Turning Culture Inside Out

“I’m going to teach you something you may not want to learn.” Boom. Quite a pronouncement. Not a question, but a statement. Said with an air of warning and determination. It hung in the air like a stormcloud. This was going to hurt….

Yet there was also an undercurrent of assurance, even caring, perhaps. Should that have been surprising? After all, to teach is a nurturing act. To help someone else improve their knowledge, or their behaviour, or their understanding of the impact of their words or actions…. To help someone in nearly any way is a caring act.

To do so by stepping into a courageous conversation—to teach something the learner may not want, or may not even see coming, there’s a way in which that’s generous.

When was the last time you told a colleague a really hard truth?

Is that easy for you? Do you step into sticky, challenging conversations with ease? Or do you dread them, avoiding them like the plague? What role does your organizational culture play in how you feel? Is yours a culture that makes courageous conversations normal, encouraging them? Or is it one that makes you feel like being that honest or forthright or direct is like pushing against the dominant culture of your workplace?

One of our favourite clients is setting the tone by encouraging everyone on their team to “Say the thing.” Just say it. Get it out. It might be messy or disruptive, but at least the team can then have a conversation about the issue at hand. It works for them.

The CEO at another of our clients has set a tone of seriousness about feedback, inviting people into brief one-on-one conversations. The closed door, serious-not-somber ‘1:1’ has become symbolic of their company’s culture. And it works for them.

Can you speak a hard truth, address the issue, and move on?

In both instances, the culture is to get the issues on the table, speak a hard truth, address the issues, and move forward. Neither is objectively better. Both work. But in each case, they’ve made an explicit choice about how they have courageous conversations.

Culture is driven by observable behaviours.

Every team of three or more people, and certainly every organization, has a culture. In the healthiest of workplaces, culture is a well-defined, purposefully cultivated and shared set of behavioural standards. These standards set the tone for how an organization does its work, and in a healthy workplace, they complement and support what the organization does—the aims and goals of operating and strategic plans.

The culture you excuse in the short term may stick for the long term.

Many early stage enterprises get themselves too busily focused on the tactical to think about culture. They emphasize what they’re doing over how they do it. For the leader (typically the founding entrepreneur), that’s like being captain of a sailboat with a well-trimmed mainsail and a jib that’s flapping in the wind. They lose efficiency and momentum, and sit there, dead in the water, going nowhere fast.

Most organizations at some point realize that they need to define and organize their culture—to forestall it taking on a life of its own, perhaps, or to ensure it aligns with and supports their organizations’ goals. Their first step is typically to name a set of values—key words or phrases that define the central tenets of how they want people to manage themselves, their behaviour and their culture.

As we all have a tendency to interpret values differently, most organizations also take care to define explicitly what they mean by a stated value. Many might say that ‘respect’ is a value, or ‘honesty,’ or ‘integrity,’ but each may have a distinct definition. Setting a singular definition within an organization at least makes it possible for everyone to get ‘on the same page.’ But that’s not enough….

Cultural values aren’t complete until expected behaviours are also clear.

Consider one of Junxion’s values—generosity. We define it this way: ‘We cultivate value by ‘showing up’ supportively and empathetically, ‘seeking first to understand,’ and focusing on relationships, more than transactions.’

Within Junxion, we know each of our peers is demonstrating this value when we see them taking time to explain something to a colleague or a client, spending more time asking questions and listening to understand (rather than waiting for a turn to speak!), or supportively talking through a challenge with a client ‘off the clock,’ just to name a few examples.

The culture-building magic comes from the clarity of those behaviours: Each is trainable, observable, and coachable. By ensuring all Junxionites know the expected behaviours and by coaching one another toward them, we are, by our definition, building a ‘generous’ culture. For us, this is a generosity of spirit and acceptance that we believe helps each of us as individuals to lead more fulfilling lives, while also building a strong brand that’s viewed as engaged and supportive in its communities of practice.

The strongest organizational cultures are interwoven with strategy and brand. They’re three interdependent aspects of organizational design and planning. When each is done right, the total is significantly greater than the sum of the parts.

I’ll share more about this alongside my friend Urszula Lipsztajn during our entrepreneurs’ retreat this September. Will you join us for Business Inside Out?


Mike Rowlands is President & CEO at Junxion. He will lead Business Inside Out at Hollyhock September 16 – 19, alongside leadership coach Urszula Lipsztajn. Designed for leaders of social purpose and technology ventures, Business Inside Out will be an intensive retreat to accelerate personal leadership and business growth. Attendees will envision their next 10 years, and leave with the tools, skills and support to ensure their success. Registration is open.

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