“That’s just the culture here. We can’t get anything done quickly.” Organizational culture has gotten a reputation for being difficult to unravel and nearly impossible to change. Is your organization’s culture really a trap you can’t escape? That’s up to you.
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Culture is a verb, not a prison sentence. Here’s how one dictionary defines it:
Culture: v. To maintain (tissue, bacteria, etc.) in conditions suitable for growth.
“But that’s the problem!” you moan. “My organization won’t let me take risks or grow at all. I have to wait for someone to die to get promoted.”
Which brings us to the definition of culture as a noun: Culture n. “The attitudes and behavior characteristic of a particular social group.”
Culture is what you do, not who you are.
Attitudes. Behavior. Conditions. Groups. That’s what culture is. If the behavior that is characteristic of your organization is getting you down, make a tiny change in one of the above 4 elements. Here are three examples.
Change a Condition
A workgroup was moved into a new building with a dispiriting floor plan. Instead of the natural gathering places and interesting configuration of their previous space, this office was one uniform row after another of depressing gray cubicles. “It’s awful.” a coaching client of mine said, “People are fighting more, and no one smiles or jokes anymore. I want to quit.”
She didn’t quit. Instead, she placed a small table in a central location with a message board above it. Soon food started appearing there – lemons from the tree in someone’s backyard, tomatoes and zucchini from someone’s garden, a box of doughnuts. Then notes started appearing on the message board. As people lingered to eat, they talked and joked with one another. The fighting subsided.
Change the Group Behavior
The meeting was the same every month: There was no project goal, no meeting outcome, no agenda. There was only a plate of cookies and a request by the CIO to figure out “how to create partnerships between IT and our client groups.” This group of senior managers ate cookies and went through the motions for 9 months. They’d meet for the rest of their lives because the culture did not allow pointing out the mistakes of leaders, and it did not believe in structuring meetings.
A newcomer suggested a meeting evaluation, and it took 3 flipchart pages to capture their discontent, and only 2 more highly structured meetings to agree to stop meeting, a first in this compliant, meeting-bound culture. “We can’t solve on partnership problems in isolation.” is what they told the CIO. “Makes sense,” he said.
Change Your Behavior
“…so we need a new design for the group by Friday. I need your very best thinking..” It was Wednesday afternoon and this was the first I’d heard of this from my C—level client. It was a typical moment in this hard-driving, last-minute culture. I was booked solid for the rest of the week.
I tore out a piece of paper from my pad and started drawing the design. “I can do it right now,” I said.
“What? “ Now my client was flustered. “Don’t you need time to talk to people and think about it?”
“There’s no time for that. We have 20 minutes left. Let’s take our best shot and your admin can type up our first draft while we agree on next steps.”
She frowned as I drew and labeled boxes. “Why are you putting that there?” she asked. Then she grabbed her pen and pulled the paper toward her. We had an engaging design session for the next 15 minutes.
Keep it tiny and matter-of-fact
When culture is in your way, it’s tempting to think you have to make a dramatic attempt to change it. What if, instead of trying to change the culture, you focused on not letting the culture change you in one, tiny way?
Just because the office layout is unfriendly doesn’t mean you have to be. Just because the meeting culture is dysfunctional doesn’t mean you have to throw away your skills. If the deadline demands are routinely impossible, why not make a first draft part of the way you work? Just because the culture is rigid, doesn’t mean you have to be.
Remember: Right here, right now, the culture is up to you.