For a Sustainable and Resilient Culture
IMPROVE THIS – A Framework for Conversations About Culture
Cultures live in people’s hearts and minds. They are the set of beliefs, assumptions and behaviours that make it possible for those people to operate collectively, work effectively together, and achieve outcomes they could not achieve alone. Because the defining characteristics of culture are emotional and mental constructs, the only way to change is a culture is through the hearts and minds of the people in it. That’s why cultures form, settle, and change only when people communicate with each other, formally and informally, but definitely in all directions. Though the leadership has a strong direction-setting influence on a culture, a strictly top-down approach will never reach every member of a culture on the personal level needed to make them shift their internal model of the culture they believe they live in.
Cultures are complex and emerge from the interplay of many different factors. In fact, cultures are too complex to be designed and engineered, like one would design and engineer a machine, or even the formal side of an organisation. Cultures behave much more like living organisms, or even living eco-systems: one can design the constraints and conditions for a culture to exist within, but one cannot make the culture fit the designed mould exactly and perfectly. Culture will react and adapt to changing conditions in its own unique way, pushed and pulled by the tension caused between the need to maintain old dynamics while accommodating new conditions without the culture disintegrating or becoming dysfunctional.
At Transgrowth, therefore, we prefer to see organisational culture as a garden rather than as a machine. It’s possible to design a garden in great detail, including landscaping and improving the soil. Careful selection of the plants and trees to match the available conditions will certainly increase the chances of the garden living up to the designer’s expectations, but there is no guarantee that everything will develop according to plan. Especially in the early stages, when the garden is much more a collection of individual specimen trying to survive than a cohesive eco-system, constant monitoring and adjustments will be necessary to encourage the garden to mature in the desired direction. And sometimes, in spite of our best efforts, even a well-designed and well-tended garden will develop in an unexpected direction. Nature will have its way, and may force even the most accomplished gardener to adapt and change the design or face defeat.
For us, organisational leaders are like gardeners and must operate in a similar way. They can design and plan their culture to a certain extent – and good leaders certainly spend a good amount of time thinking about the culture they want for their organisation – but it’s only in the interaction with the entire organisation that will learn what works, what requires extra attention and what may need to be adjusted for the culture to change and thrive without falling apart.
The single most powerful tool for the organisational culture gardener is the conversation, in its many forms. Like gardens, cultures need constant monitoring and maintenance, which for cultures means observing, sensing and adjusting the beliefs, assumptions and behaviours stored in their people’s hearts and minds. The only way to do this is to talk to people, in many different forms and formats; to engage them in conversations; to make them communicate and reflect on what lives inside them, so that it becomes open to being influenced in a new direction.
Our unique IMPROVE THIS model is a guide for the kind of conversations organisational culture gardeners should have to have the best chance of achieving a positive, sustainable and resilient culture. A culture that is partially designed, partially organically grown, but wholly a well-adjusted and well-integrated eco-system for people and the organisation to thrive in.
The acronym IMPROVE THIS outlines the topics those conversations should be about.
Every culture is based on a sense of identity: the attributes that makes a culture unique, sets it apart from all other cultures, and – most importantly – helps the people that are part of that culture feel a sense of belonging.
Conversations about Identity should focus on how people see themselves and their organisation: what makes the organisation unique; what makes people feel they belong here; what’s different about the (part of) the organisation they belong to that makes them proud and happy to be a part of it?
Meaning & Purpose
Organisations consist of people coming together to achieve something they cannot achieve alone. In other words: organisations have a purpose. The clearer and more consistent that purpose is understood by everyone in the organisation – but especially by the leadership, as they play an important function as role model and guiding force – and expressed in words and actions, the more it will enable people to work together and value the common good higher than their own personal interests in much of their decisions. Working for an organisation with a clear purpose and being able to make a clear contribution to achieving that purpose helps people derive a sense of meaning from the work they do. That sense of meaning is a powerful intrinsic motivator, much more powerful than extrinsic motivators such as money and status.
Conversations about Meaning & Purpose should focus on the organisation’s purpose: what the organisation was created to achieve; what the founders’ vision was and definition of success; what the current vision and success are considered to be; and what departments, teams and individuals see as their unique contributions to the organisation’s lasting success.
Rituals & Organisation
Every organisation develops processes, structures, habits and behaviours that fit its culture best. Some of these elements are consciously designed and created, such as structures and processes, but much of the habits and behaviours evolve by themselves, as the people inside the organisation learn to adapt to the various pressures they work under and internalise the largely unspoken rules that regulates most of their behaviour.
