You can't fix culture by fixing culture
3 minute read
By: Jennekin Dicks
Using a deliberately basic example to land a complex issue:
Say you have a group of professional people working in a hot and stuffy room for weeks and months on end. They are under intense pressure to get difficult work done, which they can usually handle. Yet now they are in continual discomfort which disrupts their thought processes and generally puts them on edge.
Which means that when a good idea is offered, they rarely have the patience or energy to fully engage. And when someone procrastinates or makes a mistake that sets the group back, the tension is palpable. Before long, issues start to compound. They get snappy. Blame and defensiveness is rife. Eventually it gets so bad, that people start to leave.
Yet the work still needs to get done. So the empty seats are quickly filled with new people thought to have a 'better cultural fit.' Of course nothing gets better. If anything, it gets worse as the original supportive friendships and camaraderie that helped some, are broken up and people are now feeling too cynical to properly try again. At some point a difficult person joins the team, but by now it is near impossible to differentiate between the extra complexity this creates and the mess everybody is already in.
It is not a stretch to say that the culture has turned toxic. And when it becomes obvious that this situation is now consistently impacting on the speed and quality of the work delivered, the decision is finally made that something must be done.
Perhaps someone tries to help by describing more productive and supportive behaviours to the group. They enthusiastically and eloquently share what a great team looks and feels like and how it fits in with the vision and values of the company.
Will it work? Maybe in some ways in the short term, but in the long run across the group? No. It won’t.
Or perhaps a leader chooses to handle it in a more connected, empathetic way and talks to them about their experience and their state of mind. So for a moment individuals in the group feel heard and understood (which is important), but that still doesn’t solve the problem. If anything, it creates additional resentment as they realise that their misery is now known and still no meaningful action is taken to resolve it. As an added complication, the leader might even resent this employee resentment, because obviously, problems this complex are not solved with fresh air. And so another divide deepens.
Of course the solution that was needed right from the start is as respectful as it is obvious, isn’t it? Crack a window. Or, if that’s not possible, move the whole group to a better ventilated space.
The point (and we're obviously not really talking about stuffy rooms and fresh air here) is that when the most relevant problematic conditions in a particular context are identified and addressed, it changes people's experience, which allows for a change in their action and interaction, which then changes the result.
The problem is that people often mistake organisational culture as a key relevant condition that generates the result they don't like and that it is therefore the main issue to focus on. It is not. A cultural outcome in a business is certainly real and can be observed and analysed in people's interaction, but it is still only a result in itself. And yes, it can generate additional layers of complexity in people's behaviour - good or bad - but it can't be changed by addressing what it is. It is still just an outcome. Once established, it might perpetuate itself, but it is not the cause of itself - it can't be its own parent.
Culture as a continually emerging result, can only fundamentally be changed by changing what creates it.
So what people therefore really need to see are the underlying conditions uniquely relevant to an environment. This helps everyone in that environment specifically and practically focus on making the changes that will actually make a difference to their reality. If they can do that, the result will change - including the cultural result.
How to do that? In other words, how do you go about finding your proverbial ‘openable window’ so a group of people can breathe and feel comfortable enough to get on with doing good work together? And thereby automatically build a positive culture and general 'readiness' to succeed together, come what may?
I'd like to share my approach with you. It started with a gut instinct and subsequent career change many years ago. It then evolved via a deep and broad analysis of people, motivation, process and other systemic realities across various businesses. Yet it all landed in a simple, relatable place - and it works. Probably because it's not trying to achieve anything other than a clear-eyed look at people's reality and what they need in it.
What this approach offers, is a way to drop in beneath the often confounding layers of culture.
If you are interested in learning more, I have put together a short, easy-to-watch video to introduce the basic concept (see the link below), which will then be followed by a Case Study showing practical implementation in a real business. [Note that this second video in the series is currently under development.]
I will also immediately add that I am not in the business of offering silver bullets. I know that a good internal solution must evolve uniquely in the hands of the people who need it. Nobody can waltz in and lay down the perfect pre-determined model or solution for you. I mean sure, I spend my days waltzing in and helping businesses, but everything I offer would be meaningless without that context specific evolution - by the people, for the people.
Yes, business environments are complex, but there are simplifying ways of looking into its depths that can spark practical insight and change. And that is exactly what I want to share with you in the following parts: Seeing the Dynamic and Evolving the Dynamic.
Watch the first of the two-part video series: