Culture Club: How the relationship capital of the few can revive the organizational attitude of the many

By Deanna Cioppa
The Brief
Life is full of big, invisible issues that are hard to solve. Improving corporate culture is one of them. Managers invested in affecting such change should think about cultivating some internal brand ambassadors. Trust us; the strategy is helping India address a serious childbirth mortality problem.

In his oft-cited New Yorker essay from last summer, Atul Gawande got to the bottom of why some ideas blaze through communities (in his case, the medical arena), igniting radical changes in behavior, while other equally good ones languish. The reason, Gawande says, is that failed ideas often “attack problems that are big but, to most people, invisible; and making them work can be tedious, if not outright painful.”

There are a number of instances in which organizations can leverage their internal and external networks—recruiting, fundraising and marketing, to name a few. But one of the most valuable, if least sexy, roles of a robust, engaged network can be as a catalyst for modifying behavioral norms. That is, company culture.

Gawande described how his BetterBirth project—a coalition of the World Health Organization, the Indian government and others—tackled the devastating mortality rate associated with childbirth in India. One problem the project homed in on was solving newborn hypothermia, a “big, invisible” problem. The project advocated relying on a mother’s exposed skin rather than swaddling to keep her baby warm, but instead of commanding, asking or incentivizing caregivers and mothers to accept the new norm, Gawande cultivated a team of trainers who fanned out to talk one-on-one with birthing attendants to assess obstacles before trying to convince them about the ease and efficacy of skin-warming. Convincing the caregivers was key, Gawande realized, because in the end they would have to be the ones to educate the mothers, because they were the ones who had garnered their trust.

Changing employee culture, of course, doesn’t carry the same urgency or import as childbirth mortality, but there are useful similarities. A weak or corrosive company ethos is another one of those big, invisible problems, difficult to parse or identify, and seemingly impossible to vanquish. Certainly, it calls for more than Bagel Fridays to positively influence employee morale.

To revamp group behavior, managers first have to understand why employees feel the way they do and what barriers stand in the way of a shakeup. But the kind of one-on-one time Gawande espouses for this task is hard to achieve. Furthermore, departmental silos await to stand in the way of the spread of new ideas.

Here too, a core group—of employees with wide networks—can spark a breakthrough. Consider them behavioral ambassadors of a person-to-person, word-of-mouth campaign, translating management’s message into more relatable terms for fellow employees. Change won’t come fast, but approaching the problem from this kind of relationship capital standpoint will give the revitalizing effort a better chance to succeed than a more authoritarian, top-down approach. As Gawande says, “Every change requires effort, and the decision to make that effort is a social process.”

The Takeaway: If your corporate culture could use a revamp, engage a core of influencers who can spread your message below the managerial level more effectively than you can.

Deanna Cioppa is a freelance writer who has written for AARP, ESPN The Magazine and Fodor’s. She is a frequent contributor to this blog.
RelSci is a technology solutions company that helps create competitive advantage for organizations through a crucial yet vastly underutilized asset: relationship capital with influential decision makers. 

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