These days everyone is talking about the C word: culture.  Since the scandal in the Netherlands around TV talent show The Voice there is a lot of talk here about the need to make company cultures less macho. And with the revelations of indecent behaviour in the management team of football club Ajax, the debate has grown even stronger. 

But, as directors hasten to appoint complaints officers, let’s remember that culture is a complex and subtle phenomenon and cannot be corrected by one person. Appointing a complaints officer may be a first step, but in itself can never create the shift to a healthy culture. Appointing a diversity manager may open up discussion and create awareness, but on their own, steps like these do little more than pay lip-service to the problem.

Every organisation is an eco-system, shaped by the thinking and behaviour of every single member

Let’s not forget that every organisation is an ecosystem, and that the thinking and behaviours of every single individual are what shape it. Culture is the cocktail you get when you mix together all the human stuff in any group – the integrity, the arrogance, the kindness, the courage and the self-doubt. Mix that all together with a shot of optimism here, a cup of cynicism there, a peppering of humility, a lug of somberness, a pinch of courage, and 10ml bravado. And voila, you have a culture! 

All these ingredients are the way your people think and behave when no one is watching. If you want to change a culture, it means capturing their minds and hearts. It means getting them genuinely interested and committed to creating it. It means finding a way of building your culture in a way that your people feel less checked and controlled, more independent and more Ok with themselves. 

If you want to change a culture, it means capturing the minds and hearts of your co-workers. It means getting them genuinely interested in creating that culture

A company vision statement and a company culture are two very different things. A lot of companies with great vision statements have toxic cultures. You can’t create a healthy cocktail of behaviours simply by explaining your company values. Peer review and 360 degree feedback, motivational quotes and false positivity will never change how your employees think when you are not around.  What you want is for your people to be intrinsically motivated to create a certain culture. Even the ones with authority issues. Even the ones who don’t agree with your strategy. Even when they are off duty. 

You may ask “Why on earth would they be motivated to do that?” And the answer is when they know and respect what you as the leader of your organisation stand for. When they get that you as a leader want to increase the humanness in the organisation. When they see that the leaders in the organisation have the courage to admit and learn from their mistakes. And when they see that their lives will be enriched by making the effort to learn and develop themselves.  

Changing behaviour means being willing to be uncomfortable

Transforming company culture means asking people in your organization to change their habits, many of which they are not aware of. And that nearly always requires courage. Someone who is accustomed to micromanaging will find it scary to take a step back and let their juniors make mistakes and learn. Someone who is used to making others laugh in meetings may find it difficult to calm down and listen more. Changing behavior means being willing to be uncomfortable.

Your jokey co-worker may be perceived as dominant, arrogant, even sexist or racist, without realizing it. “I don’t mean to hurt anyone. I am doing my best to bring some fun into the team, and a lot of people love it,” they may argue. “Why should I change? ” And the question is a valid one. His or her intention may well genuinely be innocent. For that person to want to self reflect, they need to understand what the benefit it is for them. 

It needs to be clear that the company views the courage to look vulnerable as a sign of leadership

The key to creating a healthy culture is to become “developmental” as an organisation. In other words, to make personal development an integral part of business. To ensure that every single person – starting from the top, – works on self awareness, and challenges themselves to grow. Not only because it is expected of them from the company, but because life becomes more exciting that way. 

Developing self awareness involves a certain amount of humility, even vulnerability. It means daring to try out new behaviors and be bad at them. It means showing up and speaking up, and risking the opinions of others. Why would your co-workers put effort into developing themselves as a person and risk looking vulnerable? 

First of all, they will not unless they see the senior leadership of your organisation doing the same. It needs to be clear that the company views the courage to look vulnerable as a sign of leadership.

Your people need to get that personal development will make them better parents, lovers, and leaders and give them more natural charisma 

Secondly, when they understand that growing as a person will make them better parents, more interesting partners, kinder lovers, more inspiring human beings; when they get that it will give them the natural charisma of someone who has integrity; when they get it will make them feel more fulfilled and prouder of themselves as a person. 

Companies who have achieved this with their co-workers have a significant edge over their competition. Because they have partners who are willing to challenge themselves to grow.    


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