Organisational culture is complicated

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a definition of organisational culture that I agree with. It seems to almost through the act of definition we make compromises that detract from the complexity. We talk about culture as a collective phenomenon, yet in many ways it is a very individual experience.

And when we look to aggregate the individual experiences, we unwittingly homogenise the outcomes to the point of potential meaninglessness. In many ways, understanding that individual experience is the key.

A number of years ago I was trying to explain organisational culture to a group of business leaders and I drew this:

organisationalculture

The specific words in the foundations and interventions boxes are irrelevant, purely to illustrate a point. Culture, for me, is the experience that results from the interactions and interventions that exist in a system.

Ultimately organisations want to try to create something cohesive and so, in order to do this you need to design the interventions against a set of consistent criteria (we often call them values), combined with leadership behaviours that are in tune with same criteria, that gives you the best chance of creating something that gives you your best chance.

Organisations often fall down because the experience of the interventions doesn’t match the foundations, (e.g. “we make things happen fast” but the reality is bureaucratic decision-making), leadership is inconsistent with the foundations and interventions, (“that’s fine but in this case we need to make an exception”), or they believe the end is somehow achievable by running some sort of culture survey, without doing the hard work.

Individuals will either like or not like a culture and that often leads us to talk about “fit” as if it is some sort of silver bullet. However, it is often the organisation determining whether the individual is a fit – which creates a whole other world of pain. I may have a favourite restaurant, it doesn’t mean I want to eat there all the time.

At the end of the day, it is complicated and we need to be ok with that as most important things are. Whilst at the same time, we probably need to worry less about the experience and more about the construct. If we’re making organisations consistent, cohesive and clear then maybe we should worry less about how we make people feel about our culture, and let them decide for themselves.

It is not ok

Would you think it acceptable if someone at work shouted at you, called you names, told you to do your f***ing job? Or if they reminded you how important they were and that they could have you sacked? How about if they were drunk, high, abusive or sexually inappropriate?

Yet everyday people at work endure this treatment, from their customers.

It is not ok.

When “normal” people behave inappropriately when they’re placed in a nominal position of power in a retail, hospitality or leisure environment. When they talk to service staff, cleaners, security guards and transport staff as if they are dirt. When they lose all sense of humanity.

It is not ok.

Working in organisations, they’ll value “teamwork, “collaboration” and “partnership”. They’ll abide to corporate value sets about caring for one another and being the best that they can. Yet once outside, the good intent drops away and they enter into a different relationship with our world.

It is not ok.

It’s not ok to treat people around you any differently because of a perceived commercial superiority. It doesn’t matter whether that’s buying something in a shop, or a restaurant, or on a train. It doesn’t matter what your excuse is.

It is not ok.

Everybody is a doing a job. Some people have choices about the work they do, other people have less. Everyone comes to work to earn money for the things that they care about. Some people earn more, others less.

Everybody has a right to dignity and respect. Everyone has the right to be treated like a human being, to be treated with politeness, with understanding and tolerance.

It is not ok to lose perspective of the way that we work with our colleagues, talk to our friends and behave with our family. To treat people doing an honest day’s work with contempt.

It is not ok to belittle, demean or berate someone because we believe that our social value is somehow greater than their’s.

It is not ok to dehumanise anyone.

It is not ok.

In praise of spin

I’ve worked in HR long enough to know that it has an image problem. One that is generally unfair, but probably the result of our own endeavours.

Our knee jerk reaction, like anyone in this scenario, is to tell everyone they’re wrong. That actually they’re missing this whole bunch of important information that they’ve never consider before.

It’s all……a bit whiny.

We whinge and bitch and moan about how we are misunderstood. And all it does is make us look like a whiny, moaning, bitching bunch of people. Let’s face it, would you want to hang around with someone coming across like that?

We don’t work enough on presentation, on delivery, on PR and, yes, on spin. I don’t care what you think, if you believe in the product that you have enough, you should be willing to take any measures necessary to get it delivered.

Rather than being the organisational equivalent of the parent telling their unenthused kids to, “eat their greens” and reminding them they won’t grow or be healthy otherwise, we need to learn to plate up something equally nourishing but more palatable and exciting.

We need to think about the hooks, the positioning, the language, the packaging and the delivery. We need to create excitement and interest in the topics that people have become weary, wary and immune too.

Time and time again I hear of people telling me that their business, their CEO, their leadership team aren’t interested in HR. That’s a total crock. If you speak to any CEO or leader, they will talk about all the things that we are trying to achieve. They just aren’t interested in us or the way that we talk about it.

We all know the famous quote about insanity being the act of doing the same thing and expecting different results.  Sometime we border on the insane as a profession.

We’re full of creative, thoughtful, innovative people. We’re full of people that want to make a difference, that want to help organisations be better, perform better and grow. We’re full of people who care.

So instead of shying away from the dark arts, let’s embrace them. We can reinvent ourselves and our work, but in order to do that we need to think as much about position, delivery and narrative as we do about content, process and structure.

People consume a package, they don’t always want to consume a principle.

We need to talk about failure

There is one thing I excel at, it’s failure. I’ve singularly failed at well over half the things I’ve ever attempted to do. And even those of you that are poor at statistics will be able to work out those aren’t good odds.

Learn to play the guitar? Fail
Learn to speak German? Fail
Learn to code? 404

Significant parts of my working life have also included spectacular fails – its hard sometimes to not bring your whole self to work…..

Let me tell you about someone else that failed, my friend Steve. Last week he tried to swim across the English Channel to France. Now that’s not easy, in the same week someone tragically lost their life whilst trying to complete the same challenge. Steve stopped seven and a half hours in to his attempt. In a Facebook post he said this,

“Yesterday was not my day. I’m really disappointed, as can be expected. I trained hard for this for 18 months, and thought I had it covered. Battles were lost in the lumpy sea with wind against tide as we progressed into the open water (albeit that my pilot Simon described them as good for the channel), vomiting everything in my stomach and more after 2.5 hours, and struggling to take on more fuel quickly enough, but the war was undoubtedly lost in my mind, and that’s what I’m most disappointed about.”

Steve failed. And in my book, that makes him great.

In the world of work, we struggle to fail. We invest so much time, effort and energy in making things happen that we become unable to accept that they’re not a success. We make up reasons for the situation, the environment, the market, the opportunity. When you’ve been through twenty-six board meetings, fourteen rounds of business cases and eventually got the go ahead, it is pretty hard to accept that anything isn’t right.

And when we cannot accept that we’ve failed, we pass up the opportunity to learn. We take nothing away, because we create a narrative that explains events through untrue circumstances.

Read that comment from Steve again. Did he blame the waves? The wind? The flotsam and jetsam of our muddied waters? Or did he analyse and own his own performance.

All of us will fail this week in small and inconsequential ways. We won’t all be swimming the channel, or starting new businesses. We won’t be running marathons or climbing mountains. But nonetheless we can learn from our failures all the same.

I love failure, you should love failure. We should embrace failure as our biggest opportunity to grow, not as the biggest threat to our self-worth. At the end of the day, those who don’t try, can’t fail. And the brave will try, fail, learn, grow and try again. That’s what makes them stand out as exceptional.

So as you go about your business this week, remember we can all be successful at not doing a lot, or we can shoot high and run the risk that we miss.

Maybe it’s me, but I can’t help thinking, things could be a whole lot more interesting if we were all just a little bit more Steve.