Q: My question is: How do I get the leaders of my company to realize that culture is not set at the top of the organization, but is set throughout the whole organization? Every voice counts. My organization is talking about how to get the culture of the company to be strong in a new world where people don't always come into the office. And our leaders think we “only” have to focus on leadership development. I want to change that. Ideas?
Dear Throughout --
Some think of culture as beanbags and T-shirts. Free food every Thursday. Some think of culture as celebrations, clubs, or events. Like how Gina Rudan at X (formerly Google X) did an event on dia de Los Muertos called Dia@X. Some think of culture as leadership development for a certain tier of folks. Like your peeps. Some think of culture as critical hires. Like, certain people make for a “good” culture.
It’s not that any of these are wrong but, each, on their own, seems incomplete, don’t they?
Because culture is about the key ingredients of people, yes. And how those people are led, yes. And brought together in moments of celebration, yes. And our environmental clues of joy and fellowship thru food, and communion, yes. And … well, yes. Yes, yes, yes.
CULTURE IS AN ACTIVE THING
While growing up, maybe by the age of 9 or something, it was my near-daily job to make yogurt from scratch. Not only is yogurt a key ingredient in a bunch of everyday Indian food, but it’s almost always served on the side (as raita).
Yogurt is a funny thing. You get something different if you use the freshest milk vs a few days old. Different if you stir the milk in than if you dump it in. Different if the ambient room temperature was warm or cold, wet, or dry. Different ( if not ruined) if you added the active yogurt before the milk had gotten to the right not-too-hot but not-too-cold temperature. And again different if you let it sit for a full 12 hours vs. rush to use it within hours.
The point being, activating culture in yogurt isn’t one thing but this multivariate thing.
Now, Throughout, you likely know where I’m going.
Yogurt has something like four variables between temperature and process, ingredients, and timing. If making something like yogurt culture is complex, of course, culture is ever more so complex in organizations. In our organizational life, culture is created in a social dance between the many voices and how we each belong to the whole. Led by different types of folks, with different job functions, with different goals, etc etc etc. Culture is shaped by every part (of a place or object). Or, as you already said, throughout.
CULTURE: ACTIVATES MORE THAN THE SUM OF OUR WORK
Raise your hand if you’ve experienced workplaces that made you feel small. Where despite all your best efforts, you just couldn’t manage to add the value you wanted? Maybe it was because of bureaucracy or maybe a specific boss, but you just slogged your way through the day, and the net of what value you added was somehow less than all of you?
And surely you’ve worked on things where everything you did was beyond amazing? Like how an idea got better than when it first came out of your mouth, or the implementation of something was even more creative than you could have hoped? The idea ball just makes it IN THE NET, like every time.
That’s culture’s exponential effect on how we work. (FYI: a video on how culture brings out the exponential or x-factor of performance that you might like.)
As any of our lived experiences confirm, culture is the social context that shapes our performance. Why? Because it is an interrelationship between how one’s VOICES can fully BELONG which enables Onlyness.
That’s why Onlyness is never about your voice alone or belonging alone but the energetic interaction of who we are, together. Hence the 2x2 grid we keep drawing.
DON’T CONVINCE. ACTIVATE.
Okay, you asked how do I convince folks that culture is more than leadership development.
Short answer? You don’t.
In my (studied) experience, when people think culture change is about “the top,” it’s not a sign that they don’t know that culture is everywhere and everything, it’s a sign of how the organization operates. What it values. What it celebrates. That person who is telling you that it is about “the top” is giving you a clue. A culture clue.
Which by-the-by is what culture is: “The way we do we do things around here,” which is rarely named but just known. And learned by how it is passed on from person to person.
But, or rather, and, here’s the thing.
You wrote how “every voice counts.” So you already know what needs to happen. Since every voice creates culture, you can use yours to change it.
Just like there are 50 ways to leave one’s lover, there are at least 50 ways to change a culture. You don’t need anyone to agree, or even to have a debate about what culture is. Or isn’t. Or to name it. You only need to engage with people and create the kinds of interactions that you believe serves. You create those social spaces where people are valued and can create value. To know and live one’s meaning at work. To create trusted relationships between people, both personally and around ideas. To enable learning and risk-taking so people can make shit happen. And, as people start to mirror you, join you, and join in, you activate (just like that yogurt) a “new” culture. Because culture is always refreshed and renewed not by what is espoused or even taught, by what is activated and therefore happening.
“The answer is easy if you
Take it logically
I'd like to help you in your struggle
To be free
There must be fifty ways
To change your culture.
“It's really not my habit to intrude
Furthermore, I hope my meaning
Won't be lost or misconstrued
But I'll repeat myself
At the risk of being crude
There must be fifty ways
To change your culture.
50 ways to change your culture.
You just slip in-jokes into a meeting
Or make it normal to be curious.
You don't need to be coy, Thru.
Just signal what you yourself value
Ask folks to get on the bus, with no fuss
You don't need to discuss much
Just drop invites to teach one another things.
Or to join together in starting a change.