The impact of leadership on employee satisfaction and company culture – PODCAST

Explore the intricate dynamics of leadership and employee satisfaction, delving into behaviour change, coaching, and the nuanced impact on company culture.

The impact of leadership on employee satisfaction and company culture – PODCAST

Explore the intricate dynamics of leadership and employee satisfaction, delving into behaviour change, coaching, and the nuanced impact on company culture.


Meet the authors

Sophie Brazell- Ng

Managing Consultant

Sarah Partridge

Founder & Director of The Change Academy

Dr Kristina Curtis

Behaviour Change Expert | Consultant | Lecturer | Researcher

Ever wondered what impact leadership has on employee job satisfaction and company culture?

In this episode of Never Mind The Pain Points, host Sophie Brazell-Ng is joined by Sarah Partridge and Dr Kristina Curtis to delve into just that.

The trio of experts explore the profound influence of leadership on employee satisfaction, exploring behaviour change, coaching, and the intricate dynamics of organisational culture.

Listen here or read on for an edited transcript.


Hello and welcome to Nevermind the Pain Points, a podcast dedicated to helping you unlock your business challenges. Pulling on our network of clients, partners, experienced employees and industry experts, we wanted to share with you our views and opinions on common business challenges. As a consulting firm that deals with these pain points on a daily basis, we thought we were well-placed to give insights on addressing these challenges.

Enjoy the episode.

Sophie Brazell: So welcome to our podcast on leadership impact on employee satisfaction and company culture. I’m with two lovely ladies here, experts in their fields. Do you want to quickly introduce yourselves?

Sarah Partridge: Yeah. Hi, I’m Sarah Partridge. I’m the founder and director of The Change Academy. So The Change Academy is a consultancy, primarily working with leaders to develop their levels of self awareness and EQ, but I also work with organisations on developing strategy and wellbeing as well. Most of my career was spent working in the corporate world in strategy and prior to that in marketing in the music industry, which is very different to the role that I do now. But I have lots of experiences that have really helped me to formulate my business in terms of the offering that we have now for leaders in how they can impact tangible change and become the best leaders that they can be.

Sophie Brazell: Awesome.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Thanks for having me as well. I’m Dr. Kristina Curtis, and I am founder of a behavioural science consultancy called Applied Behaviour Change and Honorary Lecturer and Associate of UCL’s Centre of Behaviour Change. And at Applied Behaviour Change, we help organisations leverage the latest science in behaviour change to design and develop more impactful services, products and initiatives. And my background has been really working in health behaviour change and supporting organisations to design health interventions, particularly digital health interventions in areas such as weight management and physical activity, but also changing working practices of key decision makers within public health as well.

Sophie Brazell: Amazing. Wow. Well, welcome to the Clarasys office, both of you. And we’re currently overlooking St. Paul’s. I’ll quickly introduce myself. I’m Sophie Brazell, one of the consultants at Clarasys. I’ve been here for about five years now as part of the Experience Consultancy, specialising in people and change. So hopefully I’ve got a little bit to say also on the topic of leadership and employee satisfaction. Let’s dive into it then.

So what’s the podcast going to be about? At Clarasys, we are the Experience Consultancy. We really care about employee satisfaction and our company culture, and it’s something that’s really, really special to us.

Our clients do come to us regularly to hear about our best practices and what we choose to do. And particularly prevalent since COVID is people are more interested in employee satisfaction and company culture. What our leaders, though, however, don’t often realise when they come to this is actually it’s not going to be one set thing that we need to do. And their involvement as a leader has such an important impact on company culture and employee satisfaction. So what we’re looking to do in this podcast today is dive into that topic, really understand some of the leadership’s impacts on employee satisfaction and company culture.

Sarah Partridge: Sounds great.

Sophie Brazell: Awesome.

So before we go into the topic, I would like to just make sure that we’ve all got some good definitions around what we mean by leadership style and company culture. Sarah, do you want to hit us off a little bit about leadership style?

What do we mean by leadership style?

Sarah Partridge: Sure. Leadership style. How do we describe that? Essentially, I would say it’s how we show up as leaders.

And I think that’s almost built on a foundation of lots of different things. Our attitude, our communication style, our beliefs, our personality types, all of those things. But probably most importantly for me is our levels of self-awareness. And that can really help define our leadership style. And I think that there’s probably not a one-size-fits-all all style. There’s not a cookie-cutter approach as such to leadership style. I think there’s examples of lots of different leaders who do things differently but are as effective as each other. So like, for example, if you look at someone like Richard Branson, you might say his leadership style is charismatic and entrepreneurial, really impactful leader over time. And then you look at someone like Mark Zuckerberg, who’s probably a bit more of an introverted, more laissez faire kind of leadership style. So I think that style is different, but can have the same impact if that makes sense.

Sophie Brazell: Kristina, anything to add on that one?

