Is Your Culture Hindering Progress? - Michelle Gibbings

A person in business attire standing on the side of the road with an open road in front of them

According to PWC’s annual Global CEO survey, 45% of CEOs believe their organisation won’t be viable in ten years if they stay on their current path.

The pressure to keep up, perform, outperform and reinvent what you do and how you do it is never-ending.

In this race to succeed, it’s imperative to consider whether your organisation’s culture is helping or hindering this process.

Culture Influences Quickly
When you enter a new work environment, you quickly learn the accepted way to behave. Behaviour that does not align (or appears to not align) with the so-called ‘accepted culture’ can be shunned and ridiculed. We see this at play in the animal kingdom as well.

In the early 1970s, a primatologist – Hans Kummer – worked in Ethiopia with two baboon species. The first species were Savanna baboons, which lived in large troops. The other species were Hamadryas baboons, which had a more complex and multi-level society.

When confronted with a threatening male, the females from the two species reacted differently: a Hamadryas baboon placated the male by approaching him, whereas a Savanna baboon would run away to avoid injury.

Kummer took a female from each group and released them into the other tribe in his experiment. He found that initially, the two females carried out their species-typical behaviour. But, the socialisation to the accepted way of behaving was swift, around an hour.

While the workplace differs from the jungle (or so we hope), and we are another species, there’s no doubt that this process of what I term ‘culturalisation’ happens frequently and fast.

As tribal creatures, sadly, we quickly categorise people who don’t conform to what we deem as the accepted way of behaving. We send signals – sometimes subtly and other times explicitly – to express our thoughts about the person’s behaviour. So much so that, over time, they learn how they need to show up and what they must do to ‘fit in’ and be part of the culture. This organic approach to culture isn’t good for them, you or the workplace.

The problem with letting organisational culture grow organically is that it doesn’t create a workplace based on belonging – where people are valued for their uniqueness and different needs are accepted.

Belonging Matters
As tribal creatures, we are genetically wired to be part of a group. To survive, we need to feel like we belong, and being part of a team is good for us. It can also motivate us to go beyond what we think is possible.

In his book Emotional Success, American Psychologist Professor David DeSteno explains how being part of a team – even a team made up of strangers – can lead people to persevere longer than when they weren’t part of a team.

He recounts a study by Stanford psychologists Gregory Walton and Geoffrey Cohen, who researched how being part of a team impacted perseverance. In their research, they used students as the study participants. David wrote, “Knowing they (the students) were part of something – having a goal that they knew was shared by a group and to which they could contribute and be valued – pushed people to work hard and resist immediate pleasures”.

Teams are created on the premise that we can achieve more together than alone. I’ve frequently seen how one person’s ideas are improved by another and how we generate, debate, and secure our best ideas when we are in a group. Often, it’s when we come together that we perform our best.

When you reflect on the past years and ask people what they miss about work, it’s not the commute or the need to get dressed up to go into the office. What they miss are the connections and interactions—the banter, the laughs, the conversations with their friends at work, and the opportunity to come together and create, design, and debate ideas.

Bringing belonging and meaning to your work matters, so paying attention to how your team forms and connects is critical. You want to consciously create the culture that enables you and your team to be their best.

Good Culture is Deliberate
Organisational culture is the collective patterns of behaviour of people at work.

One of the world’s leading culture experts, Edgar Schein, defines it as: “Culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that was learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid, and therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think and feel in relation to those problems“.

Having an effective culture takes time and effort. It starts with identifying the current state and detailing the desired future state. From there, you can determine the gap and institute the steps to secure the optimal team culture.

Remember, when you are immersed in an organisation’s culture, you can easily overlook its negative impacts because, for you, it’s just ‘the way things are done around here’.

It’s essential, therefore, to dig into the culture and be open to seeing and hearing from your colleagues and team members as to what’s working and not working.

Build Daily Habits
Changing culture doesn’t happen overnight. It is built slowly over time. Consequently, your action plan needs to focus on the long term, and you will want to have activities continuously happening. The best progress is secured when you are deliberate and consistent.

In team meetings, you can use reflective practices to identify where and how they have progressed. Also, establish core rituals in the team where team members are encouraged to focus on what they can do for others and share learnings, opportunities, and challenges.

A crucial part of this is cultivating an environment where relationships matter. To make this happen, embrace the opportunity to lead by example. For example, engage with team members and colleagues, find genuine ways to connect, and devote time to strengthening and building relationships every day.

Above all else, make the connections at work meaningful and help your team find meaning in their work.

As part of this, embrace and value the team’s diversity. Sure, you want connection, but you don’t want to lose the benefits of your team members’ different perspectives and backgrounds. Research shows that organisations with greater leadership diversity are more than twice as likely to outperform their competitors.

Work with Strengths
People are more engaged at work and more motivated to do their best when using their strengths.

Over the last 30 years, research has shown that a strengths-based approach leads to greater work satisfaction, engagement, and productivity. In their book, Strengths Based Leadership, Tom Rath and Barry Conchie detail how working with strengths helps leaders be more productive.

Leaders are crucial in bringing strengths to life – for themselves and their team members. It starts with the leader understanding their strengths and using them at work.

The next step is for the leader to help their team members appreciate the strengths they bring to their role and recognise and value their colleagues’ strengths too.

When your team uses their strengths, individually and collectively, it contributes to a sense of progress, elevates connection, and positively impacts the team’s culture.

If you want further ideas, check out this article.

Think Long-Term, not Short-Term
The working world is challenging for many people on many fronts. So, as you focus on building your team’s connection and elevating its culture, recognise the emotional load that your team members may be carrying.

You want to encourage your team members to manage their energy and to give themselves time to rest, reflect and recharge.

To make sustained progress and have a healthy and thriving culture, you will want to ensure your and your team members’ health and well-being come along for the ride.

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