Article: Culture, Energy & the role of Managers


Culture, Energy & the role of Managers

Curt Coffman on how managers are the bridge between culture creation and people engagement
Culture, Energy & the role of Managers

There are three dimensions to culture: the leadership or macro level, the individual or micro level and the connecting level


Only 13% of the power of culture is driven by leadership; 42% is controlled by managers


I have devoted my whole 30-year career to the people side of the business. As a psychologist, I spent a lot of time in training the left side of my brain about what is wrong with people and became very good at diagnosing depression, moroseness and negativity. I had reached a point in my career, where I felt I just couldn’t do this anymore. Only being able to identify what is wrong is not very energizing. And I realized that I could actually help an organization (be it a school, a business, a church, any other public organization) by studying its culture from within and not with a standpoint of what needs to be fixed.

When it comes to people, there is the basic concept of being engaged. When I think about engagement, I am always reminded of a story about Galileo. Galileo took this new instrument, a piece of organ pipe with two convex lenses at each end, went to his balcony, pointed this instrument towards the ocean and saw two ships coming towards land. On putting the instrument down, he saw nothing with the naked eye. Somehow, he timed this and found that when he looked through this instrument, he could see the two ships 20 minutes before one was able to view them with the naked eye. Now, the important thing about that is that in those days, they didn’t call the instrument a telescope, they called it a time machine; because one was able to see something 20 minutes into the future! Though, what I most admire about this story is that when people were able to see something through this new instrument, another set of questions came about, one of which was - ‘Are they friends or are they foes?’ Since my response to both would be different, I equate that to the engagement movement that we have been up to for the last 22 years. That research in First, Break All the Rules, my first book, helped us create a tool to see and measure something that was not visible to the naked eye. None of us could walk around our organizations and say “that’s an engaged worker right there.” We had to have a tool to scale and we got quite good at measuring engagement. We realized though that the practice was to be about building engagement and not measuring it all the time. I am not even sure if that is what we need to be measuring anymore. What we really need to begin focusing on, is the passion of our people.

Interestingly, if we went around and asked people to define what culture is, we would probably have as many different definitions. In any process whatsoever, greater the variance, greater is the danger. If culture is a significant part of our future and a competitive advantage, but we use different definitions, there sure is going to be extreme variance. We have seen that culture has been used by the leadership of organizations to speak about the values of the organization. But the problem is that 70 percent of all companies have the same values! The values necessarily are not the differentiator then. Through our research, we found that there are truly three dimensions to culture: the leadership or macro level, the individual or the micro level and the connecting level – the managers. These levels of culture have to become scalable, in order to be measured.

3 levels of culture: The macro, the micro and the bridge

The top level of an organization is the macro level of culture. It is about leadership that sets the vision and strategy of the organization. Most consulting companies have focused on this group for helping manage culture. On the other hand, our research shows that only 13 percent of the power of culture is driven by the leadership today. In older times, this percentage would have been higher, since leadership was solely responsible for making decisions. But today, this is just over 10 percent. This macro level can also be contrasted to the micro level. At the micro level, it is about execution, about individual employees and local teams. The micro level controls nearly 42 percent of the culture and how it is defined and executed. And while that is not new, there is a third dimension to culture – the owner of the other 40-some percent is who we call the bridge, constituted by the people managers of an organization.

Now, if you think about those three degrees of culture in terms of your organization, you have to think about what the charges of each of those three levels are. At the micro level, it is about igniting purposeful energy. Engagement is about things that I control and the people with whom I engage. Time has come when we have to change somethings about the workplace since, it is not the old industrial era where people hated work. It is actually from thereon that people called supervisors and managers came into existence, whose focus was on ensuring that people work harder with their hands, because that is where the human value existed in the industrial age. From there, we got the unwritten rule of work – it is okay to be negative about your work and workplace. Frankly, sometimes the workplace is a little like your in-laws. You have to find a way to get along with people even though you did not choose to be with them. You and I can develop a relationship very quickly if we both find something we are against and continue to have something we are against. It is time now to have some different expectations there. For us to collectively be against something is not going to be okay anymore.

Igniting purposeful energy

Igniting purposeful energy is about having the knack of a relationship with the people you work with. That whole redefinition of the employee and micro-level culture is very powerful. I think we have to have a model built around that micro culture, which controls about 45 percent. This redefinition is going to uncover the three types of employees that walk in corporate corridors every day. The first one is the engaged employee or connected employee, the activator, the productive person. These are the ones a company wants, since they are the ones who are doing a great job and they feel like they have a relationship with their manager and coworkers who they trust. Next, you have the fence-sucker, someone who may not be negative, but may not be positive either. I call such people the ROAD-warriors - Retired-On-Active-Duty. The third employee is the one who is actively disengaged. This actively disengaged employee is unhappy at work and acts like that every day. I call the actively disengaged associate – the CAVE dweller - Consistently-Against-Virtually-Everything. That is really where work gets stopped because the power of the actively disengaged associate overrides those who are engaged.

How do we know that an associate is disengaged? We could also face a situation where our best performers do not always behave like the first type of employee discussed. For them, we need to realize that the bigger the talent, the bigger the performance and the bigger the need for management of that talent. In fact, highly productive people need 5 times the recognition as compared to the average performers. Now that is an indication of this new time. If we have high performance, then we need people to help manage that because that is when a relationship begins to gain trust. To sustain the idea of igniting the purposeful energy at the micro level, you must have the bridge level which is where the managers of the organization thrive. When I use the word managers, I don’t mean people who just organize things; I mean people who are actually building relationships with other people at a very local level. Great managers have that bridge level culture for connecting people to purpose, all the time in the organization.

Curt Coffman is the New York Times bestselling author of ‘First Break All the Rules’,management consultant and Senior Partner & Chief Science Officer of The Coffman Organization. Curt pioneered Employee Engagement 2.0 which PCI as an exclusive partner of Coffman Organization offers to its clients in South–East Asia. He can be reached at

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Topics: Culture, Life @ Work

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