Dr Kristina Curtis: I’d agree with Sarah, it’s, you know, a set of characteristics as you’ve described, different communication skills, decision making skills, and behaviours that leaders essentially exhibit in their interactions with employees, and they have a huge impact on their work environment and shaping, you know, the overall culture of the organisation.

Sophie Brazell: For me, also, leadership style is something that’s a lot different now. We’re much more welcoming to different leadership styles. I think actually a style is something that’s entered people’s conversation a lot more than it previously did. Whereas, as you mentioned, the cookie cutter style is something that people are changing the way they see leaderships.

What about company culture? This seems like a little bit of a tricky one to define. How do you define culture?

What do we mean by company culture?

Dr Kristina Curtis: Well, I’d probably define company culture as the sort of collective personality of an organisation, reflecting its values, traditions, and essentially the way people work together to achieve common goals. I don’t know what you think about that.

Sarah Partridge: I completely agree, and it’s interesting. When you ask someone in an organisation, what’s the culture of the organisation? They’ll say something like, well, it’s just the way we do things around here. So it’s almost like a kind of a feel of an organisation. It’s actually quite hard to define culture, I think, because it’s quite an intangible thing, but essentially it’s a set of behaviours that are consistent with the majority of the people who work in the organisation that create that sense, that environment, that felt culture of how it is to work there. Kind of almost like a, you know, it’s the water we swim in. So to speak. So yeah, it’s an interesting one.

Sophie Brazell: Sarah, I absolutely agree with you. It’s that something that’s instinctive when you walk through the doors of a company, you can feel that culture, but you don’t exactly know what it is. You cannot put your finger on what that feeling is. Kristina, I know you had a couple of other thoughts about culture.

The relationship between leadership and company culture

Dr Kristina Curtis: Yeah, I was just thinking about the relationship between leadership and company culture. And I guess traditionally, and still now that’s operating in lots of different organisations is that leaders are having an impact, sort of a top down approach on company culture. But we’re also seeing a shift, I think, and maybe since COVID, where it’s actually employees that are kind of setting the ground for what the company culture should be. And if a new leader comes into that, actually, they need to have that awareness of that culture and adapt to how the employees are forming it and shaping it. So just some thoughts there in terms of the sort of changes that there’s a shift, there’s a movement, definitely.

Sophie Brazell: And it seems to be much more of a prevalent topic that people are discussing. Company culture seems to be the thing that’s making people want to work in places much more than it was before. And I know we talk about company benefits, you know, where you get paid and all of the other benefits that come aside it, but people are choosing to stay at certain companies because of the culture and the way they feel and can be present at work.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Exactly. There’s something about that intrinsic motivation, which is what a company culture impacts on compared to those more external material rewards of pay and benefits. That is so important for that actual motivation and for getting people to stay engaged and retained.

Sarah Partridge: A hundred per cent. And I think one layer down from that is almost this idea of values based leadership and companies having purpose and actually standing for something other than just the bottom line. It’s, ‘okay, what does this business stand for from a values perspective’? You know, ‘why are we here? What are we trying to do to tackle issues outside of the day-to-day business?’ So there’s that expectation there, I think, now from a lot of employees that their organisation is going to do something about climate change, do something about diversity, do something about social injustice. The expectations have changed, I think.

Dr Kristina Curtis: I think you’re exactly right. Yeah. It’s having a purpose, isn’t it? It’s the why.

Sarah Partridge: Yeah.

Dr Kristina Curtis: As well, I think it’s become really integral to teams and having having those shared goals and values.

Sophie Brazell: Yep. And it’s an important thing for me about the reason that gets me up every day that gets me excited to go to work. Yes, we’ve all got to do the jobs that we’ve got to do but we’re traveling to something a little bit bigger and that culture is an important reason that I like working where I like, I like the people I work with, I like what we’re about, what we’re trying to do. And it is why I chose to work here.

So we now have a really good idea of our definition. So let’s actually dive into how they can impact one another. I know Sarah, you’ve got lots of experience in the leadership space. How have you seen leadership behaviours impact employees?

How does leadership style impact employees?

Sarah Partridge: I mean, that’s such a big question. Where do I start? Well, just to give you a bit of context, I’ve worked in lots of different industries. Most of my career was spent working in the music industry, working in big record labels, and the leadership styles within the culture of music are very different to the leadership styles in other industries that I’ve worked in.

