People don’t make the culture. Apparently.

Pondering the murky pool of organisational life.

I have been working with an organisation to create a constructive, results driven culture. After experiencing a succession of leaders, the leadership team was fragmented, the staff were cynical and disaffected. They were failing. Individually, although most people cared, typically they were either cynical, weary, bored or angry.  Little clusters of energy and optimism burst out occasionally.    Collectively – they had been unable to achieve anything other than mediocre results which equated to failure. The start to the work was a leader who decided to take the difficult path.    The unexciting one of painstakingly engaging with each person, each mucky problem, and the realistic expectation that it was going to take time and endurance to revitalise this organisation.  She’s the best sort.  No glory seeking, but buckets of  integrity, intelligence, patience and vision.

We started the work with  understanding how people experienced their workplace, and what would make that experience something that allowed them and the organisation to flourish.

The work has centred on raising aspirations and rekindling beliefs that their effort could make a difference. There’s been no quick solution, no equation to calculate, no clever consultancy tricks. It – reenergising an organisation – simply requires strong and unwavering leadership, persistence, optimism and faith. The work has included trust building activities, listening, facilitating implementation of ideas and knitting together the richness of dialogue that flows through an organisation to show how they could create something together. Gradually, arms began to unfold, frowns changed into questions, and individual hopes and dreams were beginning to reawaken. Energy and hope began to move through the organisation and, it was feeling good. They called their change programme “Culture Change – it does what it says on the tin” People were beginning to take pride in themselves and each other and even the cynics were turning up at meetings, offering improvement suggestions and of course, challenge.

Oh the desire to manage the human side out of the equation.   I arrived one day to find a senior manager fuming. She had been at a systems thinking meeting where the culture change – which is what the staff had called the work – had been dismissed   “Culture doesn’t matter  if the processes are right.”  Oh – really?   I sigh. Why does one have to have superiority over the other? Culture and processes – aren’t they by nature mutually reinforcing?  Ideologies that  see life in absolutes by function polarise us;  but life isn’t like that, it’s messy.  It’s emotional!   Understand the processes, design away the unecessary, make them more efficient.  Build the confidence of the people, help them have courage to ask the questions, listen to them.  Do both systems and culture;   the system is the culture, the culture is the system.  There is no end or beginning.

Where you have a culture where people are encouraged to contribute to important decisions that affect them – aren’t they more likely to direct energy towards problem solving?  If you have a culture where people aren’t involved in those important decisions, aren’t their energies more likely to be directed towards worrying about the future – filling the void?

If I had to place my stakes somewhere I would place it in culture over process – a constructive, healthy, challenging, open, vital, emotionally grounded culture won’t be governed by internal rivalry, status, protection, need.
It will be governed by integrity, intelligence, respect, openness and trust. Maybe even some love! And those things will combine to ensure that processes and systems are relevant, necessary and tight, and not used to hide behind or exert power.  A healthy culture will grow the necessary processes it needs.

What makes the culture – the people or the processes?  What do you think?


21 thoughts on “People don’t make the culture. Apparently.

  1. My answer: The people!!!! I very much enjoyed this post. I’ve been thinking a lot too about systems and cultures – and the people and their relationships – the relationships that create, sustain, dismantle, transform systems. processes and cultures. As you say – no beginnings and ends, just constant movement. Here’s what I wrote about this last week – it seems to gel with what you are saying, coming at it from a different angle.

    Thanks much for sharing your story – is inspiring!

  2. Great post Megan.

    “trust building activities, listening, facilitating implementation of ideas and knitting together the richness of dialogue that flows through an organisation to show how they could create something together.”

    You nailed it right there – the dialogue. That kind of dialogue is missing from so many organisations for man of the reasons you mention.

    But some leaders, like there you mention, and people like you too, simply know better. You are right to place your stake where you feel you should, because it’s exactly where the results – exponential results I believe – lie.

    Interestingly, @robjones_tring recently posted a request in an attempt to crowd source research to point him in the direction of companies that have taken the direction of trust, openness and integrity. He is looking for hard evidence of the benefits. Data. Stuff to use to convince a CEO that this is the oath worth treading.

    But I ask myself – did the CEO you mention pour through a pile of data, demand conclusive evidence before embarking on this path? You tell me 😉

    People first. The rest takes care of itself.

    1. Thanks for taking the time to read and to comment. To answer your question, yes there was evidence, there was data, and she had seen the approach at work which was probably the major influencer. The data was both qualitative and quantitative; unfortunately organisations sometimes need to be at a point of failure/experiencing a struggle before the leadership and culture work gets taken seriously.

      I was at a talk the other day where Frank Dick said in relation to coaching “you don’t have to be sick to be better”. Baffled at why more organisations don’t recognise this.

      Happy to share more; perhaps something to write about here.

      I will revisit Rob’s blog as I think I misinterpreted his request.

  3. “Culture comes for free.” Seddon

    Teach people how to redesign their own work, let them design the way it works, culture wil follow. It’s what Toyota does.

    If you get people excited and enthused but the work remains the same, they will soon revert.

    1. There seems to be some misinterpretation going round (or my writing lacks clarity – more likely). I am not facing a group of doubting Thomas’ – I am pushing on an open door but when I get it through it I want to have every possible justification and support to ensure success.

      Nice post BTW 😉

  4. Simon Sinek is oft quoted but it came to mind as I read this… I wonder if our use of the word culture more often describes the “what” and process describes the “how”. Perhaps what matters more is the “why” – the belief that underpins what you stand for and how it manifests itself? What you describe as your personal vision at the end Megan feels less like culture and more like belief or values. Just a thought!

  5. Marvellous post. IMHO, culture is merely the shorthand term that has been developed to capture the essence of a collection of people – either (1) thrown together to work, (2) have come together with shared interests or (3) are geographically co-located. It’s about the behaviours with each other, its the ways of operating, completing activities and bringing life to life. Cultural conditions can give rise to a rise in process-based thinking and doing but it’s the culture that allowed that to be created. Culture trumps every time for me and without people coming together in whatever form, there is no culture.

    People who setup and work together in SMEs perhaps, are culturally bound already – they probably created the enterprise because they had strong relationships with each other. Things can change but there already is a culture there. When you join a larger organisation, there’s a randomness to it that the culture is ALREADY there. Created by others. Too often we apply for a role because it has a decent salary, the skills profile matches your own and the organisation appears to be worth joining. We RARELY if ever, know what the culture is.

    How interesting would it be if employers attracted employees based on culture first – attitude and behaviours being the key attributes in that “match” – and expertise and skills in a particular role second?

    Anyway whether we ever get to that utopian state; culture – and a slightly rebellious and PunkHR approach to encouraging that openness – rules.

    1. Great post.

      Personally, l believe systems are overrated. Am yet to come across a system that produces the passion and dynamics that drives organisational success. Hardly would you find a system that delivers the courage to occasionally make choices that go against common sense.

      Obviously, systems are important and they are great tools.

      1. Yes, I’m curious that there is a view that if the work is well designed it will create the culture. Does that mean that that we are entirely shaped by our environment?

    2. Yay! PunkHR PunkLife.

      These halls. We’re always trying to fix organisations. Engagement, culture, systems thinking etc etc- someone’s always trying to arrive at “the answer”.

      Maybe there’s another way to look at it.

  6. Reading your post reminded me of a documentary on the challenger disaster . The systems were good, it was NASA, but the culture meant that the systems and engineering data available, that could have avoided the disaster, were pushed aside.

    The engineers were clear that they shouldn’t launch and the engineering manager was told ‘take off your engineering hat and put on your management hat’ and to reconsider. You need the right culture for the systems to work!

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