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Two Ways to Get a Culture–by Design and by Default

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Last week I had a conversation with a CEO concerned about what he called an “atmosphere of resentment” festering in the ranks of his organization. That led to a discussion on the “origin of cultures” that I think would make for a profitable topic here in the Qummunity.

My observation to him was that most organizations have fallen into a pitfall similar to Will Rogers’ famous quip, “Everyone talks about the weather, but no one does anything about it.”

Although most organizations talk about their cultures, few take definitive steps to create their culture in the practical everyday detail that establishes and maintains the healthy, supportive environment everyone claims to want. In the absence of purposeful and sustainable methods, cultures simply become the end product of the course of least resistance.

Put directly, there may be “50 ways to leave your lover” (thank you again Neil Simon) but there are only two ways to get a culture—by design or by default.

Either way you get a culture. That’s inevitable.

The Truth About Groups: Put a group of people together, few or many, for almost any length of time and that group forms a culture—a way of relating to each other and to the outside world. For better or worse, people in the group develop patterns that turn into habits—unspoken understandings of “the rules” of what is acceptable with this group and what isn’t. Over time, those patterns of thinking and behaving become the ingrained norm. Regardless of the slogans or mission statements on the walls, people come to know and live by the unwritten laws of what the group is “really about.” And, in the final analysis, the culture becomes the 500-pound gorilla. It does pretty much what it wants.

When the culture is respectful, resilient and energetic it becomes leadership’s strongest ally. When the culture is suspicious, hyper-critical and recalcitrant it is leadership’s greatest foe.

Teams who take a passive approach to culture find change difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Why? Because human nature being what it is, the course of least resistance leads to a culture of non-responsibility, blame, undermining, cynicism, and inertia—and the wasted time, energy, and opportunity that goes with it. The very people who could make change work are the ones who are making sure that it doesn’t.

Teams who seize the initiative to create their cultures by design, cure a multitude of ills that would ordinarily siphon life and vitality.

So that leads me to the discussion point I want to pose to you. What are some of the specific steps your team or organization has taken to create or re-invent a culture?

Your thoughts about these thoughts…

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  • Jacqui M

    Hello Dennis,

    It’s so nice to read your words again…how useful & relevant they are!

    In my current endeavor, we help change how people work. It is deliberate, how we design their space. Often, there are obstacles that slow or even stop our design methodology. But we know our work and we stay the course…we just stay with it longer until everyone can see it, default isn’t really an option.

    Yet in our own environment, I experience the "ills" you mention. On the first day, I could feel the bad vibe. It’s too bad. There are some amazingly talented people here. It’s been a year at this new endeavor and I have made a power goal to change our culture. I can see the change. But, it’s slow, overcoming our passive approach…

  • Kent S

    I don’t know about specific steps that can be taken to change a culture but I do know that what you have stated here is very common. I am reminded of the words of a wise man who once said, "truth must be repeated again and again because error is constantly being preached round about."

    I’ll be thinking on your question and perhaps revisit the issue later.

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