Let’s just say I’ve seen some leadership behaviours that have had such a negative impact on employee engagement, on employee motivation, all of those different things. And I’ll give you a good example of that. I had a CEO at one of the companies I worked for who essentially created a culture of fear and blame within the business. And the way that he did this was by publicly humiliating different employees in various different meetings. And this happened quite a lot where someone might be questioned on an aspect of an artist campaign or whatever it might be. And if they gave an unsatisfactory answer, then they would be berated quite heavily. It was actually bullying, to be honest, in front of all of their peers. And the person being berated would generally not say anything in their defence. They’d just take it on the chin and everyone else would sit there for the remainder of the meeting, not saying anything. And this culture of fear and blame permeated through the company to the point where if you think about it in terms of innovation, ideation, the ability to share ideas and to speak openly was completely squashed. And so it had real impact in terms of it led to you know, backbiting, it led to blaming, it led to kind of covering your own ass so to speak, not much collaboration. But it’s interesting because when we think about leadership, it’s never binary, it’s never, it’s a good leader or a bad leader because the same leader I’m thinking about here also was probably one of the most charismatic and motivational speakers I’ve ever come across, right? So yes, he was a bully, but he was also hugely passionate and motivating when he was speaking about the artists that we we’re working with. And you’d never leave a meeting with him unclear about what the priorities were. So actually from a results and business growth perspective, he did really well at the helm of the organisation, even though the culture was one of bullying and fear and blame. So it’s quite interesting because it’s not a binary thing.

Sophie Brazell: And it’s interesting you say that. It sounds like he was really successful, so probably didn’t actually realise that some of the company behaviours were as a result of how they maybe would be presenting themselves or fostering psychological safety between employees. Because I think a lot of leaders that I’ve also worked with is they’re great in the situation they’ve got, but they don’t realise that knock on impact with other employees and then particularly how they model how other employees should engage with one another.

Sarah Partridge: Yeah, I mean, I think that the person we’re talking about was pretty old school in terms of being quite autocratic in their leadership style, and I think they were aware of what they were doing, but it was a bit of a game of power and status and it was seen through that lens of being quite egotistical. I think the word megalomaniac was used a few times. So yeah, probably had some awareness of it, but certainly in terms of what we know now around things like vulnerability and psychological safety. I mean, there was none of that conscious awareness of that sort of behaviour.

Sophie Brazell: Yeah, and as you said, they were doing really well at the helm of the business. The profits were probably all there, but they’ve stagnated the employees. There’s loss of imagination. They, you know, we cannot show up in the way that they want to or share the ideas. So there’s that missing part that it could potentially have been so much better.

Sarah Partridge: Yeah, absolutely. And I think over time, you know, the business I’m thinking about, they lost all their best people because everyone wanted to get out of that situation eventually.

At the time, yeah, people stayed there and there was good things and bad things, but eventually the best people left the business because they didn’t want to deal with that kind of a toxic environment anymore.

Sophie Brazell: Another big topic that I’ve started to see that’s coming through is genuinely that leaders do not see the fact that they have that impact on an employee.

Sarah Partridge: Couldn’t agree more.

Sophie Brazell: And some leaders are getting a lot better at getting stuck in, in kind of that lower level work, I guess, the things that they don’t realise some of their employees do. Have you seen any examples of where someone’s been a really good leader and what’s probably worked well and helped foster a really great company culture and environment that they can get the best out of their employees?

Examples of good leadership positively impacting employee satisfaction and company culture 

Sarah Partridge: I’ve seen facets of that. I’ve never seen something that I consider to be perfect. I mean, is there such a thing? Probably not, but I’ve definitely seen facets of what I would consider to be more transformational leadership, you know, a much more modern take on transformation. I know, what does that even mean? Sounds good. But people that show up with a leadership style which enables their employees to approach them, to come to them with challenges, to come to them with ideas. And also it enables people to be their authentic selves in an office environment, which I think is really, really important if you want to get the most out of the people that we’re working with.

And going back to one of your original points, Sophie, around how much do leaders understand the impact they have? I mean, I actually think that a lot of the time, people in senior leadership positions don’t actually realise the influence and impact they have on the employees in the organisation who look to them to role model.

And that’s not because they’re ignorant necessarily. I think it’s actually probably a lack of confidence or a mindset of ‘well, I mean, you know, I’m not that good’ or ‘yeah, I’m just doing a job’ or whatever, but that self awareness of how much influence you have as a leader. And I think even certainly for myself, when I was in my last job in a senior role I had a lot of people asking me to mentor them or to guide them. And when that happens, part of you sort of thinks, ‘well, I’m not sure I can help here. I don’t really know more than you do’. There’s that sort of humility there, but actually you don’t realise that people look at your job title a lot of the time and think that you have all the answers and that the way you behave is the way that they should behave. And so that whole role modelling thing is something that I believe leaders need to become more cognisant of that people do look to them as role models and to raise that self awareness that what you do is being watched and you know what you do does matter.

Sophie Brazell: Yeah, what you do and what you say and how you turn up and present yourself I think is huge. I mean I’ve seen examples of actually where I’ve worked with great leaders who I thought were really impressive. And the item that’s always stood out for me is they gave their employees space or they gave people space that they were working with to share their thinking in a very safe environment. And then when they questioned something or disagreed with something, it was done in a really great way to make that person not feel like they couldn’t share anything again. I think it’s that hierarchy structure for me that you’re always going to look to a leader. You know who the leader is in the room, but also the leader in the room should be able to foster a very safe space for you to share your ideas and thoughts because you’re going to get so much more out of your team in that space as well and potentially learn more about yourself at the same time.

