Taking a naval approach to culture change

Blair McPherson points out the lessons to be learned for managers from the Australian Navy

Achieving culture change is more about getting managers to change the way they behave rather than frontline social workers.

This is never an easy task, but lessons can be learnt from the Australian Navy. In 2011 it was ordered to improve leadership at every level following reports detailing inefficient and out-dated practices as well as an alcohol fuelled culture across the service.

It’s new chief launched a systematic approach to cultural change, a key element of the programme was peer review: that is asking and telling colleagues if their behaviour had changed.

Bluntly honest

I suspect that as well as having a more positive attitude to life than us Pommies, the average Aussie is more prepared to be bluntly honest with their fellow workers than their overly polite and deferential British counterpart. Can you imagine telling your boss to his face he talks too much and doesn’t give team members a chance to say anything? Equally can you imagine your boss responding by saying “yes that’s something I need to work harder on”. Let’s face it, if you have that sort of relationship then its already a pretty good place to work.

We are more comfortable with the anonymous 360 feedback form but are still careful with our comments in case the recipient can work out who they are from.

Dismissing negative responses

As a senior manager I often had to undertake the “roadshows” about new projects and forthcoming changes for frontline staff and knew I could always rely on a few social workers and the “odd” manager in the audience to ” tell it like it is”.

But I have to admit my managerial colleagues and I always expected some negative comments and saw the challenge as keeping the meeting positive rather than taking too much notice of individual gripes.

We knew that some people didn’t trust senior managers and didn’t agree with changes/what was happening  so it was all too easy to dismiss the odd negative response as “they would say that wouldn’t they?”.

Deeds not words

We were in need of a culture change and, as in the Australian Navy, it was about how managers behaved, not what they said.

We had to start at the top and give managers insight into how their behaviour affected other people. The approach needed to be systematic so it could work for senior management, middle management and frontline management.

We needed to have identifiable outcomes. If the behaviour had changed staff should notice. There would be less complaints about bullying, lower levels of absenteeism, greater consensus about how changes were to be introduced, grater confidence and trust in management, particularly senior management. Ultimately it should result in service users reporting higher levels of satisfaction.

Less confrontational approach

The Australian Navy approach would have been seen as too confrontational and have alienated many managers, who would have felt we were giving those they managed permission to criticise them to their bosses.

Instead we used “executive coaching” a term that sounds enabling not punitive. It also sounds like the type of thing important people have, as opposed to training which everyone has.

Executive coaching involved an independent management consultant observing a manager in a series of work situations (team meetings, one to one supervision, presenting reports to the senior management team or committee, meeting with health colleagues) and providing detailed feedback.

Less cynicism

It was well received. My colleagues and I all felt notably less cynicism amongst managers and more faith in senior management. Despite a period of unprecedented budget cuts and compulsory redundancies there was a more positive atmosphere within the directorate.

In the Australian Navy the approach also worked wonders. It is now regarded as a modern, efficient, well-led, disciplined force. Financial efficiencies have been delivered, there have been no more scandals about the behaviour of sailors and moral is reported to be good…or as the Aussies say “no worries”.

Blair McPherson is a former social worker and local authority director. He is now an author and blogger on social care and management issues.

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