Organisation is mostly about structure – dividing up the organisation into sub-structures to make things more manageable and (hopefully) more efficient – and lines of information and control – regulating how information is collected, shared, interpreted and acted on. All organisations larger than a handful of people have a formal version of this structure, as documented in their org charts, policies and procedures, and process and operations manuals, as well as an informal or ‘shadow’ version, which forms because the formal version can never adequately capture all contingencies, is usually inconsistent and incomplete, or has fallen so far behind the current needs of the organisation that people simply have to deviate and invent variations, simply to prevent the organisation from failing or falling apart.
Rituals are the regularly occurring collaborative activities all organisations undertake, such as meetings, town-halls, award ceremonies, periodic celebrations, and social activities. These rituals are important because they express, both explicitly through what they focus on and what is being said, and implicitly through how they are structured and what they prioritise (do only the leaders speak at town-halls, for instance, or is the stage open to anyone with something to share).
Conversations about Rituals & Organisation should focus on how the way the organisation structures itself and ritualises its collective communications and social interactions reflects or contradicts that organisation’s identity, purpose and values (see below). Both rituals and organisation – because they are so pervasive and visible throughout the organisation – are powerful levers for cultural change or equally powerful obstacles to such change by confirming and reinforcing the old culture (the old way of doing things). There can be no (lasting) culture change without changing at least some structures and rituals and it is important to carefully consider what to keep and what to change to encourage a culture to willingly reinvent itself.
Values & Ethics
Whereas purpose is what an organisation strives to achieve, an organisation’s values both guide and limit how they allow themselves to achieve their purpose. An organisation that is serious and sincere about the values it claims to uphold will foster a culture with beliefs, rules and behaviours that strive to express those values as well as possible, while minimising beliefs and behaviours that weaken or contradict them.
The ethics of an organisation are the actual rules of behaviour the members of that organisation display, most noticeably in situations in which explicitly held values contradict with beliefs and values implicit in the organisation’s culture. In many organisations there is considerable tension between the outcomes the organisation is trying to achieve and the limits on how to achieve those imposed by the explicitly expressed values of that organisation. When the leadership accepts or celebrates desired outcomes when they are visibly achieved by ignoring or contradicting certain values, the organisation’s ethics will increasingly encourage and motivate people to ignore or contradict those values, until they are not actually guiding or limiting anyone’s behaviour anymore. When the leadership, on the other hand, rejects outcomes that are achieved in ways that clash with their values, and encourages and celebrate people for upholding the organisation’s values even when that diminishes or negates the organisation’s desired outcomes (such as profit, sales and market-share), the organisation’s ethics will increasingly encourage and motivate people to let themselves be guided by the organisation’s values, even when that limits their success in achieving some desirable outcome.
Conversations about Values & Ethics should focus first of all on the core values of the organisation: the small set (no more than 5 as a rule of thumb) of values the organisation wants to live by, wants to be known for, and is willing to let themselves be guided and limited by. Since core values limit behaviours and often clash with behaviours that seem to lead to easier and higher-value outcomes, they take energy and attention of everyone involved, and the leadership in particular, to make sure they are upheld and lived by. That limits the total number of values an organisation can claim to really uphold – too many values fragment and dilute the available attention needed to keep them alive – so the conversation around core values must make sure the core values that are chosen are indeed the most important and most valued ones for the organisation’s current situation and needs.
The ethics side of the conversation should focus on how the chosen core values actually get expressed in behaviours and decisions. There are 3 questions to ask for each core value:
- What behaviours best demonstrate this value?
- What behaviours most contradict this value?
- What mechanisms do we have in place or can put in place to encourage the right behaviours and discourage the wrong ones?
It is important to contextualise this conversation for different parts of the organisation and make sure that everyone in the organisation clearly understands how each particular core value guides behaviours in their specific lines of work. Since each function in an organisation has specific conditions they operate under and specific outcomes to achieve, the way the tension between the behavioural limits imposed by the values and the need to achieve outcomes expresses itself is different for each function. There may be general rules that holds for everyone, but there will always be more specific rules, exceptions and additions for each function. It’s even possible for specific functions to add some of their own values, as long as those don’t contradict the organisation’s core values, and as long the list of values to uphold doesn’t become too long to practically manage.
Trust is a matter of our confidence in our ability to reliably predict the actions of the people around us. This confidence is usually based on a number of factors:
- How well do we know them?
- How often do we interact with them?
- What other sources of information about them do we have access to that help us predict their future actions?
- How often have they behaved differently than we expected them to?
But trust also relates to how important to us the people are we interact with. The level to which they can positively or negatively impact our own sense of well-being and security influences how much we are prepared to trust someone. It’s easier to trust a celebrity on TV whose words and actions will never directly affect us, for instance, than a co-worker who can sabotage our career by spreading damaging gossip about us. So, the more power people have to affect us, the more ‘proof’ we will seek for their reliability and predictability. The flip-side of this is that the more sure we are of our own situation and ability to secure that, the easier it is for us to trust other people, as our own sense of strength off-sets other people’s perceived ability to impact us.
