Culture and the value of conversation

In my experience if you invite someone to get involved in work relating to their organisation’s culture they are often pretty sceptical that it will be of any value, or even cynical and suspicious about your motivation. Personally I think this is fair enough – most of us have been railroaded through some pretty awkward and unproductive processes under guise of culture.

That does not mean it is not important – after all, our culture has a significant impact on every aspect of our business performance. But when was the last time you sat in a meeting looking to improve efficiency or boost profits and someone said excitedly ‘I know, let’s invest in our culture?’

Perhaps part of the problem is that we have allowed ‘culture’ to be put in a box and dumped in HR. This allows the rest of the senior team to sigh with relief that this hard to pin down jelly of a challenge is somebody else’s problem. But they are wrong – if culture is simply the way we do things around here – and given it impacts on every aspect of performance, surely every leader and manager should make it their responsibility to lead a healthy culture?

So how do we help people take on that responsibility?

My starting point would be to treat every conversation as an intervention. You are not a scientist observing from outside your ethos – you are wriggling in the petri dish along with everyone else. Consequently everything you do changes your organisation in some way. So every conversation about culture provides an opportunity to evolve your culture.

Here are my top tips for sparking conversations about culture that will serve you well:

  • Don’t start by booking a meeting with the senior team and trying to define the culture you want
  • Do start by engaging the wider organisation and hearing from them
  • Don’t focus your conversations on all the things that are wrong with your culture (you will quickly alienate your colleagues who have, after all, created it!)
  • Do ask questions about what people value about your culture (‘On one of the good days, what do you love about working here?)
  • Don’t be complacent that nothing needs to evolve – after all the market, the working population and technology are all changing
  • Do ask about change in a way that builds ownership (‘If there were one or two things you think we now need to develop in our culture to respond to changes in our industry, what would you prioritise?’)

I recently facilitated a process for a fabulous organisation that had the courage to engage its whole team in a dialogue about their evolving ethos. The senior team were concerned to understand how their expanding workforce were living the values that had served them so well.

What struck me most was in many ways the very act of talking about the challenges dissipated them. It was a real reminder that culture is created and perpetuated through the conversations we have. Simply inviting people to talk about how they want to work together can transform how people feel about their organisation.

The challenge of course is that in a busy world we can forget to make these conversations a priority. All of us can play a role to ensure we do make the time. If you want to talk to one of our team to explore how you can set up conversations that make a difference in your team please do get in touch.