pdf_buttonWe know of a number of organisations that currently want to move from a culture of avoidance to a culture of accountability. In this article we would like to highlight some of the obstacles that organisations are likely to encounter when trying to shift the culture and especially explore the role of HR in the process.

To start, we need to gain a better understanding of the cultural shift involved in this transformation. If you are familiar with the Human Synergistics OCI (or LSI) tool, you will already know that a culture of avoidance is characterised by a prevalence of green behaviours in the LSI or OCI, as in the sample profile below.


Green behaviours are passive-defensive behaviours. The OCI/LSI specifically distinguishes 4 passive-defensive behaviours (or styles): avoidance, dependent, conventional and approval. As you can tell from the terms, these behaviours are all about blending in, not rocking the boat, keeping a low profile and needing to be liked. Green cultures are characterised by blame shifting, high levels of employee disengagement and not taking responsibility. Managers in green cultures will typically avoid difficult conversations and rarely hold individuals accountable who don’t meet their KPIs. The result is that organisations with passive-defensive cultures tend to be less productive and less innovative.

In recent years a number of organisations have embarked on a culture change process to move from such a green (avoidance) culture to a culture of accountability (blue behaviours in the OCI/LSI). This process typically starts from the top and by establishing a baseline through an OCI or similar culture survey. Employee engagement is another measure that can be used to distinguish between avoidance (disengaged) and accountability (engaged) cultures.

What happens next varies from organisation to organisation, but usually goes something like this:

  1. Some part of HR gets responsibility for driving the culture change
  2. Communications go out about the need to shift the culture
  3. Managers are urged to create accountability
  4. A combination of training and motivational speakers are used to ‘assist’ the process

Whilst all of the above are necessary steps, there are also others that need to be taken to make such a transition successful. These include:

  1. KPIs and other measures to drive accountability at all levels are created and monitored regularly
  2. Managers get appropriate training and coaching to understand the process of behaviour change and how to have difficult conversations
  3. Performance management processes are rigorously put in place and followed through
  4. The culture transformation process is measured and monitored on a team-by-team, manager-by-manager basis with appropriate rewards and consequences

If these additional measures are absent, companies risk running into the same pitfall. Inevitably a number of individual leaders will get excited about the desired culture change and do their best to create a culture of accountability in their team. Believing they have the support of senior management and HR they embark on rigorous performance management and have the difficult conversations that are, sometimes, years overdue. The result is as predictable as it is lamentable bullying complaints arise.

This makes sense when you think about the difference in behaviour exhibited by such a manager compared to what employees have been conditioned to accept as ‘normal’. If a person lives and breathes avoidance, blame shifting and not being held accountable for their (in)actions over many years, they will likely regard a change to enforced accountability as abrasive, bullying behaviour, no matter how well or appropriately it is done. Passive-defensive people typically struggle to distinguish between assertive behaviour and abrasive/aggressive behaviour as either constitutes an equal threat to their high need for security. Of course it would be equally damaging to bring in change managers who exhibit red (aggressive) behaviour in the mistaken belief that they will achieve the desired changes more quickly.

At this point let’s return to the role HR plays in assisting the culture change process. Ideally, HR would be well prepared for an increase in complaints and bullying claims for the very reasons outlined above. What we have seen happen in a number of organisations is that HR were unprepared and unduly concerned as bullying claims surfaced. Even if Investigations are held and the claims are not substantiated, the damage is done. The line manager feels let down (or like they have done the wrong thing) and the complainant is still in denial about the need for behaviour change. HR Managers might instead be tempted to have a quiet word with ‘offending’ managers to stop them from being ‘too aggressive’ and hence buy into the avoidance driven fears of the affected employees.

In some of the cases where we have observed this reaction by HR it shut down the culture change process before it even started. New managers who had been hired based on their proven skill to constructively tackle an avoidance culture and to drive the change became disillusioned after 6-12 months and the old culture of avoidance re-asserted itself. Often disillusioned change managers end up leaving the organisation at great cost to both the organisation and the individual.

This outcome is not solely the responsibility of the HR team. Yet we regularly observe that HR departments don’t have the confidence or the skills to be the drivers of change they could be. In addition, senior business leaders often believe that they just have to talk about creating a culture of accountability for managers and employees to proactively make a decision to change their behaviour. This only happens in a tiny number of cases. Disengaged employees are typically not motivated to change their own behaviour.

Instead, managers, with the support of HR, need to step up and hold all employees accountable for the behaviour change required. In the first instance this means that managers need to understand the 5-step behaviour change process:

  1. Make the current behaviour that needs changing conscious
  2. The employee needs to accept the need for change and move out of denial
  3. Come up with the strategies for change and ensure ownership is taken by the employee
  4. Monitor and measure progress
  5. Provide feedback – reward or consequence

We observe in our coaching work that about 90% of managers start at step 3. There is maybe a brief and often couched discussion around the inappropriate behaviour and then the manager quickly moves to where he or she feels comfortable (step 3).

We find that with targeted training and coaching around the behaviour change process managers, including HR managers, quickly become accustomed to having the right conversations and holding individuals accountable. In one of the organisations we work, once we started coaching the senior leadership team, behaviour shifted away from the avoidance culture, entrenched over many years, in only 4 months.