Conversations about Trust should focus first of all on the issue of trust between people expected to work closely together, such as the members of a team, a business unit, or a (small) department, as in relatively small social groups trust is primarily a personal issue between individuals, rather than a generalised issue between ‘us’ and an anonymous ‘them’. Within relatively tight social groups trust is a direct two-way interaction between two individuals, both needing to trust and be trusted. People should be encouraged and helped to have conversations about trust using the following questions as guidelines:
- How much do I trust you?
- How much do you trust me?
- What do I need to trust you (more)?
- What can I do to be (more) trusted by you?
Another level of conversations should be around trust between groups and organisational units. Such conversations can use the same questions as a starting point, but should also explore mechanisms and behaviours that can help break down barriers of communication (it’s hard to trust groups of people when communication is sparse or formal only), such as moving people around between groups (in the role or ambassadors, mentors, or apprentices, for instance); working on more clarity on how the purpose and interests of the groups align, overlap and/or differ; or establishing codes of conduct that encourage transparency and predictability between groups.
The topic of Heart is about the human side of the organisation: about how we care for each other and how the organisation cares for its people. This topic brings a much needed balance to the predominantly rational and utilitarian conversations we so often find in organisations, where outcomes, processes and structures are are all that is talked about, in language that seems to suggest there are no actual people involved, just components in an organisational machine. We should never forget that organisations are human structures: social in nature, and driven by human emotions, ambitions, dreams, uncertainties and fears. Without human feelings, nothing would happen and no form of organisation would even be possible. Contrary to the long-held belief that organisations work best when people leave their emotions at the door, and we all behave like rational beings, people and their emotions are inseparable and it is precisely our emotions that drive us, guide us, and make us work together to achieve great things.
Conversations about Heart should focus on the emotional and social well-being of people and how to develop the awareness and mastery off their individual and collective emotional and social competencies. Leadership must be trained to be comfortable with recognising and talking about people’s feelings, recognising and addressing social tension and unrest, and most importantly learn to show they care about the people they lead, not just the outcomes those people produce. All employees must be encouraged to be more aware of their own feelings and those of others in relation to their work and their interactions with each other. Conversations should be encouraged using the following questions as guidance:
- How does this situation/request/task make me feel?
- How does this decision/action impact others around me?
- What would make me feel better/more positive about this situation/request/task?
- What would improve/mitigate the impact of this decision/action on others around me?
In an organisation with Heart, people allow for and care for the emotional and social side as work, and should be encouraged and supported in showing this in the way they talk about work and behave towards each other.
Inspiration relates to the intrinsic motivators that drive people to great and lasting achievements, as opposed to extrinsic motivators such as money, status and power that have been proven to only provide temporary encouragement, whilst requiring regular increase to achieve similar drive, and in many cases in fact reduce people’s resilience, stamina in the face of difficulties and creativity and ability to innovate and improvise.
The intrinsic motivators that inspire people best and most sustainably are:
- Purpose: the sense that they are doing valuable and meaningful work, and making a valuable contribution to that work
- Autonomy: the freedom to organise aspects of their work to suit their own temperament, personality, and personal circumstances
- Mastery: the ability to learn and improve their competence and knowledge, especially for tasks and skills that are difficult and challenging
All three factors are important for people to feel inspired by their work, fully engaged, and prepared to contribute to the best of their abilities.
Conversations about Inspiration should start with making the leadership aware of how much the commonly used management practices and performance approaches run against what actually motivates people. Leadership plays a crucial role in engaging or disengaging their workforce but unfortunately in most organisations that inspirational aspect of the role of the leader is mostly left to the individual leaders’ initiative and personal capabilities, and not systematically trained or supported. The three pillars of Purpose, Autonomy and Mastery should all be discussed regularly by the leadership, with the focus on how each of those pillars can be strengthened, emphasised and supported in the work that people do and the reward and recognition mechanisms the organisation uses.
But inspiration is also personal, so everyone in the organisation should be encouraged to think about the factors that drive them or hinder them in their work and be supported in finding ways to feel more inspired and engaged within their role in the organisation. The purpose conversation is mostly about how well people feel that their personal goals and ambitions are aligned with the organisation’s purpose, whether they feel able to contribute in a meaningful way to that purpose, and are recognised and celebrated for doing so.
