Cultural Safety – How Culture Can Encourage the Best from Your Team

Cultural Safety

In order for members of an organizational culture to feel like they can fully contribute to the success of that organization, they must feel a sense of safety to protect, innovate and renovate. Cultures that create an environment of Cultural Dissonance eliminate the capacity for their members to help that culture evolve positively towards organizational goals. This is the experience that so many of the now famous convicted, fined and bankrupted companies navigated when the United States experienced a rash of public scandals.

Cultural Dissonance

Stories have continued to emerge about employees from these disgraced companies who knew that things were not moving in the right direction yet they did not feel that they were in a position to change anything. Cultural Dissonance is when executives communicate one thing yet create experiences for employees contrary to the stated cultural values. I recently heard an executive say, “The problem is that the higher you ascend in leadership, the less likely people are comfortable being forthright with you.” It is imperative that leaders query all levels of the organization to determine if people are having experiences that align with the desired and stated cultural values. Leaders must be deliberate about identifying and reconciling any differences between the cultural elements necessary to ensure ethical success and the experiences employees are having.

A day of reckoning

The process of continually seeking culture-based feedback from employees will serve three primary purposes.

  1. Create accurate information about whether the culture is helping or hurting your goals
  2. Enable you to resolve any Cultural Dissonance that may exist
  3. Restore and protect Psychological Safety so that you can get the best from the team

Because executives are often removed from the reality of what employees are experiencing, the risk of a disconnect between how those two demographics view the workplace is an unnecessarily high.

I recall a time when I had the privilege of working with one of the largest entertainment providers in the country. The leadership was determined to maintain high engagement levels with all employees as well as to ensure that they did not “lose touch” with employees.

Consequently, I managed a process where every executive would spend a full day with employees “out in the field.” They would abandon the “C-Suite” of offices and conference rooms, adopt casual attire and report early in the morning to the assignments I planned and administered. Some would be assigned to spend the day with a headset sitting next to team members in our customer service call center. Others would ride-along with security or in the truck with some of our field technicians. No matter the assignment, it was a day to be reconnected to the experiences that their employees were having. It was a day to see how leadership decisions directly contributed to the way work was actually completed. It was a day to observe if their cultural perceptions actually aligned with the perceptions of employees at all levels. It was a day that revealed any Cognitive Dissonance within the organization and empowered the executive team to make the necessary adjustments.

When safety and dissonance clash

The concept of Psychological Safety has emerged as being vitally important to cultures that need to be innovative and retain talent. Google’s famous Project Aristotle research revealed that Psychological Safety is an important element in how the best team’s work. Psychological Safety is a concept that describes when employees feel comfortable enough to submit ideas for improvement, innovation, change or correction. Since culture is about shared beliefs, Psychological Safety is derived from a common understanding that it is ok for me and you to respectfully contribute our best thoughts and ideas. As stated earlier, when this concept exists, employees feel a sense of safety to protect, innovate and renovate. If Cultural Dissonance exists and impacts Psychological Safety, you are guaranteed to be incompetent in getting the best from your employees.

Leaders must ensure cultural safety

In order for members of an organizational culture to feel like they can fully contribute to the success of that organization, leadership must work aggressively to ensure that experiences align with expectations. Are your stated cultural values creating experiences for your employees that make them want to contribute to your continued success?

Leaders must aggressively seek feedback in order to ensure their understanding and actions align to correct or enhance the cultural experiences the team is having. Leaders must also aggressively protect Psychological Safety in order to ensure an environment where employees contribute their best thinking.

How do you manage your feedback process? What adjustments have you made and are you pleased with the outcome?

Culture – Four Keys to Avoiding Failure

Culture – Four Keys to Avoiding Failure

When it comes to the complex topic of culture, all you can do is hope. In my experience with some of the largest companies in their respective industries, hope is the flawed strategy most commonly deployed.

Sometimes the strategy of “hope for the best” is engaged on a conscious level and most of the time it is a default setting that occurs in the absence of conversation about the importance of culture. The complexity of the concept of culture is often an intimidating topic at the executive level. Until you have purposefully and academically explored the topic of culture, it remains an ambiguous concept that eludes the agenda when engaging in conversation about business strategy.

Having gained insights due to my own naivety coupled with my work with struggling companies, I would like to offer a type of hope that could become a tangible part of a strategic discussion. HOPE is an acronym that embodies the four key elements to reducing the risk of failure that could arise from ignoring the powerful influence of culture.

1. Humility

The H in HOPE stands for humility. No discussion about positive and effective cultures should occur without the recognition of humility as a core component. Humility enables leaders to learn, observe, and adapt. Humility is the element that prevents leadership from seeing themselves as more powerful than the culture they operate within.

