Numerous movies and television shows, such as The Office, are entertaining for the manager who may revel in the thought of workplaces that are worse than their own experience, or that have characters that exhibit the most frustrating behaviours of the people we work with or supervise.

Beyond entertainment value, there are those shows that transcend amusement and lend ideas and inspiration we can apply in our lives. In this post I offer a suggestion for a movie for managers who are experiencing resistance to or doubt they can change organization culture.

I once spoke with a fairly new executive director who was lamenting his organization’s culture and noting there was nothing he could do about it. He saw his role as being to manage within it. Well, I knew then there would be ongoing problems at that workplace if his view did not change. Changing organization culture requires a transformational leader who can inspire staff and managers alike to go beyond their current beliefs and mindset about who they are.

I was facing a similar challenge in my work life when I found inspiration in the movie, Stand and Deliver (1988), based on a true story about a teacher at Garfield High School in Los Angeles. In 1982 he led 18 students who were assigned to a ‘basic math’ class to pass the Advanced Placement Calculus test, an unprecedented experience for the socially disadvantaged population at that school.

There are references in this movie that are outdated given 30 years have passed since its production. And, some of the acting seems overly emotive. However, there is something appealing in the challenge, especially as it is based on a true story.

Here are the strategies the teacher, Jaime Escalante (played by Edward James Olmos in the movie) used to effect attitude amongst his students:

He sold them on the vision that they could excel; that he expected them to excel.

It took time and effort for him to sell this vision to the students that they could excel. He picked the leaders, both positive and negative, and selectively won them over or weeded them out.

He clearly stated his expectations for success and reminded them of it repeatedly.

A good starting point to help specify expectations is to think about the features of a good culture. Are the actions of most of your employees positively influenced by the values of the organization; this goes for actions that are observed, as well as what they do when no one is looking.  Are your values and expectations clearly stated and reinforced? Escalante had the students sign a contract that they would meet the expectations. In return, he promised to help them achieve the vision, which they now shared.

He set and gave rewards when the students’ actions and behaviors aligned with the values.

He provided immediate verbal feedback when students applied themselves and when they got answers right. This may be more difficult with your staff if you are in a situation to not observe their daily activity. Arrange to be present enough during time of significant change to ‘catch people doing things right’. Be specific in telling them what was right. Instead of saying to a receptionist, for example, ‘that was a nice conversation you had with Mr. Smith.’, say ‘when you greeted Mr. Smith I notice you smiled, called him by name, looked at him when talking to him, and asked him if there was anything else you could do for him. He looked far less nervous and agitated after talking with you’.

He corrected or showed the negative consequences to those whose actions and behaviors were contrary to the values.

In providing feedback it is helpful to use the same level of detail about what is not right as you did with rewarding what was done correctly. Watch this clip from the film that shows his conversation with a student who has decided to not sign the contract in order to take a good paying job with his uncle. He lets the student discover for himself the short-sightedness of his thinking.

I hope you enjoy this film if you get a chance to see it, and can draw inspiration from this real life example.

This is the last blog post before the holiday break. Best wishes for the season. I will connect again in the New Year.