Changing Workplace Culture: Lessons from Sir Isaac Newton, Part 1

Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything, Employee Engagement, Organizational Culture

I’ve been thinking about physics and workplace culture lately (please don’t hate me because I’m a bit of a geek).

Physics has been around much longer than psychology and other disciplines that study culture. As a result, physics tends to have much more precise and measurable constructs than psychology. Today I want to share some of my thinking around changing behavior by applying concepts from physics — please stick with me here — and how you might use these ideas to improve your own workplace culture.

Sir Isaac Newton published “The Principia: Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” in 1687. In this book, Newton identified three laws of mechanics that redefined the way the world looked at physics and science. All three can be used to better understand how workplace culture operates and can be changed. Today, we’ll look at the first law:

An object either remains at rest or continues to move at a constant velocity, unless acted upon by an external force. (i.e. Objects in motion tend to stay in motion. Objects at rest tend to stay at rest.)

From my perspective, Newton’s first law explains a culture of complacency — one where mediocre performance is tolerated and accepted. The culture remains “at rest” or at the same underperforming pace unless acted upon by an external force.

So how can you apply the external force needed to change a workplace culture of mediocrity to a performance-based culture? Here are my suggested steps:

Changing Workplace Culture Step 1: Inform the Process

Ask your employees what type of reward they would like to receive for exceptional performance. This will inform you of the external forces your employees will find motivating and begin to separate high performers from mediocre performers. In my experience, flexibility (autonomy over one’s own work schedule) will be among the top three motivators that employees cite.

Changing Workplace Culture Step 2: Create the Process

Now go to a group or team of high performers within a department or functional area (emphasis on high performers) and tell them this: “Through our recent survey, we learned that you and your coworkers would like flexibility as a reward for exceptional performance. We would like you to create a system of performance (including processes and metrics for your department or functional area), applying a flexible work schedule, that ensures you can maintain performance at this level or higher.” As a leader, you are now having your employees set a new, elevated standard of performance with their processes and metrics, while offering them flexibility in their work schedule. You just need to ensure their metrics tie into your organizational metrics (for example, quality, productivity, profitability, etc.). The potential reward of flexibility – establishing and maintaining a flexible work schedule that your employees have said they want — will serve as the “external force” to improve performance or “increase velocity.”

Changing Workplace Culture Step 3: Test the Process

Now go to a different group or team of high performers (again, emphasis on high performers). Here’s your message: “Through our recent survey, we learned that you and your coworkers would like flexibility as a reward for exceptional performance. We went to Group A in our previous step, and they created this new system of performance with a flexible work schedule. We would like you to test the system of performance that ensures you can maintain performance at this level or higher.” You are now emphasizing a new, elevated, standard of performance with a flexible work schedule that was created by your high performing employees in the previous step. The high performers in this group will be motivated to achieve because they want flexibility and because they’ll feel pressure from the other high performers who created the system in Step 2.

Changing Workplace Culture Step 4: Roll It Out

Get the data back, make sure the group in Step 3 has met the new standards of performance using a flexible work schedule, pick a date in the future and roll out the new system to the full department or functional area. Allow teams to form with those who want flexibility and those who want to keep a regular schedule. Either way, you have a new set of performance standards for the department or functional area. The key point here is this: Creating a culture shift — in this case, creating a force in your culture to increase performance — does not require you to take a big risk. You are asking your people to inform the system (Step 1), create the system (Step 2) and then test the system (Step 3), all under your supervision. Only when it’s proven to be successful do you roll it out.

Newton was right. He knew about physics and workplace culture. Outside forces can increase the velocity of an object – even when that object is a complacent performance standard in your workplace culture.

In my next post, I’ll share what Newton’s Second Law of Motion can teach us about changing workplace culture. Not to worry: I’ll break it down just like this one.

If you have questions on this post or any previous post, don’t hesitate to reach out and ask. Let’s build a better culture together!