“But that’s my culture!”

Culture: organisational culture, that is. We know that it shapes us and that we reflexively shape it too. We can feel it filtering through everything we do - and how we do it. We recognise when it’s healthy and we are acutely aware when it’s not. It’s that tangible, palpable ‘thing’ that’s hard to put a finger on even though we all know it’s there. It happens between us and inside us. What is organizational culture?

 GothamCulture define Organisational Culture as “the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values and ways of interacting that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization.” Deal and Kennedy (2000) distill it down to “the way things are done around here.”

The assertion that healthy culture increases net income by over 700% over 10 years, comes as no surprise. We all want to operate in a healthy culture wherever we are: at home, at work, and in other social environments.

One of my favourite books this year has been Daniel Coyle’s “The Culture Code.” He has studied culture within various groupings (such as organisations and sports teams) over many years, to isolate common signifiers of healthy culture. Describing culture as sustained by various behavioural signals, he proposes that consistently sending the right signals builds healthy culture. His ideas have made such practical sense to me that I can’t resist passing them on!

The first set of good signals are those that build safety in a group. We all thrive in settings where we feel connected, secure and a sense of belonging, right? The signals in these settings include regular proximity rather than distance, warm eye (and physical contact), active listening, plenty of laughter, and highly respectful behaviour all round. Good manners simply never go out of fashion! There’s a sense of a future together, and everyone wants to be a part of it. What’s fascinating is that this doesn’t mean everything is warm, fuzzy and cute all the time. In fact, difficult truth is spoken and heard, real problems are solved, and a passion for personal growth and stretching is mandatory. It’s not necessarily easy, but it is irresistible.

The second set of good signals for healthy culture involve the sharing of vulnerability within a group. “Eeeep! Do you mean I need to intentionally show the people around me that I don’t have it all together? What will they think?” Well, firstly, they will probably be relieved, and secondly, they are likely to offer help and assistance to plug your weak spots. That’s what most of us do when someone is sincerely vulnerable. What this means is that humility is mandatory, and ‘transparent’ is the new cool. Phrases like “I know I messed that up” and “Please could you improve on my thinking” should be a regular part of my vocabulary. Coyle wisely sums it up: Vulnerability doesn’t come after trust; it precedes it.

The third set of good signals for healthy culture are those that clearly establish the purpose of a group. It is staggering to hear how few employees (and how few executives!) are clear about the top strategic priorities of their organization. Coyle’s action points here boil down to clearly ranking priorities; and being ten times as clear about them as we think we should be. What I loved in this section of the book was the suggested use of catchphrases (almost like hashtags) which summarise and epitomize the behaviours necessary to support the priorities – kind of like memorable ‘rules of thumb’ or heuristics. As an example, restauranteur Danny Meyer has distilled his ideas into maxims such as ‘Read the guest’, ‘Athletic hospitality’ and ‘Be aware of your emotional wake.’ Easy to understand, easy to apply, and easy to transfer. Imagine what could be sustained if we used these ideas for our organisations, our sports teams, our families?

If you would like to know more about healthy culture, and how to initiate and sustain it where you are now, I can’t recommend Daniel Coyle’s book highly enough. Packed with research from a variety of settings and brimming with practical ideas, it’s a quick and useful read and will get you sending the all the right signals in no time!

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