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  • Writer's pictureAndrew Ramsden

What is culture anyway?

We’ve all heard the quote “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

Often attributed to Peter Drucker, what he didn't mention was this phenomenon cuts both ways. If you aren’t deliberate about your workplace culture, it will eat you for breakfast!

But what is ‘Culture’?

It’s a term often bandied about, and just as often misunderstood. Let’s start with the top 3 most common misunderstandings about culture and go from there:

Misunderstanding 1: Fun at work = Good culture

Teams who can have spontaneous fun while they work can be a good sign, but it’s far from a reliable indicator. In fact, I’ve seen many teams that can have fun together and yet still harbour major dysfunctions. For example: The team has a lot of fun together but struggles to buckle down, make decisions and/or get things done. Or the team knows it’s ok to have a chuckle, but not ok to fail, or ask for help, so fun and humour is used to cover up an otherwise toxic culture.

Misunderstanding 2: Culture change is just about promoting the benefits

Yes, when managing any change, promoting the benefits to individuals and the team are important. And yet, there’s more to it than that. Any change is scary, change brings with it the threat of loss. So any attempt to paper over that fear with a long list of positives and a healthy dose of optimism is just not going to cut it. In fact it’s likely to turn people further away from your intended direction. To resolve this you will need to spend time helping people process how they feel about the change. Or at the very least listen to them, hold space for them, so they feel seen, heard and understood.

Misunderstanding 3: Culture must start organically in the team

We hear “Culture can’t be forced”, “it’s gotta come from the grass roots”. And at the same time we hear “the fish rots from the head”, and “the leader sets the tone”.

So which is it? Bottom-up, or top-down? Is it on individual team members, or the environment we create for them?

Of course the answer is both. So how do we make both work without squashing each other in the middle?

As leaders, think about your role as providing a safe ‘container’ for your culture. And then allow and encourage staff to fill that container with the ‘content’ or the ‘detail’ of the culture.

Here’s how to establish a container:

  1. You as leader indicate what’s acceptable.

  2. You lead by example.

  3. You watch as others join in, and you give them your support, verbally and/or non-verbally.

  4. You now follow along with variations they make to the example you led (note: only pull them up if they take it too far, to an inappropriate place).

Example 1:

  1. As a leader you say it’s ok to tell jokes at work (or just skip to step 2).

  2. You tell an appropriate joke. This sets the tone. You may have to repeat this step on a few occasions till others feel safe to join in.

  3. Others start telling jokes. And shared themes start to emerge that can be called back to (this becomes the ‘content’ or ‘detail’ of the culture).

  4. You join in with those shared references. Only pulling it up if the jokes become inappropriate.

Example 2:

  1. As a leader you indicate it’s ok to give critical feedback in a constructive way.

  2. You take opportunities to do this, making sure your intention to bring truth and compassion is clear.

  3. Others take opportunity to do this in future. You can even prompt them to give it a try.

  4. You follow along as they try it in different contexts and ways. Even if that critical feedback is aimed at you. You only pull them up if they forget to use compassion, or use it as a way to pick on others.

So what is culture then?

Integral Theory provides the best clarity on what culture actually is. Integral folks divide the world into four quadrants, the external of the individual, the internal of the individual, the external of the group, and the internal of the group. And it's this last category that is referred to as "culture". Which means...

Culture is the collective mindsets and beliefs that are known to be acceptable within a group.

Whatever beliefs are talked about and more importantly whatever behaviours are accepted and/or encouraged by other important members of the group, these become the shared culture over time.

So what is a good culture then?

To have a good culture, you want really constructive mindsets and empowering beliefs to be shared and encouraged. Mindsets like Growth, Sustainable Success, Leverage and Empowerment.

But these mindsets can't take root or survive long when there's fear. And we see this time and time again in toxic cultures and those areas that are resistant to change:

  • Fear of making mistakes and being embarassed

  • Fear of having a diverse opinion and being ostracised

  • Fear of others taking over and losing control, power and identity

  • Fear of investing themselves only to fail and waste energy

My colleague Andrew Francois put it best when he said:

A healthy culture is the absence of fear —Andrew Francois

Why is culture so hard to shift?

Because even changing an individual's deeply held mindsets and beliefs is challenging, let alone for a group of people. There are lots of dynamics at play, even the way individual team members were raised and what they’ve experienced previously in the workplace will play into how comfortable they are with any culture or change-in-culture you wish to introduce. In other words, how much fear holds them back.

So the role of the leader cannot be understated. Because not only do leaders also have to manage the impact of change on themselves, but they must feel comfortable about introducing that change to others, and holding their hand through the fear as they make the transition.

In other words… Is nudging people outside their comfort zone outside your comfort zone?

Or put yet another way… Is holding space for others’ negative emotions when they experience fear outside your comfort zone?

If you answered yes to either of these, then I want to acknowledge your self-awareness and strength. Read on, there is a way through.

Discomfort like this means a leader will subconsciously avoid engaging with this change in important and meaningful ways. This is why they will tend to focus on just the positives: like misunderstandings 1 and 2. And why they will believe they should leave the culture up to the team, and blame them when it’s not good (aka misunderstanding 3).

The way through here is to expand your comfort zone.

Not just push outside your comfort zone, but have tools at the ready to process your own discomfort, challenging emotions, anxiety and stress.

These tools exist. And no, I’m not talking about meditation, or any hippy dippy woo woo. I’m talking about proven tools based in modern psychology and neuroscience.

In doing this work on your inner game, not only will your comfort zone expand, but managing culture and culture change will become second nature to you. An unconscious competence. You won’t have to worry about following the step-by-step processes outlined above, you’ll just do it naturally. This is what’s meant by leadership is less about DOING and more about BEING.

And then, congratulations! You’re now leading from your authentic self. And feeling comfortable, confident and calm while you’re doing it.

Reach out if you’d like help expanding your comfort zone. This is a specialty of mine after having lived much of my life exhausting myself fighting the urge to play small.

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