Sarah Partridge: And that’s why I think when we’re sort of doing leadership development training, we often encourage our leaders to not be the first to speak. It’s like, ask the questions the one thing we can do as leaders is to ask more questions because as soon as you set the tone for the meeting or for the decision, generally people might just go along with what you’ve said because you are the most senior person in the room. We call it the hippo effect, the highest-paid person’s opinion.

Sophie Brazell: Oh, that’s brilliant.

Sarah Partridge: And what happens is that if the hippo speaks first, then people tend to follow that line of thinking and it leads to group think, which is never gonna be good from a innovation and ideation perspective. So we try and encourage leaders actually just sit on your hands for a bit. Just let the people in your team share their ideas first before coming in.

Dr Kristina Curtis: I read an article about the complete opposite of that called absentee leadership, where leaders basically neglect leaders core responsibilities. And this is supposedly one of the most pervasive examples of adverse organisational behaviour reported, I think, seven times more than bullying and aggression, but it usually goes unnoticed. So some of the core responsibilities basically around skills in providing clear direction, protection, orientating employees into their roles, and then setting and reinforcing those group norms. So I guess this could be CEOs that maybe aren’t very present in the office and then maybe working more remotely. And so there’s the lack of direction, lack of what is the norm? What is the group norm? How do we behave? Cause they’re not even seeing that. So there’s no one to emulate there and this can go unnoticed for years, in fact. So I guess it’s one extreme to the other, isn’t it? It’s having that balance in the middle of that self awareness. And I think a lot of the time as leaders, you know, maybe they don’t have the time or that space to self reflect and think of how they are as a leader and their behaviours. And I think that’s why sometimes leadership programs can be quite good at this point, when they do allow that time for self reflection, so that they can see the link between their behaviours and that direct link on employees and the actual culture, the workplace culture.

Sarah Partridge: It’s an interesting one, isn’t it? I’d quite like to see that study. And what you’re describing there, it’s almost like that idea of presenteeism, right? So the leader’s there, but they’re not really emotionally engaged with what’s going on. And I think that’s probably quite a different problem to the idea of the hippo effect, because actually I think that you can frame a conversation with a group of people by saying, look, I’m going to sit back in this conversation because what I really want to do is to hear your ideas first. So you can kind of, you can frame that rather than being absent. I think it’s the way that as a leader, you communicate what you’re doing to the people in the room, to the people that you’re working with. So they’re really clear on, ‘I’m not ignoring you. I’m not disengaged from the conversation. I just want to hear what you guys have got to say first and then we’ll take it from there’.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Yeah, definitely.

Sophie Brazell: It’s really interesting this conversation, we’re talking a lot about behaviours and how people show up. And I’m just wondering, do we feel like the characteristics we’re expecting from a leader have changed in the last few years?

I personally feel like originally the leaders that I was maybe looking to are those that are managing the finances, making sure that we’re making money in the business, you know, your classic like 90s leadership business style, whereas now we’re talking a lot more about emotions and psychological safety. Do we feel like the world of leadership is changing?

Is the world of leadership and their expected characteristics changing?

Sarah Partridge: Definitely, I think what you described there is what I would categorise the difference between a manager and a leader. A manager manages the budgets, manages the processes and the tasks, but a leader is much more about managing their people in a way that fosters well being, fosters engagement, fosters diversity, all of those things that we’ve already spoken about.

Sophie Brazell: So it’s clear to say that we can clearly see that leadership has an impact on employee satisfaction and company culture. But do our leaders always see that they have this impact? That’s another question. What are the common challenges that you face when trying to convince leaders that they have that important role to play?

Do leadership understand the impact they have on employees? 

Dr Kristina Curtis: Well, I think as you say, there’s the challenges around underestimating their impact in part from this kind of lack of awareness about the direct link between leadership behaviours and organisational culture. There also can be a resistance to adopting new leadership styles and sometimes a focus on short term results and perhaps overlooking the long term benefits of a positive company culture.

Sarah Partridge: Yeah, I mean, I think I’d add to that in terms of some observations I’ve had since moving from the world of corporate strategy into the learning and development space is what we often refer to as this knowing, doing gap, or the knowing doing divide, in that we can get a group of leaders in a training room, and put them through a program, teach them all the tools and skills and models they need to go back out there and be more transformational as a leader. But that does not necessarily mean that they’re gonna do it.

Sophie Brazell: No. Or they’ll do it for a week.

Sarah Partridge: Well, yeah. I mean, they might do it for an hour. Right. But I mean, and that’s human behaviour in the psychology of behaviour change. But I know certainly when I was a leader and I was sent on training programs, I loved them while I was doing them. I loved the learning. It all made sense to me. It made me feel really passionate and motivated, but ultimately when you’re back in that office and you’ve got a hundred priorities and another hundred emails to get through and time is poor and resources are minimal. Are you going to focus on changing your behaviour or are you going to just default back into the way that you are? And I think it’s really, really difficult for us in the L&D world to help and support people on that journey of behaviour change. It’s really, really difficult when you’re up against the huge priorities that leaders are faced with now and the pressure that they’re under. And so I think that my conclusion on that is that a training program is not enough by itself. It needs to be multiple touch points for leaders, including coaching, which I think is a huge, huge part of helping someone with a significant behaviour change.

