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Unlocking Growth for Organizations and Idealists Like You

What To Do When Culture Is The Problem

If you’ve been in a job more than twenty minutes you’ve heard about “organizational culture.” For some it is the one-size-fits-all answer used to explain every advantage and success: “Their culture was better than ours.”For others it is the ultimate scapegoat, the short-hand explanation for every failure: “Our culture is just terrible.” Sometimes worshipped, sometimes maligned, culture is potent but inscrutable. It is the wind of organizations – we can’t see it, but we can feel it. We can’t describe it, but we know when it is there – and when it isn’t.In the nonprofit space, culture is doubly important, because our organizations exist not to make a profit for shareholders but to make an impact in the world. Part of that impact includes how we treat each other while working to create change. 

In our strategy work with nonprofit organizations, nearly every engagement we have involves culture in some way, shape, or form. We’ve developed an incredible respect for the power of culture. We’ve also learned about its limitations. In our minds, a supportive culture isn’t enough to guarantee success – but a destructive culture will derail even the most intelligent plans.So what is it? How can you harness it? And what if your culture is creating headwinds instead of tailwinds?

What Culture Isn’t

First, a quick note about what culture isn’t.

  • Culture isn’t strategy. Strategy involves creating a unique position in the marketplace; focusing the organization on a set of activities that work together; and choosing what not to do. Strategy is not only the plan to handle competition – strategy is the plan to avoid competition altogether.

  • Culture isn’t a list values. Culture involves values, to be sure, but culture isn’t your printed mission statement, or the values listed on your website. Culture involves actions more than words.

  • Culture isn’t personalities. Culture revolves around people, but culture isn’t about one specific person. There are plenty of competent, kind, intelligent people toiling away in destructive cultures, and sometimes there are unscrupulous people hiding in rigorous, encouraging cultures. Culture is bigger than the group of people at the company. If an organization’s culture changes significantly when its employees change, than its culture was weak to begin with.

  • Culture isn’t optional. Every organization has a culture, whether it wants one or not. When I hear an organization say, “Culture isn’t important to us,” they’ve actually just told me something about their culture.

  • Culture isn’t perfect. Every organization has problems. Even organizations with empowering, positive cultures make mistakes, missteps, and head-scratching decisions. Good culture isn’t about being perfect – good culture is about how well the organization is equipped to learn, respond, and grow from the inevitable problems. 

What Culture Is

Have you ever potted a plant at home? You get a flat of flowers from the garden store – red ones, orange ones, yellow ones. They are beautiful, and yet you know that they won’t survive on their own. So you bring them home and carefully pick out a pot, one big enough to give them room to grow. You punch a hole in the bottom to allow for drainage. You add in special soil and fertilizer to encourage them to blossom.

That’s how we think about culture. Your strategy is the flower. Everything around it ­– the pot, the soil, the fertilizer – is culture. Culture is the environment in which we operate, the things we surround ourselves with, and the ways in which we make decisions.Too metaphorical for you? Try this. Culture is three things: What we say; what we actually show; and the difference between the two.In other words, a nonprofit’s culture is all the spoken and unspoken rules of behavior. The size of the gap between the two shows you how healthy or unhealthy the culture is. The bigger the gap, the more the culture is off track.

Early in my career I worked at a company where one of the values was “the obligation of dissent.” New employees were told that we were hired because of our opinions and intelligence, and that our company wanted both. I remember one of the first team meetings I attended. Two vice presidents got into an argument right in front of me about a core element of the young company’s strategy. It was a bit unsettling – but more than that, it was encouraging and emboldening. Rather than shutting the conversation down, the COO turned to us and said, “Let’s give these two a hand for reinforcing our values.”That young company faced a lot of challenges as it grew, but culture wasn’t one of them. There was a core set of written values that were continually highlighted. The leadership team took pains to reinforce the values and make them real.

I left that company after several years and went to another firm. On the outside, it looked like a stronger company: Bigger, older, more well-known, a charismatic CEO. The culture was very palpable – the only problem was, the actual culture was almost the complete opposite of what the company claimed it to be. The company claimed to value its team, but employees were routinely asked to work long hours through the weekend. The company claimed to want creativity and new ideas, but the CEO regularly reprimanded people who disagreed with him, sometimes in very humiliating ways.

In this organization, the problem wasn’t a lack of culture. In fact, the culture was so strong you could sense it as soon as you walked in the building. The problem was that the culture was almost the complete opposite of what the leaders claimed it was. As a result, cynicism was rampant; turnover was high; and the important conversations happened at the water cooler rather than the boardroom.This brings up an important point about culture: saying a company has a “strong” culture is different than saying it has a “good” culture. Think about aroma: can you imagine the hint of an appealing smell, perhaps those flowers you planted in the springtime? The smell is nice, but you can barely make it out. Contrast that with a pungent odor of a nastier kind. The pleasantness (or unpleasantness) of the odor is different than how detectable it is!

plant-2Why Does It Matter?

There are a few reasons that culture matters. For one, just like great soil will help the flowers grow, a good culture will allow you to achieve more. A culture that allows for risks and tolerates failure will enable you to try a new peer-to-peer channel. A culture that values growth could allow you to chart a path from assisting on an event to directing it. A culture that encourages experimentation will let you alter your email segments to see what happens.

