Culture… Is it a load of Croc?
Culture is a topic that seems to create an endless stream of conversations. I hear regular conversations ranging from
“…our culture sucks…”
“…I wouldn’t want to work anywhere else, it’s brilliant…”.
Understanding that the power of culture can bring down an organisation or alternatively empower an organisation is important.
Let’s examine a few things around culture.
My first overt experience of corporate culture was in my first full-time employment with a large international company. I was on a grad program at the time and moved across 4 different areas of the company over the first two years. As most grads are in their first few weeks, I was nervous and wondered if and how this new tribe would accept me. My first team were a fairly impressive group, looking at mergers, acquisitions and major developments. It was a dynamic environment and I quickly grew to enjoy the work and the individuals. Being an introvert sitting with 6 other introverts, the process of team bonding took longer but they were still a good bunch of people. All were always willing to help and showing initiative was encouraged. I was sad to leave that group at the end of my 6 months as we had bonded and I felt as though I’d become an integral part of something important. A good experience of a ‘can do’ culture – nothing was out of the question.
My last assignment on the program was one to remember as I received an insight into a different culture that served me well throughout my career. My boss at the time (let’s call him Jerry) was the head of Market Strategies at the time and it didn’t take long to appreciate that Jerry was a little eccentric, to say the least. Whilst highly intelligent, Jerry carried a set of belief systems surrounding his life and communication that significantly affected the culture within the team in a negative aspect. Jerry had a habit of combining colourful language with moaning and complaining. The first 15 minutes of each day started in his office with a download of his experience of getting to work, the weather, what someone else was trying to do to him or any other item that needed discussion. This to me demonstrated a culture of ‘who can I blame’ and left me wondering ‘where is his accountability?’ I quickly noticed my energy levels begin to drop when this occurred and I started to try and avoid the morning chats. That worked occasionally for me but not the rest of the team. The impact after a couple of months was profound in the culture of our part of the floor. People used to comment
“That’s just Jerry – ignore it”.
How could I move from one team within the same division to another and experience something totally different in attitudes, values, beliefs and customs?
Tip number 1 – the culture of an organisation is made up of many subcultures and their influence can be significant to the broader organisation.
There is an old saying – “A little leaven, leavens a whole loaf of bread”. Subcultures when left unchecked permeate across the broader organisation. This works for both positive and negative subcultures. Each subculture, however, has a catalyst and in many cases, those are a leader’s behaviour or a small groups behaviour that is not addressed. Alternatively, in a positive subculture it is those individuals who are working brilliantly to change the experience and inspire others.
Tip number 2 – the leader has a large impact on the culture of a team or group.
What a leader allows, models or promotes is the basic framework for the culture of the group. However their behaviour (as in Jerry’s case) it does not have to be the ultimate outcome.
Tip number 3 – You can be part of the problem or part of the solution
While I was experiencing this complaining culture and did nothing about it, I was part of the problem! I didn’t realise I was perpetuating the culture I began to hate. I was a silent participant accepting the process but feeling a little disempowered by it all. After 2 months I decided to do something about it. Although I didn’t realise it at the time, how I decided to deal with Jerry created a counter culture (today’s language). Every time he opened his mouth and spoke in a negative tone I would counter this with an overly optimistic observation.
“The weather’s *&%$ again today…”
“Just remember Jerry, the sun is always shining above the clouds”
At first, he thought I had ‘lost it’.
“What is the matter with you, you can’t be that &%$* happy.”
But I was persistent and I noticed that over the weeks, the interactions were becoming less negative and typically shorter – progress! I kept this pattern up for 4 months and over that time, we went from meeting in his office to him coming to my office several times a day for a chat and 80% of the negativity left him. While he remained a little eccentric, he was drawn to the positive energy I chose to project and it changed the environment and culture of our team.
Tip number 4 – If faced with a difficult cultural environment, create a counter culture and live the culture you desire to share in.
Was it hard work at first, absolutely, then it became easier as the weeks went on. Were there days he still lost it, yes however they became less and less. Positivity is a powerful engaging force regardless of where people start from. In life you cannot and should not try and control people, however, you can be a powerful influence for good and change the world around you. It is a lesson that has served me well the rest of my career.
If your workplace is troubling you, here’s a little exercise to do:
Imagine what it would be like to live in the culture you desire to create; how would it feel; describe it; what conversations would you have? How collaborative would you and your team be?
Most people leave the exercise there, however, I encourage you to go to the next step – design it! What will you do differently to powerfully impact your culture for good? Would you want to understand what made those around you tick? How would you work with them and what type of communication would work with their great talents? This second step empowers you to act!
Culture is a powerful force in organisations that dramatically affects performance and outcomes. It’s not a load of croc! Whether you are a leader or a team member, each of us creates culture, so play your part in creating the culture you desire.
A couple of great articles on culture:
Malcolm Le Lievre