Dr Kristina Curtis: I couldn’t agree more. And actually in the field of behaviour change, we call it the intention behaviour gap.

We know from public health interventions that just simply giving people information on how to change their behaviour you know, something’s telling you something’s bad for you isn’t enough to change behaviour, there’s all these other psychological elements. And actually, I can’t get through a podcast without bringing in the Com-B model. But the Com-B model is a very simple model of human behaviour that proposes for any behaviour to occur. We need a sufficient capability, which is the knowledge and the skills. So that’s that education part. We need to have an awareness. that we need to change or do something, but that on its own is not enough. We also need to have sufficient motivation and we need to have sufficient opportunity. So that’s around the people in our environment that either hinder or encourage the behaviour, but also the physical resources to enact that behaviour so I think often, like you say, we’ll do more of an educational leadership program that’s trying to change the mindset through important things like sharing case studies or success stories that illustrate the direct correlation between effective leadership and improved employee satisfaction, for example. But if that isn’t followed up with some kind of, as you’re saying, mentoring or coaching to help actually embed those changes into working routines, it’s going to have very little impact in the long term.

Sarah Partridge: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the other challenge that we have as well is even if every other factor is in place in terms of the tools, the capability – the issue can sometimes come back to culture.

How does company culture link to leadership behaviour?

Sarah Partridge:  I’ve been working with an organisation recently who’s been putting a lot of their leaders through a program of development, but the pushback in the training room from those leaders is like, ‘okay, well, you’re asking me to go out there and be vulnerable and admit my mistakes and, generally be more approachable. But the culture of the organisation is essentially telling me that if I am vulnerable and I do admit my mistakes, then I’m probably going to get a bad score on my appraisal and I won’t get the pay rise that I’m looking for. And I won’t get the promotion that I’ve been after. So why am I going to go and do that?’. So even with this move towards a different style of leadership, it has to be a cultural change. It can’t just be one lone individual in this massive organisation trying to do the right thing. Everybody has to go on the journey together, otherwise it’s not going to work in my opinion.

Sophie Brazell: You’ve actually shared something that I haven’t actually thought much about. We’ve talked a lot about how the leader impacts the employee in the company culture but not how the company culture or the employees can impact the leader. And I think that was actually a really interesting reflection there, that actually a leader could really want to do it. And you could get a great leader in for an organisation, but how the culture impacts them is massive. And especially if we’re talking about some of these retreats that we were talking about earlier today that folks might go. And you’re actually asking somebody to be quite vulnerable to open up, to not only just question their leadership style, but it’s going to be a lot about your personality or who you are. You’re asking them to explore quite a lot, and that can be quite hard.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Yeah, I think you’re exactly right. You know, change happens at multiple layers and it’s bi directional. As well coming from leaders going top down and also bottom up from employees as well. And it’s so important, I think, for leaders to have that kind of openness and collaboration to actually listen to the needs of their employees when they’re developing any kind of change initiative or new working practice that’s coming in. But I think often that’s not always the way, or the structure doesn’t always allow that to happen in some cases.

Sarah Partridge: Definitely. I think that it takes a very strong and brave leader in an organisation to be the one vulnerable person that’s doing things differently. It’s quite a scary place to be unless everybody else is doing it. And that’s when we come back to that sort of social acceptance and social pressure, which essentially is a big part of culture, right? You want to fit in, you want to fit into the way we do things around here. So you’ve got to put your neck on the line as the leader sometimes to do things differently.

Sophie Brazell: I’ve seen the leaders that do put their neck on the line are some of those leaders that are actually already doing some really good things because as a result of putting their neck on the line, they’ve thought about it.

I often sometimes see leaders who should think about it don’t and they all go, ‘oh, you know, that’s not, that’s not for me. I’m going to carry on doing things the way that I’ve done things the whole time’.

Sarah Partridge: Yeah. And it’s an interesting one, isn’t it? Because if you think about the actual basic definition of a leader, often it is someone who are so convinced by what they believe. If you think about, you know, traditional leaders over time, like everyone from Martin Luther King through to people like Gandhi or Nelson Mandela and, these are people who had such strong courage of their convictions that they would go off, and be determined to go in a direction no matter what anyone else thought. And that is almost the essence of leadership as well, isn’t it? You know, that ability to be brave and stand up for what you believe in.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Going against the status quo of leaders as well and what the norms are. And as you say, in different industries and sectors, there are different norms for leaders as well.

Sophie Brazell: I’ve often found it helpful with certain leaders that struggle or don’t feel like they should challenge their own behaviour to try and relate it back to something that’s tangible that they understand. But I think a challenge that we have in this space is how do you put a KPI on a culture change or how do you show you have had an impact on changing?

How do you put a KPI on a culture change? 

