8 clues that give your culture away

Part 1: The first 4

Working collectively at our performance edge requires a particular type of culture — one with energy, trust, focus, courage, honesty, creativity, decisiveness and agility. Creating and maintaining these types of cultures is hard work because they tend to default, unless intentionally shaped, to paths of least resistance, leading to sub-optimal ways of relating, thinking, leading and meeting together.

It’s like any relationship (but in multiple directions). Unless we continually invest in it, we naturally fall out of relationship with one another, and then mask it by overly focusing on the functional and the transactional. This, of course, means less and less of us energetically ‘turns up’ and bad habits start to run the show.

The cultural habits that get in our way are clear, if not clichéd — whether that’s being too directive, too reactive, too hierarchical, too slow, too bureaucratic, too siloed, too unsafe. Sadly, these are, to varying degrees, the norms of many organisational cultures, in many cultures around the world.

In today’s fast moving, agile, hyper-connected and highly-interdependent world, the performance gap, or drag, that these traits create is a real problem for many organisations, especially when change, innovation and transformation have never been more the name of the game.

This, to some extent, is why I am not a big believer in large cultural diagnostics, because they generally don’t tell you anything new or useful that wasn’t already blindingly obvious.

Of course, their real value is giving people a voice, and ideally in a way that they feel heard; and, they can be used to track progress or regress over time. But it’s crazy how much time, money and energy goes into these surveys, and on the dashboard, as opposed to shifting the culture and unleashing the people. As one of my dear friends and colleagues used to say: “Organisations often assign their best players to managing the scoreboard, as opposed to playing on the pitch.”

We then tend to focus on ‘issues’ brought up by the data and try to solve them. For example, the survey says we have a culture in which it is unsafe to speak up, so … we need to ‘create a speak up culture.’

This symptom, in particular, is a classic manifestation of a much deeper set of systemic cultural patterns. Attempting to shift this ‘issue’ in isolation never works because you haven’t intervened at cause — in fact, you’ve probably intentionally or unintentionally avoided it. This particular trait by the way strangles productivity, innovation, energy and performance. It’s a big one!

There is also a massive difference between asking people to speak up and actually creating spaces where people can speak up. The former is a classic wish from well-intended leaders; the latter is earned by understanding what you (and by extension the culture) are doing to make it unsafe. It’s then about putting in the hard yards to learn how to create and hold spaces in which everyone can fully turn up, be seen and feel valued. This, by the way, happens to be one of the highest arts of great leadership.

So why have I spent a few precious paragraphs bringing this particular example to life? Because I see time and time again organisations, especially those that really, really need to shift their cultures, go around in circles chasing symptoms, thinking that transforming culture is about change management (it’s not) and/or fixing ‘issues’, one at a time (it isn’t).

Culture is not a mechanical or reductionist problem to solve; it’s much richer and way more subtle than that. When it comes to culture, the whole is significantly different from the sum of its parts.

Shifting a culture is a complex challenge. It’s counter-cultural and counter-intuitive for most organisations as they want to break things into smaller bits — oversimplifying, or weirdly over-complicating, things.

The real work is feeling into the much larger and more fundamental cultural patterns at play, knowing where to look for them (and of course how they reveal themselves), and then how to repattern them.

So, with no further ado, here are the first four (of eight) clues, or cues, that I look for to understand what is really running the show, and why they are so important in building peak-performing cultures of innovation.

1. Is it energy rich or energy poor?

You can tell within a minute or so of walking into a reception area, office, factory or store what the energy level of the wider organisation is. You can pick it up in your body. Does your energy go up or down? Do you walk out with more energy than when you walked in?

Peak-performing cultures give you energy because they have to be energy rich to work at their performance edge.

Organisational energy comes from a number of sources. One of the key ones is core purpose — the ultimate energy wellspring. The more connected to core purpose you are, the more inspired you’ll be. Other sources include our sense of belonging, psychological safety and curiosity, to name but a few.

2. Is it time rich or time poor?

This is any easy one — is ‘busy’ running the show or not? Are people confusing busyness with productivity? Has busyness become a badge of honour, or, worse still, is it being used to create work and justify existence? Are leaders’ diaries difficult to get into? And, do they use time as a weapon — turning up late, expecting everyone to follow their time, therefore limiting everyone else’s time?

Or … do people have time, and make time, to really think (and not just regurgitate old thoughts and defend positions), both on their own and together? Have they learned to speed up and slow down time, depending upon the type of thinking / work they are doing? Do they spend time building quality relationships? Do they have time to go for a walk and/or really give someone a damn good listening to? Are people truly present and in the moment, and therefore more able to catch the moments that matter in meetings?

While biological time is linear, psychological time isn’t. To move into periods of optimal flow and peak experience, mastering time is key.

3. How are meetings run?

We all know that the vast majority of meeting cultures are dysfunctional and unproductive. And yet it’s always fascinating to see and feel into an organisation’s dominant meeting norm. Do meetings start on time? Do leaders dominate meetings? Is it safe to speak up and challenge the status quo? Do people run from one meeting to the next? Do people lean into difficult conversations or not? Do meetings start with order and end in chaos, or start with chaos and end in order? Does everyone and their dog turn up? Do leaders make clean and clear decisions, or do they fudge them?

These are all expressions of the unconscious cultural patterns at play.

In short, you can tell so much about a culture from the way an organisation run its meetings. It also happens to be the simplest and profoundest way of unlocking wholly new levels of productivity, creativity, innovation and energy in an organisation.

4. How does the top team meet?

The more senior you are, the more meetings you’ll be in, and in turn the more likely you are to take on the cultural norms of the organisation. This is why the way that the top team meets is such an important clue and shaper of culture.

Is the top team a team, or do they just happen to report to the same person ie. does it have common work above and beyond its separate bits? When it meets does it act like a committee, management team or a leadership team? Are their meetings agenda driven or human process driven? Is there a whole industry around the top team, preparing pre-reads, gatekeeping, pandering to their every need? Is presenting to the top team an exciting and energy enhancing experience, or not? Does the organisation work with or go around the top team? Does the team avoid conflict, lean into conflict or get triggered by conflict? Does it make clear decisions or fudge them? What happens when they disagree?

Top teams are one of the biggest keys for unlocking the performance of cultures and helping them leap forward, because teams further down the organisation will replicate, in their own way, how the top team meets. If the top team is toxic — point scoring, rude, political, untrustworthy (says one thing, does another), gossips or snipes — then everyone else follows suit (on acid!).

And yet, when the top team develops its meeting muscles, and takes the way it works to new levels (and I don’t mean team building or leadership development), then a whole new world opens up for the rest of the organisation.

Many cultural dysfunctions can be tracked back to the top team. Many of them diminish and even disappear when the top team learns to shift the way they relate, think and meet together.

Coming in Part 2: the next 4 and a brief word on how to use these clues and cues to repattern a culture.

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Dr Nick Udall

Dr Nick Udall

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CEO of nowhere. Former Chair of the WEF’s Global Agenda Council on New Models of Leadership. Author. Keynote speaker. Creative-Catalyst.