Leadership, Friction and Culture Change

work smarter

The secret to success is to work smarter, not harder!

In a recent blog (Friction and Culture Change) I used the physical concept of friction to help explain the difficulties in culture change and why reshaping corporate culture is so hard and often fails.

If you look inside an automobile engine you will see many parts whirring around at high inside enginespeeds (RPMs), metal gears meshing with larger and smaller gears, and metal cylinders moving up and down against metal walls.  All the metal surfaces of these parts have small microscopic bump or imperfections and when two substances are pressed against each other, they catch on the imperfections, adding to the friction. All this moving up and down and whirring around creates wear and heat, thus slowly damaging the efficiency of the engine.

engine-oil-914431An excellent way to reduce the force of friction and wear inside the engine is to add motor oil as a lubricant.  A lubricant like motor oil is a viscous substance that coats the engine parts and allows the parts to move past each other easier and with less friction, thus increasing the longevity and efficiency of your car engine.

how-lubricants-workThe lubricant fills the space between the two surfaces, thus covering the imperfections and bumps and allowing the two surfaces to move past each other more easily (with reduced force stone friction pyramidsof friction). It has even been theorised that the ancient Egyptians added water just in front of the sleds carrying the large blocks of stone used to build the pyramids in order to make the process of pushing the sleds easier.

So What About Culture Change?

In our work over the past 30 years on helping shift and reshape corporate culture, it has become obvious that there are two key elements that help reduce the friction (sticky habits and old ways of working) during culture change. These two elements are the behaviour of the senior leaders and the important role of informal leaders inside the organisation.

The most widely recognised lubricant against the inertia and friction of culture change is changes in the behaviour of the CEO and members of the senior executive team.  Employees take their cues as to what is important, what is not, and how to get ahead in the company from watching the behaviour of the senior team, as individuals and collectively as a team.  It’s a powerful concept termed “shadow of the leader“.

Organisations are shadows of their leaders; that’s the good news and the bad news!

ShadowBy articulating and role modelling a new set of behaviours at work (dealing with problems, dealing with customers, dealing with suppliers, short-term vs long-term, coaching vs ignoring bad behaviour), the senior leaders begin to cast a new shadow across the organisation that signals to employees a new way of working, thus lubricating the process of culture change.

If you want employees fully engaged with your business strategies, you need leadership fully engaged with employees

The other culture change lubricant is less well-known, but perhaps even more powerful. It is the important role played by informal leaders and respected employees.  It goes like this. There is no such thing as one overall corporate culture but actually a company is a collection of “subcultures”. Each subculture is an informal group with a respected and trusted individual determining the ground rules. Combine the importance of respect and trust given to this individual with the very real human need to “fit in” and be a part of the group, and you have the ingredients for a strong subculture.

Senior management may make the strategic decisions about the company goals and objectives, but the real culture resides at the subculture level. Numerous studies have shown that most employees trust their informal leaders far more than upper management when it comes to company communications and change. Employees don’t change just because senior management communicated the need or the logic. They change their behaviour in accordance to whether or not the informal, respected leaders in the subcultures change!


The sad fact is, most senior executives (and outside culture change consultants) have no clue who these informal and trusted leaders are! And unless they are identified and recruited to help lead the culture shift, real change won’t happen!

Just like the laws of physics and reducing the force of friction, culture change has its Large Image“laws” as well, if we take the time to understand and use them wisely. Attempting culture change from the top down, without the lubrication provided by informal leaders, is like trying to run an engine without motor oil.  Lots of heat and noise, but eventually it will burn out and grind to a halt!

Posted by:

John R Childress
Senior Advisor on Corporate Culture, Leadership and Strategy Execution
Author of LEVERAGE: The CEO’s Guide to Corporate Culture and FASTBREAK: The CEO’s Guide to Strategy Execution
Visiting Professor, IE Business School, Madrid

email: john@johnrchildress.com

PS: John also writes thriller novels

About johnrchildress

John Childress is a pioneer in the field of strategy execution, culture change, executive leadership and organization effectiveness, author of several books and numerous articles on leadership, an effective public speaker and workshop facilitator for Boards and senior executive teams. In 1978 John co-founded The Senn-Delaney Leadership Consulting Group, the first international consulting firm to focus exclusively on culture change, leadership development and senior team alignment. Between 1978 and 2000 he served as its President and CEO and guided the international expansion of the company. His work with senior leadership teams has included companies in crisis (GPU Nuclear – owner of the Three Mile Island Nuclear Plants following the accident), deregulated industries (natural gas pipelines, telecommunications and the breakup of The Bell Telephone Companies), mergers and acquisitions and classic business turnaround scenarios with global organizations from the Fortune 500 and FTSE 250 ranks. He has designed and conducted consulting engagements in the US, UK, Europe, Middle East, Africa, China and Asia. Currently John is an independent advisor to CEO’s, Boards, management teams and organisations on strategy execution, corporate culture, leadership team effectiveness, business performance and executive development. John was born in the Cascade Mountains of Oregon and eventually moved to Carmel Highlands, California during most of his business career. John is a Phi Beta Kappa scholar with a BA degree (Magna cum Laude) from the University of California, a Masters Degree from Harvard University and was a PhD candidate at the University of Hawaii before deciding on a career as a business entrepreneur in the mid-70s. In 1968-69 he attended the American University of Beirut and it was there that his interest in cultures, leadership and group dynamics began to take shape. John Childress resides in London and the south of France with his family and is an avid flyfisherman, with recent trips to Alaska, the Amazon River, Tierra del Fuego, and Kamchatka in the far east of Russia. He is a trustee for Young Virtuosi, a foundation to support talented young musicians. You can reach John at john@johnrchildress.com or john.childress@theprincipiagroup.com
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1 Response to Leadership, Friction and Culture Change

  1. Pingback: The Focus of Culture Change is not Culture | John R Childress . . . Rethinking

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