Dr Kristina Curtis: Yeah, well, I think we need to sort of move away from key performance indicators and think of them more as key people indicators, you know.

Sophie Brazell: I like that. I’m going to add that to Hippo as well, I think.

Dr Kristina Curtis: And again, it’s going back to, you know, what are the needs of your employees and actually thinking about how you can measure whether you’re actually, you know, fulfilling those needs and addressing them in the way they want them. And I think having measures that are more about people reported outcomes rather than business reported outcomes is really, really important.

Sophie Brazell: Kristina, I want to dive into a little bit of Com-B and some of your behavioural change techniques. Are you happy to explain a little bit more about the model and also share us some of your experience with using these and how we can actually potentially take advantage of those to help us address challenges with leaders or change their mindsets?

How can we use behavioural change frameworks to change leadership mindsets? 

Dr Kristina Curtis: I can certainly take you through the framework that I would use. So I draw on, really, it’s a behavioural design framework which integrates methods from behavioural science and design thinking to more effectively engage your end users, whoever they may be, someone’s using your product or someone that’s working within an organisation, to engage them and support those actually long term behaviour changes.

So the first stage we do is kind of really exploring what’s driving behaviours. So, for example, if you’re trying to get buy in from a new initiative, there needs to be some groundwork first. You can’t just expect to go in and push that out and hope that to work, which is what a lot of organisations will do without consulting any of the people that work there.

So it’s around understanding the needs of employees, but also understanding the needs of other leaders that you’re also going to be collaborating with, and your own needs as well, as leaders. And one of the ways that we can do this is really exploring this through the human behaviour model that I mentioned, the COM B model, either through a survey or focus groups, where we’re really trying to understand the information of what’s driving behaviours, what are facilitators and barriers to change. And then that’s a real sort of starting point to understand what potential interventions or behaviour change strategies we can use to address those influences, those real sources of influences on behaviours.

And then secondly, we would then go in and actually, what we call, ideate. And this is where you’re mapping these influence on behaviours to actual strategies that can change behaviours. And we use a taxonomy called the behaviour change taxonomy for this. And it’s a list of 93 different behaviour change techniques. Now I’m not saying you need to use all of them. It’s normally only a cluster of behaviour change techniques that you would use. And you go through different ways that you can translate these into a workplace, but you’re actually co-designing it with your employees as well, because at the end of the day it has to be something that engages them, that resonates with them, and that’s acceptable to them.

So again, if you’re coming up with how you translate those behaviour change techniques, you’re not going to get as much buy in and engagement from your employees as if you’re doing it together, so it’s a collaborative approach. And then, of course, it’s really important to prototype and to test these different strategies. And there’s always a process of, you know, this ongoing continual feedback and monitoring of how is the program going? How do we need to adapt? And as I said, measuring KPIs in terms of key person indicators to help you adapt and refine your approach and maintain that employer engagement.

Sophie Brazell: I really like how you’ve got the prototyping and testing and adapting and it’s really similar to what you were saying not too long ago, Sarah, that it’s something that you continually have to work on.

I think a lot of businesses are used to, we’re going to roll this out and it’s just going to be the best and that’s going to be it and we’re not going to do anything else. I mean, the number of places that are like, ‘oh, let’s go and get ping pong table or pay for the canteen’. You’re like, okay, well, but what else are you going to do? That’s only the one time, one hit wonder. I really like how you’ve got that.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Yeah. The challenge is convincing leaders to put the money into testing because they often feel uncomfortable with doing these kind of small scale pilots, which they think is more money. But I tried to use examples with other clients that I’ve worked with that actually you’re saving money in the long run by putting some upfront costs and time into it now to develop and refine your program. You’re then having much higher chances of success. Rather than spending millions of pounds on a program that you haven’t tested out before, you roll it out across the company and it doesn’t work.

Sophie Brazell: Yep.

Sarah Partridge: Yeah, I mean, interestingly, it kind of reminds me of approaches that some businesses tend to take. Some very successful businesses like Google, not necessarily around behaviour change, but whenever they’re launching a new product to market, they take quite an iterative approach, right?

So it’s a little bit more, get some feedback, a little bit more, get some feedback and refine. A little bit more. It’s this kind of iterative process of just drip feeding something through rather than the big bang. This is it. It’s perfect. It’s done. There’s no kind of change that we can retrospectively do at this point. Right. So. It’s very similar in terms of the strategy behind that.

Dr Kristina Curtis: And again, it comes down to company cultures. You think about Google’s company culture, it’s around innovation and that flexible agile working and also flexible working environment that then all supports that operational way that they can bring out new initiatives and products.