I first learned this lesson because of a view from the inside of the Time Warner and AOL merger. AOL and Time Warner (TWC) merged in what was, at that time, the biggest merger in American history. A corporate culture reflects the group identity, shared beliefs and expected behavioral norms. The merger of two very different cultural norms contributed to an inevitable clash fueled by what I perceived to be a lack of humility. I remember being at a meeting where leaders were discussing how we would position AOL internet access in the new marketing strategy. TWC now had to allow other internet service providers access to the same high-speed infrastructure that AOL was gaining through the merger. When one of the providers revealed their price point, I noticed that it was noticeably higher than the other competitors using the same infrastructure. To understand the rationale, I inquired, “How would you like the representative to answer the questions they receive about the difference in pricing?” The answer from the leader was, “we believe that we are a premium product and that people will pay for that.” That answer was my first indication that there may be a delta in the perception of leadership versus that of the end users.

There was a widely popular view at that time that differed from the perception of this leader. Within a short time after that, the immediate failure of that strategy contributed to a decision to make that provider’s product free to anyone and even then, it was too late. A lack of humility slows or stops learning and learning is pivotal to your ability to adapt and influence your culture. You must seek to influence and shape your culture because your culture will surely influence your ability to succeed.

You must seek to influence and shape your culture because your culture will surely influence your ability to succeed.

2. Others

O is about the value of understanding the culture of other companies, partners, or customers. The failed AOL and Time Warner merger was valued at approximately $350 billion dollars. I am convinced from my experience that a deeper understanding of each other’s culture would have been invaluable in informing the merger strategy. The cultural artifacts that drove expected behaviors in each of these organizations proved to be in opposition to each other. This was my first lesson in understanding that there is no such thing as a merger of cultural equals. Whether it is through a merger, partnership or joint venture, the exploration of the “other culture” is vital in understanding the elements that will aid success and those that will prove to be a risk.

3. Pay attention

To reduce the risk of your culture contributing to your failure, you must pay attention. The P in HOPE is a reminder that we need to be deliberate about paying attention to the concept of culture. Culture will influence our business strategy whether we pay attention to it or not. I was honored to have an opportunity to work with the former Cellular One organization. The cellular industry was still in its early years and teams were literally just moving into markets to establish offices and services. This was a fascinating opportunity to observe the evolution of a culture from the very start. An initial team of 3-4 would enter a new market, find office space, and hire engineering talent to begin construction of towers and other equipment. Marketing plans were being developed; fax machines and phones were housed atop cardboard boxes because furniture had not yet arrived. Owners were often investors who lived elsewhere. A culture was being created even though there was no discussion about culture. With the rapid growth of this industry, satellite offices were subsequently being formed resulting in sub-cultures within a larger corporate culture.

The key learning from this illustration for me was about how powerful the leader is in establishing a culture whether intentionally or not. Culture is inevitable and unstoppable so we must pay attention.

Culture is inevitable and unstoppable so we must pay attention.

4. Ethics

Finally, the E is for ethics. The biggest corporate failures that I have observed were fueled by a breakdown in ethics. I gained insights by working with AOL/TWC during the failed merger and at a time when the SEC would file allegations of fraud against some of the leadership. I also had a view working with Adelphia and New Medico as well at a time when alleged ethical violations would topple these large organizations. The lesson to be learned is that it is not enough to place your ethical stance on a poster. I have come to understand that the difference between companies I have seen fail and the many more that I have seen succeed is that they are intentional. There must be deliberate conversations about how to infuse ethical standards and expectations into behavioral norms as well as into the very fabric of your culture. Ethics must become an unwavering factor in the way you identify, hire, and promote your leaders. All other elements of your culture can remain strong; however, it only takes one violation of ethics to doom your long-term success.

Aid strategy, influence culture

As it has been said, “Hope is not a strategy.” I submit these four secrets to using HOPE as a tangible way to aid your strategy and influence your culture. Culture should be on the risk register of every organization given its inherent power to derail your strategic objectives. Use HOPE to ensure that you address, at a minimum, these four key cultural risk mitigations. Ensure an environment of humility promoting and protecting our willingness to learn and adapt. Examine the culture of other organizations in which your success is dependent. Pay attention to the role culture plays in your success and be deliberate about defining it. Determine how to embed ethics into every fabric of the organization. In so doing, you will make HOPE part of your strategy.

How can you add to this conversation? I invite your comments on social media. 

For Culture Success, Organizations Must Focus on the Big 3

For Culture Success, Organizations Must Focus on the Big 3

According to Josh Bersin, demographic upheaval coupled with digital technology has greatly contributed to a rapid increase in the rate of change. This accelerated rate is, in turn, leading to new social contracts and business considerations. Bersin is responsible for long-term strategy at Bersin by Deloitte and is frequently published in and Chief Learning Officer magazine. He cites an MIT study revealing that 90% of CEOs said their company is experiencing disruption. Ninety percent! Given these turbulent times, the conversation about culture is more relevant than ever.

