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Why learning to say 'thank you' is helping Yorkshire Building Society secure its future

12 Jul 2018 By Jane Simms

How the nationwide financial institution tackled culture change from the ground up

It’s well established that a simple ‘thank you’ for a job well done provides a disproportionate boost to morale. Which makes it surprising that more organisations don’t deploy it as part of their engagement strategy. Yorkshire Building Society (YBS), founded in 1864, is a notable exception: it has put recognition at the heart of a major culture development programme designed to help ensure the behaviours displayed by its 4,000-plus employees keep the business relevant to its customers for another 154 years. 

In 2017, YBS looked at its strategy, purpose and organisational goals, and identified the behaviours it needed to underpin them. But that wasn’t about telling staff what to do, says Helen Thornton, organisational development consultant: the idea was to show them what the behaviours looked like in reality. “All the latest behavioural science shows that if you want to change norms and behaviours, you have to use ‘pull through’ rather than a top-down cascade. It’s about tapping into people’s natural influence over each other, together with their desire to belong and be accepted,” she says.

One particularly powerful way YBS is trying to embed the right sort of culture is reinforcing positive behaviours through recognition, says Thornton, “because it shines a spotlight on what is good and taps into the desire for acceptance from the group”.

That means, for example, helping people discover that they can be their whole selves at work and be treated as individuals, which leads to an emphasis on recognition. There are three key strands to this, and they’re not all work-related. The first is celebrating work anniversaries – one, three, five or 10 years and every five years after that. The second is celebrating key life and work moments, from getting married or going on parental leave to running a marathon or passing exams. And the third is celebrating people who live YBS’s values in a way that has an impact on the business’s strategic goals and purpose – ‘providing real help with real life’.

Michelle Elsworth, recognition lead, says an important element of the anniversaries is personalised yearbooks, something the building society – which has more than 170 branches and 2.8 million customers across the UK – has adopted as a result of work it undertook with recognition and engagement consultancy O.C. Tanner. Colleagues and managers contribute comments and photos, and the book is presented to the recipient in a ceremony, becoming a keepsake and reinforcing both the value they add to the business and their sense of belonging. 

The yearbook Elsworth received last year after her first three years of service included comments from CEO Mike Regnier – “You’ve made a difference not only to your team, but also to our customers and culture” – co-workers, who told her “you are the reward version of Tigger and a pleasure to work with”, and the local coffee shop, which thanked her for keeping its sales buoyant.

Around a third of the organisation is now celebrated this way every year. But is it working? “One measure is the number of people willing to take time to contribute – in the first year, colleagues wrote more than 3,700 comments and added 1,100-plus photos to 700 yearbooks,” says Elsworth. “We also get great feedback about how it makes people feel, and it’s quite a big deal for lots of them, particularly those who’ve been here only a short time. Millennials, for example, aren’t going to stay that long so are looking for a sense they are valued sooner and more often.”

But it’s the third strand of recognition – the one that celebrates behaviours – that offers the greatest scope for the kind of storytelling that creates what Elsworth and Thornton describe as a ‘contagion’ of behavioural change. 

“We’re encouraging people to share real stories, about real people – ‘people like me’ – rather than having constructed communication from the top,” says Thornton. “They’re the kind of stories you’d naturally want to tell each other, while making a drink in the kitchen, say, or popping out for a sandwich.”

She cites the example of a former cleaner at YBS who put herself through training to become a customer service representative in the contact centre. “It was brilliant to be able to celebrate her achievement, particularly because it was unusual.”

Key to the cultural change is a group of 100 (soon to be 200) ‘influencers’ in the organisation – individuals from across all levels and functions who are well-connected and viewed as inspirational role models by their colleagues. The HR team works with them to introduce the right sort of behaviours in a natural, unobtrusive way, starting with what Thornton calls “small, simple habits that don’t require a massive amount of willpower”. That might mean saying hello to people in the office, she says, or building more positive relationships with colleagues you wouldn’t normally talk to.

It can also mean putting phones away during face-to-face conversations to be fully ‘present’. “People say this has changed their lives, at home as well as work,” says Elsworth. The habit she has chosen to develop is to ask ‘why?’ more often. “That has changed lots of the conversations I have, and different decisions are made as a result.” 

An active reverse mentoring programme, along with open conversations about mental health and financial wellbeing (staff at all levels share their stories on the intranet) are also contributing. “We are seeing positive signs of change. Behaviours are shifting, people are speaking up more, we are hearing different stories,” says Thornton. “But this initiative is organic – it needs to live. We don’t want to change the world overnight.” 

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