Sophie Brazell: It’s interesting. You’re not only just trying to change behaviours and get them to test the things that they’re doing out there, but you’re getting them to change the way that they are wanting to experiment with the different things and try different things out. I know at Clarasys, a lot of what we do is agile and I think agile is really typically seen or previously was typically seen in the technology space. And it was a way that we’re going to develop things, but actually we apply it quite a lot. So we’ve got the Clarasys agile methodology, we call it CAM, that we tend to apply to all of our projects, whether that be a behavioural change project or an agile delivery technology project. But it’s interesting that I find people are way more accepting about that being applied to a delivery product because they can see something tangible associated to it. They can see something being built, for example. They’ve got an immediate output versus when we might do the same thing about behaviour changes. It takes time and there is no immediate output. And it’s interesting you say key people indicators. I think that’s really nice because we’re always getting tested on the classic business KPIs, you know, cost, has that changed our bottom line, how quick we deliver it. And it doesn’t feel like we’re looking at it through the right lenses.

Sarah Partridge: Absolutely. That’s really interesting.

Sophie Brazell: On those, then, Kristina, I know you’ve done a number of projects in this space. Can you share anything about some of the projects you’ve done and some successes and also give us some ideas about what we could incorporate into some of our behaviour change work or projects?

Successful behaviour change projects

Dr Kristina Curtis: Most of my expertise around the methodology that I bring to any behaviour change intervention, whether that’s developing a product that’s supposed to help people increase their physical activity, or about changing working practices with an organisation. But I guess my sort of biggest experience has been working in public health. Whereas working within the context of public health commissioners, kind of a low uptake of evidence-based guidance in terms of using the latest evidence on what works to change behaviour when they’re commissioning health prevention services like weight management services and things like that. So we did some work where we conducted interviews with key decision makers that were mainly public health commissioners, decision makers. That was really exploring what some of the barriers to uptake of this change in working practice for them was. And we had various findings around lack of skills, lack of knowledge, beliefs that evidence from publications isn’t relevant to their local area. And of course, a lack of time to actually add this to their role, their working role in the days. And also a lack of support from those other layers in the organisation, which within local authorities tend to be elected council members who didn’t see the value of embedding behavioural science into the public health commissioning process. So from that, we recommended a multi level approach as we’ve talked about today to actually improve the uptake of evidence based practice. And this involved a number of strategies at a number of different layers. So we use the strategy of persuasion, which is a broad behaviour change strategy.And within that, you have a number of individual behaviour change techniques that you would use. Actually, before I go on, I should say what behaviour change technique is what we define as an active component or an active ingredient in a behaviour change intervention that directly brings about change to those influences on behaviour so you’re directly impacting someone’s knowledge or their beliefs about something. And then that leads to the change in the behaviour itself. So, as I said, we use strategies around persuasion, so information. So we did a lot of workshops and seminars with elected council members using credible sources, which were academics at the time, if you think they’re credible, and, you know, talking about some of the success stories again of where they’ve used behaviour change methods and other local authorities and how it’s improved the impact of their programs on people’s health. We also used modelling, so actual commissioners demonstrating how they’ve embedded evidence into the commissioning process themselves by engaging with relevant experts and the success they’ve had. And we also, the biggest change we saw was around the environmental structuring, which was actually improving their access to support for experts to help them embed the evidence and actually employing behavioural scientists to work within the public health team. Now, this was seven years ago. And now most public health departments has their own behavioural science team, which it didn’t. We were the first team working there. And you’ll often find with any behaviour change intervention, the biggest impact you can have is changing the environment and changing the environment in size of the physical environment. Such as the location, the resources, or it’s the social environment, i. e. the people in your environment. And so from this, we saw that the biggest impact was actually having people in there to help them develop these evidence-based services that had the biggest impact.

Sarah Partridge: It’s so interesting listening to yourself, Kristina, because, you know, behavioural science has so many different facets and layers, right? I mean, Kristina’s a doctor. You’ve done a PhD in this, right? So there is a lot of information to take in. I think we oversimplify this sometimes in learning and development, right? It’s like, okay, so we need a behavioural change in this employee or this set of employees or this group of leaders. Let’s run a training program.

Sophie Brazell: Yeah. Right. Painful isn’t it?

Sarah Partridge: And it’s just not that simple. It just is not that simple. And hearing you talking through that is such great evidence to support the fact we need to do more.

Dr Kristina Curtis: And it’s also jumping to the solution straight away. Wait, we need a training. Well, hold on. Why do you need a training? So I think what I try to get organisations to do is take a few steps back and try to understand. And first of all define what is the problem you’re trying to change. And then what are the influences on that problem? Because, and then you can work out where do you want to intervene on those influences? What’s practical for you as an organisation to do? And then you can map those to specific behaviour change techniques that can change those influences. And that’s when you then get to intervention types like training and education. So it’s, yeah, not, not jumping straight to the solution. It’s getting them to think first.

Sophie Brazell: Training isn’t the only path. And I think that’s what you’re trying to say, it’s always, ‘Oh, let’s go and do some training’.

Sarah Partridge: But it’s just one of sort of multiple touch points that will have a difference or make a difference. It’s an important part of it, but it’s one of 10 to 20 different touchpoints.

