Over the past few weeks, we’ve witnessed tragic events take place on both sides of the Atlantic, under the shadow of separate political campaigns – the US presidency and the UK referendum. A brilliant piece of writing in The Spectator caught my eye, particularly the following line:
“When you encourage rage you cannot then feign surprise when people become enraged…..When you shout BREAKING POINT over and over again, you don’t get to be surprised when someone breaks.”
In other words, those of us in power – whether political or economic – create an environment and people live within that environment. We therefore can’t and shouldn’t be surprised when the environment we create has an impact on the actions of people. On one hand it doesn’t create a direct line of culpability, but on the other nor does it allow immunity of action.
When I’m asked by leaders how you make a change in organisational culture, my first question is “how much do you want it?” Simply, are you willing to change your behaviour, your language, your interactions in order to help the organisation to change? Because it doesn’t start with posters, fliers and conversation makers – it starts with you. It starts with everything you do.
It is also the reason why I call bullshit on the arguments that corporate failures – such as phone hacking, financial irregularities and mismanagement are somehow down to a lone wolf or small groups of people acting without the knowledge of others. There is always someone who knows something that knows someone. And there is always, ALWAYS organisational failure and complicity.
When you work in a toxic environment – you know it. It just becomes the norm. You either get trapped or you sustain your efforts, hoping to be one of the winners. You lose your sense of compass and direction, but you know that it isn’t right. You just make arguments that help you to believe it might be justifiable and surround yourself with those that are trying to believe the same.
I know, I’ve been there.
And our organisations are part of the environment that people exist within. We form part of the air that they breathe, the emotions that they fell, the existence that they have. We have choices every day about the culture that we create and the implications of that culture. A million small choices that could make a massive difference.
I’m not drawing any specific parallels, I’m not trying to make any political points. But what I am saying is this; we can’t change the world, we can’t change the political rhetoric, we can’t solve the problems that have been created over decades, overnight. But we can influence the environment of our organisations, we can influence the culture, we can be more inclusive, more tolerant, more aware.
We can operate more successfully within our communities, we can reward the things that matter and we can be singularly unafraid to care. Every action influences our environment, every decision has implications and every person that we interact with will respond to that interaction.
In times of tragedy it is easy to sit in despair. It is tempting to retreat into the safety of the familiar to assume helplessness. But we’re not helpless; none of us are. Each of us has the ability to act and influence those around us. And for those of us running organisations those actions can be felt far and wide.