Culture, as defined by the Cambridge Dictionary, is the way of life, especially the general customs and belief, of a particular group of people at a particular time.
Each culture, in turn, creates a specific impact on their people. Cultural customs, beliefs, norms, attitudes, values, goals and practices have been created over a certain period of time and in a certain environment. They determine how people engage, communicate, collaborate and function as a system.
Let’s play a little mental game to illustrate this. Think of a country and a city with roughly the same size that are totally different in their culture.
We choose Israel and London for now, with about eight million inhabitants each.
How would a group of eight million people behave and what is that behaviour driven by?
Those of you who have been living or currently live in Israel might now recall the craziness of traffic, the intense conversations at a local market, the Israeli value of loyalty and directness in feedback and communication.
London draws a quite different picture: The flow of traffic is highly organised, people queue in line and consideration trumps honesty. Even when one would get upset, there is a clear procedure of communication to be followed.
Experimenting with cultural behaviour
The first thing to understand about humans is that, when immersed in a certain culture, we behave a certain way. Culture, in turn, is created by the given conditions and environment.
Israel with its hot climate and young history as a nation is the ideal incubator for startup culture. Life is fast, immediate and open to change. Innovation is part of the national DNA.
In contrast, London’s societal structures have been built for thousands of years. The climate is much cooler, life has a specific flow (and bureaucracy!) to it. Customs, beliefs, norms and attitudes are well established. Even though the city is a hodgepotch of nationalities, they all more or less have to adapt to the British culture when moving to its capital.
Now, imagine putting the whole population of a country like Israel into a city that has been existing for centuries. A city like London.
Learning from recent refugee migration, a city changes with its new population and the new population changes within its foreign environment. It is a mutual adaptation process.
Change or be changed – where is your organisation’s sweet spot?
The same adaptation process can be transferred to organisations. A fast-growing startup often doubles or triples in size each year until it establishes itself as a mature company. New employees bring in new beliefs and practices, which in turn changes the way the organisations works.
Well-established companies, on the other hand, face the challenge to adapt to an ever-changing external environment while operating within a rather rigid culture that has proven its value over decades.
Both startups and organisations need to change in order to survive. At the same time, the amount of change needs to fit with where the organisation is at. If you create too foreign of an environment too soon, the system will implode.
Just like any society, most important goal of an organisation is to keep its people alive and thriving.
A company that doesn’t take care of its culture and thus of its people will proverbially starve at some point in the future. It is a starvation on multiple levels: Engagement, purpose, motivation and commitment.
Employees, and citizens alike, thrives in a healthy culture. In a toxic culture, or one that does not fit the environment it is in, any employee will sooner or later either leave the system or resign to passive existence rather than active contribution.
What is needed, then, to create the right conditions for thriving employees and a highly effective organisation?
Start with How
The first step is to understand whether you live in Israel or London.
- What is the climate like in your organisation and the market you operate in?
- Who are your employees and how do they currently work together?
- How does your organisational culture impact your path right now?
Understanding your current organisational culture requires you to:
- Be present: Notice what is happening around you at any given moment and how these cultural patterns impact the effective functioning of your organisation.
- Develop emotional perception: Recognise and identify emotions in others and accurately place them into the organisational environment as a whole. Who is talking to whom? Where does tension arise? What individual and group habits appear on a daily basis?
- Let go of any personal filter: When observing your organisation’s culture, make sure to do so with as little personal filters as possible. Drop your assumptions, stories and past experiences.
- Step into different perspectives: Look at your culture from as many different angles and disciplines as you can.
Often called a cultural audit, a transparent observation of your organisational culture helps you determine how trending buzzwords like alignment, leadership attainment and psychological safety show up and need to be nurtured within your organisation.
Define the environment you want to create
In a second step, you define your ideal outcome. Going back to the drawing board, you create the image of an ideal culture for your organisation.
Before you do so, you have to understand that most of the time, you do not need to re-invent the wheel. Israel does not need to become the new London, and vice versa.
What is the sweet spot between change and familiarity that your organisation needs to move towards?
Develop a road map
Just like clear procedures have helped London traffic flow so smoothly and the Israeli attitude of directness has made the country an innovative startup nation, a clear road map supports you in shaping your organisational culture towards your desired outcome.
Choose the tools based on practicality, cultural fit, the resources you have and, well, what your observations from step one are telling you. Take a risk and challenge your team(s) to stretch themselves. Nothing ever grows inside your comfort zone.
Choose your support network and work collectively
To quote the famous English author Charles Dickens, life is made of ever so many partings welded together.
You don’t have to find answers to the questions posed in this commentary all by yourself. Have a conversation with your executive team. Sit down with colleagues from different departments or company locations. Invest in external support to design audits, facilitate workshops and provide (executive) coaching.
And tomorrow, when you walk into your office, look at your organisation as a living system of human beings. Observe its citizen’s rules and behaviour. Look at what you love about living there and what you would want to change. Respect the rights, beliefs, and opinions of others and give voice to your own.
A thriving country is one where people take charge and actively co-create their living conditions. And same is true for a thriving and effective organisation.