Autonomy implies that people should be encouraged to take personal responsibility – at least to some extent – for how they approach their work and their personal development, and not just passively wait to be told by their managers what to do and where to go. When people have never been encouraged to do so, however, they need time and support to learn how to do so, and recognition for their efforts, even when results are not immediately obvious. To support a sense of mastery people must be encouraged to find a healthy mix of work they have already mastered and work that poses new and as yet unmastered challenges.
Safety relates to people’s deep need to feel physically and emotionally secure within an organisation in order to work well together and sustainably contribute their energy, ideas and effort to that organisation. Unfortunately, the fact is that the vast majority of us need to work in order to support themselves and their families, and the organisations we work for have a massive advantage in terms of their power to reward or punish us, including limiting the amount of money they earn or dismissing us completely. This means that the people working for a salary or other monetary award are never free of a basic level of fear and sense of unsafety in relation to their work. Since this is – the way our society is currently structured – an unavoidable fact of life, organisations that value their people must acknowledge this basic level of fear, and the stress that brings with it, and work hard to compensate for it by consciously and consistently striving to reduce fear and elevate the sense of safety inside their organisation, as much as they can. Helping people to feel physically and emotionally safe allows them to put the energy and effort that otherwise goes to defensive and self-protective behaviours, as well as worrying and monitoring for threats, into positive behaviours instead. People that feel secure are much more willing and able to collaborate, innovate, explore. People that feel safe dare to experiment and try new things, which is the only way to learn and develop. People that feel supported by their organisation are also much more likely to be loyal,, including feeling as sense of personal responsibility for the success and well-being of their organisation.
We live in a society that holds organisations responsible for the physical well-being and safety or their people, and can and often will punish organisations that cause people to get hurt. Organisations must realise that the definition of ‘getting hurt’ must not be limited to physical harm alone. Psychological harm, such as traumas and lasting psychological problems are already being recognised as falling under the responsibility of organisations to prevent or minimise. Emotional harm is closely related, but not as fully recognised yet, but is just as important in the long run for everyone’s sustained well-being and health.
Safety conversations should be about making sure people feel physically and emotionally safe in the workplace. People should have the feeling that they can fully focus on doing their best work; experiment and learn without being penalised for getting things wrong initially; innovate and challenge existing paradigms without being attacked for disobedience or disloyalty by the powerful supporters of the status quo; and interact with each other in an open, respectful but honest way without falling victim to bullying, being ostracised for being different or ‘performance managed’ (a form of institutionalised bullying in many organisations) for challenging wrongs they see around them.
These conversations are not always easy. Safety is an emotional issue and what feels safe for some people can feel unsafe or even downright dangerous for others. There is, therefore, no single one-size fits all approach to this topic. In addition, there will always be a trade-off between safety and autonomy: extreme safety-measures tend to constrain personal choice, which erodes people’s sense of freedom and personal responsibility. In this context it should be noted that trying to increase people’s safety by reducing their own responsibility for that safety invariably backfires, as it makes people feel their safety is not really their concern, but somebody else’s problem. Explore, therefore, this trade-off between safety and autonomy to make people aware of their own responsibilities, the risks and limitations that exist, and how best to support them to find their own ‘safety-zone’ (which is like their comfort-zone, but with more interesting and exciting challenges) to work in.
A good way to explore the topic of Safety is to anchor it in the Meaning & Purpose and Values & Ethics conversations discussed above. Safety and risk are – in most cases – a matter of choice: the pursuit of something worth striving for invariably holds risks, or it would not be worth striving for. The question should be which risks are acceptable to people and how to best mitigate the risks that are found to be necessary or unavoidable in the pursuit of the collective goals. To shape this discussion, a great model is the SCARF model, presented by David Rock, in his book “Your Brain at Work”. The SCARF elements are things people typically worry about in relation to their work and can easily feel threatened in when things change, the pressure increases, or the business loses focus and clarity of direction. The elements are:
- Status: how is my position in relation to others? How well am I respected?
- Certainty: how is my ability to understand the situation and predict the near future, in terms of what is expected of me, what I can and cannot do, and how others will react to what I do or won’t do?
- Autonomy: what is the extent of my freedom and personal responsibility?
- Relatedness: how connected am I to the formal and informal networks that connect people in this organisation? Who are my friends and supporters, who are neutral, who are the opposition?
- Fairness: am I, or the people I care about, being treated in a way that I consider fair and equitable, without abuse of power and with consideration for people’s individual circumstances, intentions and track record?
Putting pressure on any of those elements can lead to people feeling threatened and unsafe and it is the responsibility of the leadership to recognise this and either show that the threats are more imagined than real, or – when the threats are real, which can’t always be avoided – support people and help them deal with these threats in a positive, constructive way. Even if leadership can’t always make people feel completely safe, they can at least stand by them, and make them feel supported and help them become more resilient and capable, so the threats feel less dangerous and daunting.