it, we all make mistakes, but if everyone works hard and approaches each endeavor with a growth mindset, failure can be a valuable part of the growth process.

Walk the walk

For many leaders, the greatest challenge of creating a growth culture is walking the walk. You have to follow through on your people process and model the behavior you want to see.

 For example, I’ve always shared my vulnerabilities and personal goals with my team. I don’t mind admitting that I’ve felt insecure about my lack of an MBA or that my public speaking abilities used to have a lot of room for improvement. Yes, people want to follow a leader who projects confidence and security—no one will follow you if you don’t know what you’re doing!—but you can balance this with humility. I tell people what I’m working on, and I also tell them, “I can’t do it without you. None of us can do it alone.”

People don’t judge you by your intentions, they judge you by your actions, whether you’re taking steps to improve yourself or the organization as a whole. Ultimately, you are the guardian of the work environment you want to have. What will you do today to create a culture in which everyone can grow and succeed?

May 24, 2022