Sophie Brazell: 93

Sarah Partridge: 93 different touch points that are going to get the results that we need. And I think that’s just been the biggest learning for me or the biggest reflection moving into this world of L&D is that the ROI is not going to be delivered through just running a training program. You know, it has to be more than that.

Sophie Brazell: And as we’ve explored in this podcast, it’s elevating that exact thinking to the right people so they can take it seriously and know that it needs the funding, it needs the time spent on it, it needs the support, not only just of themselves, of everybody that’s involved to get stuck in and give it a go.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Yeah, definitely. And being willing to actually explore what employees really need, what their desires are and doing some research first before, as I said, just rolling out a program straight away without really understanding what’s going on on the ground.

Sophie Brazell: What a great conversation, ladies.

I’m going to wrap us up a little bit because I think we’ve had some really good topics of conversation, but I just want to go check back in and see if we’ve got any key points or things that really stood out to you that you’d want to bring towards the end.

The impact of coaching on behaviour change 

Sarah Partridge: I think one thing I just wanted to talk a little bit about, and it sort of follows on quite nicely from what we were saying here, is the impact of one-to-one coaching for behaviour change, you know, as part of that, you know, 93 touch points, did you say?

Sophie Brazell: Can’t wait for my bedtime reading.

Sarah Partridge: But from my own personal experience, I think that you can have a classroom training type environment where tools and techniques are learned. But generally, the kind of psychological embedding of that learning comes from a coaching program over a period of time where an individual or an employee is going out into the organisation and trying something and then coming back and reflecting on it in a coaching space. And one of the things that I think is really beneficial about a coaching space is that it’s a place for slower thinking, right? So when we’re doing our day to day jobs and you’ll know this, Sophie, in terms of the job that you do, you’re busy, right? You’re running from meeting to meeting. There is no time for reflection because you are just trying to get through the day with the multiple things that you’ve got to do. And so a client of mine was describing it as ‘being on a roundabout. It’s going round and round and round and round. And I never get a chance to get off the roundabout’. And I said to her, well, your coaching with me is your chance to get off that roundabout, right? So you going from this fast, hectic pace to a slower, more considered, more reflective period of time where you can actually just stop and bring in that slower, deeper, more conscious thinking. And that’s when the learning happens. And obviously prompted by good questions and prompted by some silence and all of the things that as coaches we need to make sure we’re doing well. But I think that for me is really imperative to support that journey of change.

And so if I’m running a program for a client, I kind of almost mandate that coaching needs to be part of that if they want to see some kind of return on investment for it.

Sophie Brazell: You’ve got to do it over a period of time, behaviour change. You can’t just do it tomorrow. We can’t just be like, ‘yes, we’ve done it now’. It’s always something you’re going to have to work on and continually evolve, I think. And it’s making that space, repeating it and accountability. I think that’s a really important thing as a coach as well. You’ve got so much to check in with, but also to make sure that you are continuing to do the things that you said you would do.

We have this a lot at Clarasys, actually, we do have a coaching program where we speak to our coaches every week to help us improve and better how we’re doing things. And I personally find it, as a coach myself, as not just my opportunity to help somebody else get along with this. Also, funny enough, a very important moment for me to pause and actually think, okay, I’m really responsible for someone’s development right now, but also I can reflect on myself in that time too.

So I agree, coaching, incredibly powerful.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Very much so. And I guess my experience of that ongoing support is through developing what we call communities of practice. And rather than one-to-one, it’s one-to-many. So it would be a number of leaders from different departments that could be all over the world coming together, having a structure to that, of course, but sharing their experiences of different leadership approaches and how it’s working is also very powerful for that kind of peer support as well.

Sophie Brazell: Amazing. Kristina, is there anything else you’d like to add or some closing remarks?

Behavioural design approach recap

Dr Kristina Curtis: My last sort of three points again is to really just go over that sort of behavioural design approach and applying that behavioural lens where first of all, you’re really trying to understand what the behaviour is, what are the problems, what are your employees needs as well as other leaders needs as well, and then kind of really mapping those to potential evidence based behaviour change strategies that can address these influences on behaviour and then actually having the time to kind of go and co design that program with your employees to make sure that you’ve really developed a program that’s not just acceptable but also engaging so you’re going to have that long term engagement and sustained behaviour change.

Sophie Brazell: Amazing. Well, thank you very much both for coming today for what I think was a fantastic discussion. I know I think we could probably all talk for absolute hours on this topic. We discussed loads of interesting things, so I think we’ll put some notes out with this. The 93 is coming to mind. The hippo is also coming to mind.

So wonderful. Thank you.

Sarah Partridge: Thank you so much.

Dr Kristina Curtis: Thank you. It’s been great.

Thank you for joining us for another episode of Nevermind the Painpoints. If you enjoyed this episode, please subscribe on your favourite podcasting app or site. We would love your feedback, so please leave a review or drop us an email at And for more information about us, visit our website

Guest details

Dr Kristina Curtis

Applied Behaviour Change


Sarah Partridge

Founder & Director of The Change Academy

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