Coloured bottles- culture and leadership

Community and connection


Published in Manufacturing Today Europe April 2018

It’s no secret that the way many businesses operate simply isn’t working – and that applies both to the corporate whole and to the individuals within it. Traditional command and control environments leave people feeling under-motivated and disengaged as they have little say in how they do their work, and no feeling of autonomy, pride or empowerment.

It’s a global problem, with a recent Gallup survey finding only 15 per cent of employees worldwide feeling engaged at work. Productivity suffers as a consequence.

Meantime, long hours, rigid hierarchies, office politics, a fear-based culture and a challenging economic environment are leaving people feeling burnt out. According to UK government figures, in 2015/16 stress accounted for 37 per cent of all work-related ill-health cases, and 45 per cent of all working days lost due to ill health.

Stress is a powerful response that is valuable in dangerous situations – but bad for human health and performance when experienced over long periods. The chemicals it produces in the body are good in the short term for survival but detrimental to health, collaborative working and creative thinking. The stress hormone cortisol significantly reduces our capacity for problem solving by literally shutting down our ‘thinking brain’. It puts us on ‘red alert’ for threats, prepares us to run and makes balanced analysis difficult. When people don’t feel safe, their field of vision narrows to focus solely on the ‘threat’ – and that can result in negativity towards their colleagues.

A partial solution is to insist that employees, at all levels, take some downtime. Elite athletes know it is counterproductive to train without taking strategic rest breaks. People in more routine jobs need to adopt the same approach. Taking a break every 90 to 120 minutes improves overall productivity. A case study in the Harvard Business Review showed that when Wachovia Bank introduced mini-breaks – a time to switch off, drink a glass of water, have a healthy snack and ignore social media – all the business’s metrics improved. Better rested staff resulted in improved customer service and increased sales.

Manufacturing is particularly susceptible to employee disengagement because so much is based around a mechanised process. But the people involved in the production line are not machines. If they don’t feel valued, they won’t perform well.

So, what is the answer? The solution is to put people first, because when you do that, you release their potential. Famously, this was at the heart of the Toyota Way – the Japanese approach that proved so successful over American carmaker competitors. Here, efficient manufacturing processes went hand-in-hand with devolving decision-making to the lowest level within the organisation. Ultimately, management recognised that people on the shopfloor knew more about the job than those in the boardroom. Putting people and culture first led to sustained business value and profit.

Achieving this kind of engagement requires a new mindset and a wholesale change in organisational culture, one that adopts an Agile approach.

The Agile Business Consortium has identified the elements that are key to fostering a culture of collaboration and empowerment.


We’ve named these the Seven Elements of Agile Culture DNA:

  1. Agile leadership – there is a close link between an Agile culture and an organisation’s leadership. Agile leadership is often likened to ‘servant leadership’ – where the leader prioritises the needs of others – with much less command and control

  2. Wellbeing and fulfilment – recognising people as more than just a resource to allocate. Happy employees are more productive

  3. Unleashed purpose and meaningful results – most of us don’t just want to work for a company, we want to belong to an organisation that gives us purpose and is successful, it’s part of our human DNA

  4. Adaptability to change – change is the ‘norm’. To sustain continuous improvement, organisations need to be stable and yet also have the flexibility to adapt and evolve

  5. Trust and transparency – being open, honest and transparent in all day to-day interactions to help build trust and commitment with all stakeholders

  6. Collaborative communities and distributed authority – leaders need to devolve decision-making to those closer to the problem as they make better, faster decisions

  7. Innovation, learning and personal mastery – learning through feedback, using the cycle of do-inspect-adapt, then taking time to reflect on what went well, and what could be improved


Understandably, managers worry about empowering their colleagues when they are still held accountable for results. But there are good, proven commercial reasons for this change of approach as organisations that take a person-centric approach outperform those that don’t.


To name three examples:

  • The companies featured in the book Firms of Endearment (businesses that focus on passion, purpose and all stakeholder group interests) outperformed S&P 500 companies by a factor of 14 over the period 1998 – 2013 (for details see

  • Businesses featured in the Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work For (based on the criteria of trust, pride and camaraderie) enjoyed stock market returns three times higher than the average between 1997 and 2011

  • Research conducted at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggests that Agile firms grow revenue 37 per cent faster and generate 30 per cent higher profits than non-agile companies


Underpinning all this is science – and not just the harmful effects of cortisol when present for a long time. We are used to hearing about Darwin’s ‘survival of the fittest’, but biologists like Elisabet Sahtouris have discredited this, noting nature is built around principles of collaboration and reciprocity. In today’s business world, we should focus on what Sahtouris phrases as ‘the survival of the most co-operative and collaborative’.

We are social animals and when we decide that someone is a friend rather than a foe, and when we share our thinking with them, our brains release the neurochemical oxytocin. This makes us feel good and have a positive attitude, and so encourages us to share further and collaborate more with others.

Organisations need to create a sense of community and connection, to encourage people to share knowledge, to innovate and develop new knowledge in a safe environment. Once that has been achieved, increased efficiency will follow.

Published in Manufacturing Today Europe April 2018