Or, a culture where no one tells the boss when something goes wrong will keep you from learning from your inevitable mistakes. A culture where everyone competes for the credit could make you desperate for validation and hamper your teamworking skills. Two, the culture of your organization has a direct impact on your quality-of-life, or at least, the quality of your professional life. Having direct, and sometimes strenuous conversations, can leave you tired but fulfilled at the end of each week. On the other hand, spending your day whispering and trading text messages in a meeting might leave you wickedly interested but hollow. It’s your movie: how much drama do you want in it? Finally, the culture of the organization is part of the hard-to-describe, easy-to-see authenticity that donors increasingly notice. If you are rolling your eyes at hypocrisies and contradictions, chances are people from the outside are too. Long-term, that won’t be good for your organization or your career. Remember, culture is the soil of the organization. Plants that need healthy earth won’t grow in corrupted dirt. You might get some weeds to grow by accident, but if you want roses for yourself and for everyone around you, you’re going to need to do some work. 

How To Tell If Your Culture Is Hurting You

So how do you know if your culture is productive or counterproductive? Chances are if you are reading this you already know, but here are a few quick ways to diagnose your environment.

  • Has anyone read the organization’s values to you recently, or asked you to read them? Good cultures involve a standard set of values that are constantly reinforced. Was your first day at work the last time you heard your organization’s mission?

  • When you read the mission statement, do you roll your eyes or mutter under your breath? If you hear yourself saying, “Well that’s not how it works around here,” chances are there’s a culture gap.

  • Do your team members (your boss, your peers, and the people you manage) recognize each other for work that reflects the stated values of the organization? Good cultures don’t just use the values – they use the values to reinforce behavior they want to see.

  • Is there a set of informal rules that govern how things actually work? Sometimes in our work we’ll ask “Tell us how you arrived at such-and-such a decision.” One giveaway of a dysfunctional culture is that we hear the passive voice. Remember that from English class? Active voice sounds like responsibility: “I made the decision.” In passive voice, the subject is removed: “The decision was made.” When we hear passive voice, it is usually the sign of a culture afraid to take responsibility, afraid to delegate, afraid to disagree, afraid to be wrong, or all of the above.

A Few Ways To Get Back on Track

Once in a while cultures are deliberately sabotaged by selfish managers, political staff, and terrible incentives. Most of the time, though, cultures get off track simply because of neglect. No one waters the flowers, and they start to wilt. Keep them dry long enough, and it will be hard to remember what they used to look like. Here are a few ways that you personally can improve your culture.

1. Lead by example. In their leadership classic The Leadership ChallengeJim Kouzes and Barry Posner outline their research on the practices of great leadership. Their first leadership imperative is simple: “Model the way.” Acting the way you want the world to be is always a good first step. Working in a culture of silence even though the organization says it values input? Raise your hand during meetings and give your opinion. Tired of a lack of follow-through on projects? Keep a punch list of active projects and review through them with your team every several weeks.

2. Recognize values. As we said earlier, culture isn’t just about a list of values – but the values of the organization can become a powerful cultural change agent. The organization’s values, vision, and mission, because they are written down, can provide a safe way to begin changing the culture around published words that everyone is supposed to already agree with. Spend a bit of time each week recognizing the people around you for living by your organization’s values and mission. This doesn’t have to be difficult. A short email that says, “We say that we are about donor service, and I really saw that from you this week during your phone call with that upset man from Delaware” can have a profound impact. Sometimes the organization’s values are derided – but you don’t have to look down on them just because everyone else does. Every time you highlight them you make them more real.

3. Host a regular “new ideas” meeting. Organizations that have trouble innovating or changing are usually caught in their own processes. Brainstorming, creativity, and ideation are very different activities than managing, checking progress to plan, and giving updates. But often organizations try to combine the two. Process-oriented people get frustrated by the lack of structure, while creative people get frustrated at attempts to bring them “down to reality.”One way to get new ideas flowing – and to model that new ideas are important – is to separate brainstorming from management. Host a regular meeting when you get a group of people together to discuss new ideas for a particular project or initiative. The only rule is that you do not discuss implementation at this meeting. Instead, the goal is simply to come up with ideas. You may have to put some structure to things: “Today we are looking for ways to increase engagement from recurring donors. Go!” Every time someone says, “That won’t work here,” politely tell them that the purpose is simply to surface new possibilities.

4. Invite outside speakers to present. I’m a huge fan of the idea that we can’t and don’t know it all. There’s a great big world out there, and yet so often we are stuck within the four walls of our own logo. Inviting outside speakers to present shows your team that you are willing to consider new ideas and humble enough to believe you don’t know everything.

5. Use the RACI chart to clarify responsibilities. Sometimes, the issue isn’t a lack of ideas, but a lack of clarity about who does what. We often use a RACI exercise to help teams become more comfortable talking about who does what. Your willingness to engage your co-workers in an honest discussion about accountabilities can do wonders for trust.

6. Don’t Get Discouraged. The most important lesson we’ve learned about culture is that you never arrive. A culture that is empowering, encouraging, and supportive isn’t a specific objective any more than a garden is a goal. Culture requires constant attention, care, and nurturing. Part of the reward of a vibrant culture, actually, is the care it requires – there’s nothing more emboldening than talking with a group of people you trust about how the group can achieve more. 

We’ve seen a lot of cultures that need encouragement and a few that need an overhaul, but we’ve never seen a culture that is beyond repair. And we’ve never seen a culture in which the efforts of one person couldn’t make a demonstrable impact. Keep working, don’t get discouraged, and don’t be afraid to reach out for help if you need it 

Topics: Inspiration Leadership Strategy