Culture in the workplace. And you.

One of the most challenging concepts for the business leaders we work with is recognizing culture and its impact on the organization’s progress.

Or should I say, lack of progress?

Our culture derives from what we believe to be true. It’s what we accept or adopt as the values and norms by which we show up in the world and interact with others. Culture is what determines what behavior is acceptable, punished, and rewarded in the home, in the coffee shop, in the factory, and the office.

Managers and Executive Leadership in any organization are generally the beneficiaries of the culture as it is. Therefore, a story is told – this culture is good, and the evidence that its good is the anecdotal evidence of my success within that culture.
Another story is then told as well – if you aren’t flourishing in this culture – the one in which I’ve thrived – then there must be something wrong with you. Alternatively, perhaps, you haven’t been sufficiently indoctrinated into it.

Cultures often develop around what people perceive to have worked well. A culture that rewards honesty will probably be safer and better than one that doesn’t. However, again, the problem is that we see this through our lens – if I’ve been successful then I will defend the culture as it is, if I haven’t been successful, I will be more likely to be dissatisfied with that culture. If I’m in a culture that values honesty, and I haven’t been successful in that culture, I’ll be unlikely to adapt to a cultural norm that hasn’t brought benefit to me. What’s the value of honesty if I’m poor, starving, and unsafe?

As the leader of your organization, we propose that you be both the steward and champion of your company’s culture while also being its most objective critic. This is hard to do – you have to suspend your ego, and often acknowledge that your success has been due to the conditions in which you’ve worked as much or more as the result of your own initiative and brilliance.

Moreover, you also have to listen to the people who aren’t flourishing in your culture, or who are advocating for it to change. You have your story, and they have theirs.

Changing culture in a business is often about telling a new story. It’s a story that involves appropriately honoring the past while having the character and discipline to see what needs to change. Our Founding Fathers had a lot of great ideas – and some of them owned slaves. It’s OK to honor their good ideas while sifting out the bad ones. It’s what healthy and enlightened people do – live in a world without absolutes, continually shifting and evolving to find the right path, even if it’s not the same path we took to the top.

About the Author

Sarah Thomson

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