Culture enables or disables an organization’s ability to achieve strategic objectives. Culture drives behavioral standards and expectations. Culture is manifested in the human dynamics displayed within the way work is accomplished or in some cases, not accomplished. Bersin referenced an Oxford study revealing that 47% of jobs are going away in the next 20 years. The jobs that remain or are created, is widely expected to be those requiring human interactions. Bersin concluded, “We cannot deliver for customers unless we take care of our people.”

I had the privilege of hearing Bersin and other notable experts speak at the 2016 Annual Ultimate Culture Conference organized by Human Synergistics. Bersin shared research and insights that helped us see the increasing significance of understanding the connections between human interactions and workplace culture. This was further emphasized by Edgar Schein when he explained that, “you can’t produce change without relationships.”

Consequently, organizations seeking to succeed in turbulent times must focus on how their culture enables or disables their ability to achieve strategic objectives. To do this efficiently, organizations must think about the “Big 3.”

  1. Understand the enablers
    Often, leaders, especially those with greater change agility are tempted to charge into changing organizational elements without first considering what cultural enablers might exist. Cultural enablers are those foundational beliefs and expectations that serve as the fence around the playground. They enable and empower employees to know exactly where the boundaries of exploration exist. For example, enablers could include expectations on ethics, innovation, empowerment, or communication oriented behaviors. Additionally, enablers include environmental factors that employees link to their ability to excel. This could be a recreational area or other space that allows for a “brain break.” Some contemporary organizations have discovered that “brain break” areas enable higher engagement levels as well as greater innovation and efficiency. This same concept might have very little value in the context of another organizational cultural. However, removing it from a context where it is perceived as an enabler will have a definitive impact, even if temporary, on the psychological contract that some employees perceive they have with the organization. Each organization needs to understand their own core cultural enablers. In the same way, new leaders must understand what the enablers are for the sub-culture of the team they just joined before implementing any sweeping changes.
  2. Name it and claim it
    Be clear about expectations. Be specific about the behaviors necessary to reach your end-state. To achieve strategic objectives, an organization needs to be concerned about what will make them succeed as well as what might make their competitors succeed. Is your competitor focusing on developing elements within their culture that you are refusing to acknowledge as necessary? Companies who are at the top of their industry are most susceptible to not recognizing this vulnerability. Organizations must be clear on identifying behavioral elements that will reinforce the development of the type of relationships necessary for success. Especially given that relationships may become one of the top differentiators in the near future as technology reduces other non-interactive jobs.

    “…one of the reasons we don’t get anywhere is because we stay at Level One in the relationship.”
    -Ed Schein

    Leaders in the organization must “claim” these behaviors by being the first to consistently demonstrate them. Difficult decisions must be made for those leaders who refuse to adapt. At the heart of any culture lies expectations and beliefs often then manifested in behaviors. Schein, one of the foremost experts on culture, discusses relationships and the link to culture-change when sharing that we have two levels or relationships in the workplace. Level One is transactional and Level Two is personal. In discussing why culture change may fail, Schein concludes by saying, “one of the reasons we don’t get anywhere is because we stay at Level One in the relationship.” Leaders must model the desired behaviors while recognizing the need to acknowledge and validate the power of relationships to impact business results. In addition, optimal distinctiveness theory helps us to understand that when times are uncertain, people may more likely look to the group to determine how to behave. Leaders have great authority to influence the adoption and sustainment of the desired behaviors.

  3. Plan it, look for it and celebrate it
    Finally, the third phase of the triad is to be deliberate about taking time to plan. So often leaders are thrust into managing a changing situation while still maintaining 100% of their already over-booked schedule. In the end, these leaders spend more time managing negative consequences than they would have if the appropriate amount of time had been committed upfront to pause and plan. In referencing the complexity of culture-change, Schein declares, “organizational culture is a bottomless pit of questions and problems.” Leaders who treat the need for a culture change as a “simple add-on” to the other things they need to do, will have missed the point that your culture is the reason you will succeed or fail. Depending on the magnitude of the shift in culture, setting aside dedicated time to process, explore, and decide will be in order.Often this is facilitated more efficiently by a third-party subject matter expert. Once decided and articulated, determine what the specific early indicators are going to be. Establish how you will know if the process is working and then diligently look for these indicators of early success. Their absence will be an early warning signal of the need to step back and re-evaluate.When you do see evidence of adopted behaviors, language, and attitudes, start celebrating! Someone once said, “If you see the behaviors you want, pour champagne on it.” While both the legal and Human Resources departments may prefer that you use a different method other than champagne, the premise remains essential—celebrate early and celebrate often.

Bersin said that we must take care of our people, and Schein said that relationships matter. Research continues to reinforce the principle that talent is, and will be, a key differentiator for businesses in the United States through the immediate future. People are significantly impacted by the culture in which they are asked to perform. Achieving your strategic objective is dependent on whether or not your culture is the enabling element.

Is your workplace culture set-up to enable and empower the best performance from its employees? I welcome your thoughts and comments on social media.