Culture and responsibility

Many years ago when I read “Fish“, one of the elements that resonated most was “choose your attitude”.  The concept that whilst you can’t control the external environment, you can control your reactions and responses to it. How often do we see people who have been through some adversity, talk positively about their life and future, much against our preconceived ideas of how they “should” feel?

In organisations we often believe that someone else is responsible for the culture. “The boss”, “Management”, “Them”. There’s no doubt that power exerts influence on an organisational culture, but so do the collective actions and behaviours of everyone within. Failing to recognise our influence over those we work with and the opportunity to influence the world around us is effectively self- disempowerment.

Nobody talks to anyone here becomes I’m going to make the effort to talk to people I don’t know.

Everybody is so downbeat becomes I’m going to smile at people and wish them a good day.

Nobody knows what’s going on, everything is kept secret becomes I’m going to make sure the people who need to know understand what I’m working on and what I need.

You can see this when a commuter starts a conversation up in the tube, or opens a door for someone else, when a customer smiles and jokes with a waiter or waitress. People around observe the behaviour and often replicate or join in. The social element of our genetic make up leads us to seek to conform to group rules in the environment around us.

So if there is something you dislike about your organisation’s culture, instead of focusing on what’s not happening, focus on how you can behave in a way that shows the things you want to see. I’m not saying you’ll see full scale conversion overnight, but I’ll guarantee you see change.

And at the same time, you’ll probably feel a whole lot better about yourself, your work and your life. That’s got to be reward enough, no?

The value of critical thinking

Human beings are beautifully imperfect creatures – that’s what makes us interesting and frustrating in equal measure. We have the ability to process the most complex information and draw sense and understanding from it. And at the same time, we have the ability to lose total sight of the information and arguments in a decision, because of the lens through which we personally see the world.

Sometimes that’s ok. You ask a room full of football supporters who the best team is and you’ll have numerous impassioned arguments. Most of them are probably factually incorrect, but it doesn’t really matter – the opinion, the belief, the fundamental and overwhelming support is the characteristic that we treasure. We could probably, factually, work out which is the best team – but what’s the fun in that?

Other times, it prevents us from running our businesses and our lives successfully. We eschew the opportunity to explore multiple perspectives, to recognise our own assumptions and we choose to make decisions based on a limited set of information – often because not doing so would directly challenge our status, our beliefs or our previous decisions.

It’s a curious one.

One of the nicest, simplest models I’ve seen for this is Pearson’s RED:

Recognise assumptions

  • How can you help separate opinion from fact?
  • What assumptions are you bringing in to the decision-making process?
  • What are the different view points that exist?
  • What data exists to help explore the question at hand?

Evaluate arguments

  • What are the pros and cons of different viewpoints?
  • Can you make the opposite argument to your natural positions?
  • How does the data stack up against the various perspectives?
  • What will be the impact and how do you know?

Draw conclusions

  • Given all the information and arguments, what’s the best way forward?
  • How do you know?
  • What data/information supports your decision?
  • Is there something that you don’t know that would be helpful?

There is and will always be room for impassioned arguments and beliefs in business as there is in life. Critical thinking is about curiosity, it is about wanting to explore difference, wanting to understand views, wanting to learn and inform – not beating everyone around the head with demands for rationality and data – that’s another type of closed mindedness.

Seeking first to understand and explore, checking ourselves for out own assumptions and weighing up possibilities can only help us to be both more confident of our views and more rational in our arguments and better in our conclusions. We should, after all, be interested in making the best decisions that we can.

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:


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.

Inclusion means acceptance

I’m going to let you in to some secrets, just don’t tell anyone you heard this from me….

  • Not everybody wants to work flexibly. Some people like being in the office every day.
  • There are people who come to work each day for the money. They don’t care who for.
  • Some people don’t want to be promoted, their ambition is to be left alone to do their job.
  • Self development doesn’t have to be about work. Some people learn all the time without you.

I could go on….

The thing is, just because we think it’s valuable, doesn’t mean it is.

As HR professionals, as professionals in the world of work we have to be incredibly careful that we don’t affirm our own and our professional biases on the workplace. We happily argue that we need to be more flexible, that we need to develop flexible organisations, but then we tell people that we’ve benchmarked our pay and that we are a median to top quartile payer and look with disdain at anyone who suggests they should have more. Why is one more important to us than the other?

We talk about inclusivity, without realising that means we need to create the environment that allows people to value the things that we don’t. That it means we need to accept that not everything will conform to the HR 101 Model Workplace and that we will need to accommodate a genuine breadth of needs and requirements.

Who says the person that needs extra money in order to pay for their family to go on holiday is more unreasonable, less worthy or more indulgent than the person who asks for flexible working to spend a day at week at home with theirs?

Who says that the person that comes in at 9 and leaves at 5 and doesn’t want to attend any of the learning and development courses, but spends their evenings learning different languages, has less potential than their colleague that takes any opportunity to advance their career?

When we think about the world of work, when we think about our organisations and workplaces, we need to check ourselves and ask which lens we’re looking through. Are we really making decisions that allow all to benefit? Or just the ones that we agree with.