It has been said that you can feel the culture of an organization from the moment you walk in the door, or hear someone on the phone, visit their website, or meet someone from the company.
One phrase, one facial expression can say so much.
For those of you who know Intrigue Media, you may understand why (after 10 years) we have become known for two things:
- The marketing we provide our clients.
- The culture we have within our four walls.
We think about, talk about and do a lot for our culture.
What is company culture?
Company culture can’t be faked. A culture is defined as:
Values, beliefs, attitudes, traditions, and standards of behaviour that govern the organization of people into social groups and regulate both individual and group behaviour.
Cultures inside companies will develop whether or not they are directed. Some organizational leaders implement tactics with the specific intention of ‘birthing’ a desired culture — culture creation by formal design. Other leaders abdicate responsibility for the culture to the HR department and ‘wake up’ in a culture they dislike. Still others consider the underpinnings of cultures and strategically monitor and reinforce activities or patterns that contribute to the creation of culture.
For the sake of simplicity, let’s refer to leaders who use this approach as ‘Culturally-Conscious Leaders’. These leaders recognize the importance of culture and their limitations to direct it. While there are many factors that influence cultures, there is one area where leadership is fully empowered— creating and living out cultural values.
Leaders that know, agree and truly live their stated values will naturally have attitudes, traditions and behaviours that become part of the culture of their organization. Often it is when a leader makes a grand gesture that the values guiding their behaviour come clear. This is where 100 parakeets come in…
Atul Gawande’s book, Being Mortal, is an exploration of how values about aging have influenced the options for care for our elders in North American society. According to Atul, the conflict between the values of safety and personal autonomy permeate many decisions made by leaders of nursing care facilities, creating situations where the personal respect and dignity of residents is set aside in an effort to ensure safety.
The book is full of stories of real people and families trying to find a balance between protecting personal autonomy and safety. I was struck by the story of Dr. William Thomas, the former medical director of the Chase Memorial Nursing home. Dr. Thomas chose to find a way for the value of self-reliance to be integrated into life at this residential nursing home.
In his personal life, he and his wife essentially lived ‘off the grid’. They were completely independent and self-reliant for many of their needs. By contrast, the residents at his nursing home lived according to a schedule not of their making, in a situation not of their choosing, with dining and activity options not of their preference.
Below is an excerpt from the book—which I highly recommend:
“Dr. Thomas identified that what was missing in the facility was true life, in all its complicated, messy, glory. It was then that he made the decision to bring life in many forms into Chase Memorial. Using his natural gift of communication he was able to share his idea and his thinking with the staff and earn their enthusiasm. Then the physical work began. The lawn was ripped up and replaced with flower and vegetable gardens. A child care facility was built on site for staff members’ children. Two dogs, 4 cats and 100 parakeets were welcomed into the home. One particularly eventful day was the day the parakeets arrived. The cages had not yet arrived and so, instead of sending the parakeets back, the delivery person simply released them into the hair salon and shut the door. What a sight!
While the cages arrived shortly after, they were unassembled and required staff to frantically assemble them, corral a parakeet into it and then deliver it to a resident. Dr. Thomas, of course, was helping and word soon got around the residence that there was quite a show happening in the hair salon. Soon residents who had hardly moved in weeks or months were making their way to the window of the hair salon to watch the staff team and medical director wrangle parakeets!
Over time, abundance of life around the residence rubbed off on the primary residents who had previously been despondent and isolated. Residents began lining up to take the dogs for a walk or volunteer in the child care centre. Hopelessness, loneliness and helplessness began to give way to personal health, wellbeing, hope and independence.”
After reading this book, I felt a renewed appreciation for the messiness in my own life. I am also thankful for the opportunities I have had to work with leaders who have put in the work of defining their values and making gestures, grand and small, to demonstrate what those values are. This work and these gestures have allowed them to underpin a culture of their choosing.
What are you doing explicitly in your company to solidify or change the culture? Are there any parakeet-esque moments you could create for your team? Here at Intrigue, we recently completed an office move that created some natural chaos, bright outcomes and more knowledge about our fellow team members. While a complete office move may be an extreme example, any way to introduce increased autonomy and mastery over change may help with your culture.