Who owns the culture and values in an organisation?

I have been asked this question a lot recently and have been surprised and energised by the wonderful discussions that follow. Many believe that the cultural tones and values are set and maintained by leaders, others say that it is the teams that set the culture.

What is culture? The ideas, customs, and social behaviour of a particular people, group, team, organisation or society. So who owns the ideas, the customs and social behaviours? The people, the individuals. The sum of the behaviours, processes, ways of working, thinking and ‘how we do it around here’, it isn’t always what you wish it could be either. Sometimes the invisible bad behaviours are the ones that shape the culture and the unspoken customs are the hardest to recognise or change.

Having your values and behaviours written on the wall, posted on the intranet and included in Job descriptions and performance reviews is a lovely activity, but how do you actually manage culture and who owns it? Let me tell you a little story: The other day, I was changing my littlest baby Stella’s nappy, she is 1 and likes to spin and climb while I do this, it is a really wondrous sport #not. In a traumatic and rather animated moment of pure fear, I shouted ‘STOOOOPPPP’ while she cried, screamed and span as I attempted to stop mess (yep, poop) going all over the change table and beyond. She finally stopped moving about, I got the dreaded nappy on and we were good to go. Happy result right? A few hours later, Miss Sienna (nearly 4) pipes up in the back of the car “Mummy, when someone is crying, if you shout at them then they will stop, so that is good isn’t it” — WOW and WHOOPS! What was I role modelling? I immediately pulled over the car and looked her in the eyes, “Mummy did that earlier to Stella didn’t I Sienna, what a silly Mummy, I made a bad choice in doing that to Stella. Mummy’s make silly mistakes sometimes, what I should have done is calmly ask her if she was OK or given her a hug to make her stop crying!” — Sienna pauses, “Oh Mummy that is OK, we all make mistakes, yes, ok so if someone is crying we can give them a hug”. Later that day, Stella was crying because she spilt her milk (1 year old woes), Sienna walked over, asked if she was OK and gave her a hug. ACTUAL RESULT 🙂

We all make mistakes right, what happens when we own that? When we self regulate and call out that we could have done better in that instance? Well in the case of the shouting at the wrigging escapee, the result was the kind of behaviour we want to see more of — so can this apply to business?

Too often, we get caught up focusing on the outcome rather than the strategies and pathways to success also. If you have a value of Collaboration and talk about working as a team, but organise small team meetings in times that don’t suit the flexible workers or the remote workers or exclude people from the invite, What are you really saying? What are you role modelling? What about if you value diversity and inclusion but only hire people from the same university, gender, age group and background? What about if you say you value bold thinking but then ignore any emails or presentations that present ideas outside of the norm? If what you say you do and what you actually do don’t match up, the latter is what will stick and you have noone to blame but yourself. Yep, no surprise: Actions speak louder than words and fair enough too some scientists think that all human languages arose from a common language spoken by our ancestors in Africa. There are over 5000 different languages in the world today, although some of these are nearly extinct. Human language probably started to develop around 100,000 years ago*, so there are still large margins for error in the whole words/language thing — but when you think the first humans date back 1–2 million years, we have been grunting, pointing and communicating without language for a hell of a lot longer than we have with words!

So who owns culture? You do. My Dad taught me a fabulous mantra, “What you accept, you approve” — which means, if you’re ok with that behaviour, then you’re approving of others doing the same. It starts with you, if you want to see a culture be more inclusive, then you need to be more inclusive and also recognise when you are not being and get curious to understand why — is the exclusion driven by a genuine business need or does it just feel easier? If it just feels easier, then I challenge you to find a way — because this is where we get cultural breakthroughs. If you want to see the culture have a sense of urgency, then don’t take 7 days to reply to an email — be the change you want to see in the world, consistently. If you want more flexibility, then don’t arrive at work at 7am and look around the office at all the empty desks every 15 minutes. Do an audit today — what am I saying and what am I doing? Do they match????


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