Your Culture is Healthy or Fractured: Those Are the Options

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Culture is. It’s not what we say it is, when it isn’t. It is. And it’s easily identified.

I recently walked through the local hub of a growing HR support company with their CEO. It was a Friday afternoon and about half the staff were onsite working. As we toured my host introduced me to nearly every team member we encountered. Each one of them stopped their work and turned to greet me. They were cheerful, appropriately curious and engaging. As we passed through a large space of multiple cubicles, the CEO opened a door and said, “This is our employee recreation center.”

It was simple, but intentional. One room, dimly lit with comfy seating and throw blankets, was a reading library. Another room featured billiards and a ping-pong table. Next was a room with a 1,000-piece jigsaw puzzle spread over a large table in the center of the room. The walls were covered with completed puzzles, framed to display the result of patient teamwork. A room with a large flat screen monitor featured a variety of Xbox games. Those wanting more physical activity had access to weights and aerobic equipment. The CEO commented, “We don’t put any time restrictions or other requirements on our employees’ use of this space. And no one abuses it. We want them to decompress, breath and maintain focus.” Culture is.

Another locally-based company is taking on the challenging, but intentional, work of building value into their employees, by asking questions like, “What’s causing your lack of performance?” “How can we support our team with needs they have outside the workplace?” “How can we invest in coaching line leaders and managers so they not only put out high productivity, but learn to care for their teams?” “How can we send employees home feeling valued, like they actually matter?” “How can we practice the core value that ‘everybody matters?’” The company is in process on all this, but even the challenging, start-and-stop, correct-it-again work of getting there can define culture. Culture is.

This is true of any organization - church, school, non-profit, business…even families.

I recently visited a church for an entire weekend. I had the privilege of spending time with their staff and taking in their multiple services. The staff was tired. Overwhelmed. Their span of care with volunteers was unmanageable. At the same time, they talked of needing more people to participate in serving. Thousands attended the weekend services. The strongest sense of community for many was limited to the greetings and brief chats following the services. Although there were guest service teams greeting, providing service programs and checking in children, the intentional engagement with guests - like me - seemed to be a function limited to these teams. I sat near people who didn’t speak to me, before or after the service. There were plenty of friends talking with each other, but it didn’t feel like a very friendly church. Culture is.

Many organizations celebrate a pseudo culture by setting up measurements that give a false sense of the actual culture. For instance - in my consulting work I’ve been to churches where relationships were celebrated as the core of their culture. Engagement appeared to be high. Weekend attendance was strong. The opportunities for attendees to be involved with these churches were many. But, I’ve wondered how fully engaged people were. What was the level of vulnerable relationships where people felt they felt safe; they were personally valued; and they belonged? Was their engagement merely with the church’s programs and structured venues, or were they engaged in personal, transparent relationships? For instance, was the leadership committed to making the small group program successful or helping people develop authentic and safe relationships - in or out of the church small group? Was every promoted story a tidy, the-pain-is-gone, we’re-on-the-other-side-of-it story? Or was it okay to share a story of struggle and darkness that was still in process? Culture is.

When any organization puts the corporate quantifiable goals over the personal interest of individuals who make up the organization, the result is often a compartmentalized, siloed, numbers-driven entity. Such a culture is defined by success, not people. Culture is.

However, in any organization when…

• individual journeys are prioritized over mass assimilation numbers, a culture of care is cultivated.

• vulnerability about our stories is practiced first by those leading, a culture of safety is developed.

• acknowledging and valuing guests is a practice of the entire organization - staff, attendees, volunteers, rather than those trained and labeled “guest” or “customer” service teams, a culture of hospitality is celebrated.

• people are empowered to live out personal significance and purpose, a culture of serving others is established.

• guests or customers are invited to be part of a family rather than a spectator or nominal member of an organization, a culture of belonging thrives.

Growing up, "show and tell" was a featured event in my elementary school. It was designed to help us learn to share - about ourselves and about the things we found interesting. Many students learned they hated to share in front of their peers. This was especially true when the kid with a personality bigger than life demonstrated like she was the ringmaster of the greatest show on earth. Regardless one’s flair for public presentation, the expectation was simply this: what we talked about would match what we were showing. It was simple. The talk and the thing had to match.

Culture is no different.

When you’ve identified practices, principles and values you want to elevate in the organization, you’ve begun to define your culture. But be honest about it: until your culture is fully embraced throughout the organization because it is modeled by those leading, your culture is aspirational. And there’s nothing wrong with aspiration; just be honest about it - “we aren’t there yet.” When you talk about what the culture is, what our common practices are… be honest. What you talk about and what people see should be the same. If not - well, that defines your culture too.

What is the culture you want to cultivate? If you’re the leader, you must ask: “Do I live and lead this culture? In what ways am I saying one thing and modeling another?” Embrace the incredibly arduous work, not only of organizational change, but of personal change. Culture must be modeled. Talking about it won’t be enough. People will understand it and come to live into it when they see it - consistently.

What’s the truth about your culture today?

What do you want it to be?

How will you create, change, lead and live culture that inspires, values and honors people?