How to build a Challenge Culture in your organisation

In a recent article, we looked at what a Challenge Culture is and why it’s important for every organisation to be actively building one. This time, we look at some of the critical steps to establish that positive environment within your own organisations.

It starts at the top

Leaders, CEOs, Managing Directors: you have to be convinced that your organisation needs a Challenge Culture and you will have to lead it from the front. You are no doubt used to setting the tone within your organisation already but the buy-in from your staff depends on you leading by example. Most staff will quickly twig whether this is a genuine move or if it’s just a ‘box-ticking’ exercise. They need to see you being challenged and to see you responding positively to that challenge.

Organise your structure

One reason why valuable information doesn’t make it to leaders is simply that the structure and mechanisms are not in place to make sure it does. Many leaders find themselves in their ‘ivory tower’ without access to ‘coal face’ intelligence that would support their decision-making, particularly in today’s fast-paced world. Practising open feedback and challenging ideas shouldn’t be reserved for special meetings; it should be done regularly and continuously with staff at every level confident in passing feedback up and down the chain. When ideas are openly and frequently ‘bounced’ around, it gives staff confidence to speak up.

Develop emotional intelligence (for all)

Human beings naturally tend to prefer the familiar so there will need to be a change in mindset for everyone for a Challenge Culture to truly embed. Our emotional intelligence (EI) starts with ourselves: how aware are we of our own reactions and responses, and what triggers them? From there, we can understand how to regulate our responses to others. Having a developed EI suggests that we understand what motivates ourselves and others, that we have good empathy with others and, therefore, have better social skills. If we don’t like being challenged, or receiving negative feedback, it’s likely that our first, emotional response will be negative, discouraging future challenges. Developing EI across an organisation will ensure that staff can step back from their emotions to see the ‘bigger picture’ when challenged and can therefore teach themselves to respond more positively, at least until it becomes second nature.

Trust, don’t blame

Building trust starts from the top, from those in positions of power. There are still organisations who treat their staff with an “If you give them an inch…” attitude to management (as we’ve probably seen in the varying responses to the post-lockdown ‘return to the office’). Managers must trust their staff to do their jobs (in every respect) and encourage them to make suggestions. Seeing their leaders ‘walk the walk’, will give staff confidence it’s a safe place to do that. Managers need to recognise the intention and effort, whatever the outcome, and actively share the accountability – not the blame.

Set the tone at recruitment

When looking to fill vacancies, do you actively consider people who have done things differently or are your processes biased towards people who look like they won’t cause any trouble? Whilst this is a rather crude way of putting it, positively recruiting people based on their values and behaviours fitting with your Challenge Culture will help ensure that this culture continues. It will be another way to demonstrate to existing staff that you are not afraid to hear pushback when it’s appropriate.

Recognise that it will take a little time

Many of your staff and leaders will no doubt welcome these changes but it’s only reasonable to expect that a new organisational culture does take a little while to fully embed. “When I was running Dunkin’, I’d say it took me two or three years to get the challenge culture applied throughout the organization,” said Nigel Travis, executive chairman and former CEO of Dunkin’ Group, author of “The Challenge Culture: why the most successful organisations run on pushback”. Nigel advocates a continual monitoring of progress to test how effectively you’re doing. “It doesn’t matter whether it’s an organization of 20 people or an organization of 200,000 people, I think you apply it—obviously, the scale is different, but you have to continually monitor it and develop it and set an example.”*

Get some training

You can tackle many of these steps with some Challenge Culture training. Maddison Coaching and Consulting are one of the few organisations which offer this so please get in touch if you’d like to find out more.

*Nigel Travis spoke to Elucidat about a healthy corporate culture

14 March 2022

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