A major challenge of talking about something as complex as culture is that we have to be reductive to be succinct. Something as layered, nuanced, and invisible would take ages to accurately convey (if we could even put it into words), but often, we try to distill it into a soundbite. A few key words or phrases that we think make our organization distinct from the average company.
“Keep learning. Explore crazy ideas”
“The Customer is Not Always Right”
“Warrior Spirit; Servant’s Heart, Fun-luving Attitude” (Note: Guys, I just found out these are actually Southwest Airlines’ values and I can’t even)
Although most organizations talk about their cultures as being unique and monolithic (that is, consistent throughout the organization, which is often an unstated assumption underlying the practice of hiring for ‘culture fit’), this is rarely the case.
This week an old post of mine, HR’s Sloppy Thinking About Culture, was shared on LinkedIn and then Twitter (thank you very much Simon Jones and Rob Briner). Once I got over the initial shock that five years have passed since I wrote it, it seemed like a good opportunity to revisit the topic of organizational culture.
A weekly post in which I share (some of) the most thought-provoking content I read this week(ish), which I am too lazy to write full blog posts about.
Note: This post was my contribution to the crowd-sourced ebook This Time It’s Personnel: Humane Resourced 2. The brainchild of David D’Souza, HR pro, fellow contrarian, and spectacular blogger at 101 Half Connected Things, all proceeds from the sale of this ebook go to charities collectively selected by the many talented and creative authors. I am massively enjoying reading the varied viewpoints it contains, and have had more than a few great ideas while absorbing my fellow authors’ wisdom – I very much recommend it (and it’s less than $5).
HR: Organizational Cheerleader or Agony Aunt?
If an Anthropologist were trying to conduct ethnographic research on the tribe known as ‘HR professionals’, HR blogs would offer a rich source of data. I imagine them hunched over a laptop reading, their notebooks filled with scribbles:
“Members of the tribe seem preoccupied with questions of collective purpose and meaning, resulting in a plurality of contradictory identities.”
There are few experiences as humbling as starting a new job. Overnight, you are transformed from a fully competent contributor to an unproven rookie. You enter a new world, where the language, customs and culture are unfamiliar. The mental ‘maps’ you’ve used to navigate your past environment are of limited help; in fact, they may lead you astray. Though certain practices, interactions or cues you encounter might look like ones you’ve experienced before, in this new landscape they may carry a very different meaning than what you assume.
In this respect, entering a new organization is profoundly similar to moving to a foreign country. I should know. When I was 13 years old, one of many moves with my family led us to Saudi Arabia, where we lived for 5 years. Even now, I can play the scenes of our arrival and first days in my head like a video recording. The chaotic airport, the oppressively hot night air, the strange smells and staccato Arabic enveloping us, the desolate nothingness of the desert highway at night, and the gecko perched near our new front door as if to welcome us. Whether a new organization, or a new country, the complete immersion into a different culture feels a lot like waking up in a Picasso painting. Read more
Your initial, gut reaction when you read the word below has the potential to tell me a lot about you, and possibly a lot about the organization you work for. Ready?
What happened when you read it? Did you think about snacks, agendas, white boards, decisions? Or did your eyelid start twitching as you imagined grueling hours spent under fluorescent lights, listening to other people drone on during meandering conversations about things that are largely irrelevant to you?
For the majority of my professional life I have been firmly in the second camp, viewing most meetings as some kind of uniquely cruel psychological experiment. But recently I’ve been rethinking my long-held enmity towards meetings- surely such a uniform loathing of all meetings can’t be rational, right? And so I’ve given some thought to meetings – their use, their meaning, and how I can increase my tolerance for them. Read more
Organizational culture: obsessed over, misunderstood, oversimplified, and scapegoated.
“We need to change our culture”, “That place has such a toxic culture”, “Our culture wouldn’t allow for that” “The real problem is our culture”…
Sound familiar? Whether you’ve heard it at your own organization, or come across a similar premise in one of the many fervent cultural calls-to-action online, it’s clear to me that these days culture is on the operating table. Underlying all these arguments is a sense of urgency, and a belief that culture can and should be engineered, shaped, and managed:
Mold it, control it, strengthen it, change it, or it will change you! Your efforts will mean the difference between culture as organization-limiting obstacle, and culture as critical competitive advantage!
But the sloppy and imprecise way we talk about ‘culture’ also effects our thinking and speech about changing culture, so that we find ourselves awash in popular discourse that basically equates organizational culture change with switching the wallpaper in your house: a real pain in the ass, but nothing that you and a few friends couldn’t get done over a long weekend. Read more
Happy Superbowl Sunday! Although I much prefer to watch the other football, I can never resist tuning in for the Superbowl entertainment. This year, pop star Alicia Keys will be performing the US national anthem. One assumes that this required time away from her other role, that of newly appointed “Global Creative Director” for Blackberry (formerly known as RIM, and formerly a Canadian technology success story). Announced this week, Ms. Keys’ impressive new position got me thinking about a mysterious organizational phenomenon: ‘title inflation’. Read more
I spent three days of last week at the HRPA Annual Conference here in Toronto. As always, it was a great event to reconnect with tons of brilliant HR folks in my network, as well as make new connections, and absorb ideas and knowledge from the many session speakers and keynotes- and this year was especially fun. As in past years, a couple of those speakers brought up ‘the Z word’…no, not zombies: ‘Zappos’. If you work in HR, or have any interest in organizational culture or employee engagement, it’s virtually guaranteed that you’ve read all about Zappos’ approach to corporate culture. They’ve been referenced as a benchmark in this area for many years now, and although I have nothing against Zappos, this year the Z word gave me pause. Maybe it’s because I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about organizational culture recently, or maybe it was this recent Tim Sacket post decrying the obsession with ‘best practices’, but I just couldn’t muster my usual enthusiasm for Zappos’ legendary approach.
Perhaps the most common question I am asked by candidates in interviews is “What’s the culture like here?” And I understand why. Accepting a job offer after a few interviews sometimes feels like accepting a marriage proposal after sharing a taxi with someone, and this question has become standard candidate-speak for “What would it really be like to work here? But if you read my last post on organizational culture, you’ll know that I believe taken literally, the question “What’s the culture like here?” is much more complicated than it sounds. Read more