Cultural Change:
A Process, Not an Event

by | Feb 10, 2023

Culture improvement plans are challenging and do not take effect overnight.  However, by setting an expectation of “progress, not perfection” and with the active, sincere support of senior leadership (and most importantly, the CEO), the effects of the culture change process will begin to be felt throughout the organization and very quickly.

While commitment to culture change begins at the highest levels of the organization it does not rest there. Leadership will set the tone by stressing their support for the effort, but the real impact will be made at the supervisory/managerial level.   The key to sustainable culture change is to seize the early momentum and to commit to the long-term nature of the process.

Who’s Got the Monkey?”, a classic Harvard Business Review article (authored by William Oncken and Donald L. Wass and reprinted regularly due to its popularity) uses the analogy of, “the monkey on your back,” to talk about the subject of time management, and how employees pass off responsibilities, aka “the monkey,” to leaders.Man with a big chimp on his back  The organizational challenge of upward delegation frustrates managers and senior executives while simultaneously limiting the growth and development of team members by allowing them to defer decision-making and even basic job responsibilities to the “higher ups”.

A common complaint among executive leaders is the manner in which members of their leadership team, senior executives in their own right, pass along their biggest challenges to the CEO.  One way to measure the effectiveness of your team members is this:  how often they take items off your desk, as opposed to putting items on it.

This phenomenon underscores the need for basic skills development for supervisors and managers and for leaders who must develop the ability (and the patience) to allow their reports to identify options and make, or at the very least, recommend effective decisions.

Further evidence of the need to strengthen the leadership skills of managers and supervisors was found during a recent senior leadership planning retreat.  Team members were asked to respond to the following question: “I could do my job better if I didn’t have to……”.  Here are some of the responses.

  • “Baby-sit employees”

  • “Get involved in the weeds”

  • “Focus on lower-level issues”

  • “Follow-up on others’ incomplete work”

At the conclusion of this exercise, the senior team came to the realization that they were enabling this behavior by capitulating and allowing “the monkey” to be put on their backs.  Here’s the insight.  While they express frustration with this situation, the truth is they enjoy it, at least in the moment.  And why not?

Many executives rise in levels of authority and responsibility through experience and development of business acumen and decision-making skills.  When faced with issues by those reporting to them, the temptation to jump in and instantly solve the problem is strong.  And there is a rush of satisfaction in knowing their actions carried the day!  But where does that leave their direct reports?  They become conditioned to know that when there is an issue, all they need do is kick it “upstairs” where it will be addressed.  Expedient to be sure, but the opportunity for next level managers to learn problem solving skills is denied. A far better way is to hold managers accountable by empowering them to make decisions or at the very least, recommend potential solutions.

As managers/supervisors develop their leadership skills and abilities, decision-making, workflow, processes, practices, and procedures move seamlessly.  Since more of the work (including real-time challenges, changes, and adjustments) is being done at this level, the senior team will be pulled into these issues less and less, freeing up time to focus on the strategic direction of the organization.

One of the best ways to begin developing these needed skills is to assign supervisors and managers with helping to improve the organization’s culture.  This starts with measurement, identifying goals for improvement, establishing a plan and putting resources toward that plan.

For more information on ways to improve delegation and move your organization forward through leadership development and culture change, contact me at


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