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Organizational Culture

Additional Insights into the Importance of Organizational Culture

Digging deeper still into understanding how to enhance our cultural soil

The Power of Beliefs books in soil

When I sat down to draft the piece about culture that ran here three weeks ago, my plan was, as it usually is, to move on to a different subject the following week. That shifted significantly. The more I explored the effect of cultural soil, the more I saw just how important it is. Actively enriching our cultural soil is essential to the health of our organizations. If our soil is poor, what we plant is likely to be deficient; if, on the other hand, the soil is rich and healthy, the odds of good things happening go up exponentially. In hindsight, it now seems obvious: As Erin McMorrow writes in Grounded, “Repopulating soil life is a no-brainer.”

While most business leaders know at some level that culture matters, most of us—in businesses, not for profits, and for that matter countries and communities—still approach cultural health as a secondary issue, something to keep an eye on while we do our “real” work. We often delegate (or maybe relegate) care for culture to HR, or of late, to our Diversity & Inclusion Committees. In the community, we leave cultural matters to “arts organizations.” While leaders are regularly engaged with rolling out new products, short-term problem solving, and strategic innovation (all of which are important too!), there are very few organizations—including ours—that have a regimen for doing regular cultural enrichment work. The last four weeks of studying, reflecting on, and writing about culture has given me greater insight. Enriching the cultural soil, it’s clear to me now, IS the work.

Edgar Schein, one of the first folks to write extensively about the importance of organizational culture in business, made this point many years ago. In the same way that organic farming guru Elliot Coleman advised growers to focus first on “feeding the soil,” Schein says, “The only thing of real importance that leaders do is to create and manage culture. If you do not manage culture, it manages you, and you may not even be aware of the extent to which this is happening.” The healthier and more vibrant we make the soil of our organizational culture, the better everything we do is likely to go.

Getting our brains around the idea of organizational culture as a living thing, one that needs constant care and attention, and in which our work is never done, is a significant mental shift. Both in business and in nature, it’s a big project. It’s a task, I’ve realized in writing these pieces on culture, that is particularly relevant right now. Last week, after the third part in this series on culture came out, John Anderson, long time leadership coach and founder of Replace Retirement, sent me this touching note:

Outstanding, brought tears to my eyes. In the last week I recognized wave # 2 in this decade of disruption. Wave 1 2020 = COVID. Wave 2 2021 = Culture degradation. My clients are sharing that some team members don’t want to come back to the office. Others are sharing the struggle of getting consistent labor and the third challenge is overworking those who are committed. All three of these are eating at the shoreline of culture and the impact will show up in 2022 – 2025. However, those who recognize this opportunity to work the soil and halt the erosion, will experience a Southwest Airlines or Zingerman’s culture where the team is enthusiastically asking “how can we best serve?”

John’s kind email encouraged me to dive even more deeply into cultural studies, to imagine a program for cultural enrichment that could be put to work in pretty much any organizational setting. An approach that could be used on both good days and bad. One that, to John’s point, might be more urgent right now, but that can be used in any setting going forward, long after the pandemic and the problems that emerge from it are just a good story to tell. It can make an enormous difference. Our future surely depends on it. As Erin McMorrow writes: “A plant supported by a healthy soil ecosystem and a balanced surrounding ecosystem will actually have everything it needs to fight off pests.” When we’re working in a healthy cultural soil, we too stand better odds of dealing with the challenges that we all face every day.

Early 20th century British botanist Albert Howard wrote, “All the great agricultural systems which have survived have made it their business never to deplete the earth of its fertility without at the same time beginning the process of restoration.” I’m thinking here that we might invert Howard’s hundred-year-old advice about nature and apply it to what we do in our everyday work. All healthy organizations, we might then conclude, will almost certainly have made it their business never to deplete their cultural soils of their fertility, without at the same time beginning the process of restoration. The items I’ve listed in these pieces about culture are, in essence, the beginnings of a regimen for regular restoration. As with our physical health, we don’t need to wait until we have a heart attack to start working out—proactively and consistently working to enrich our cultural soil in small but meaningful ways could be an organization-altering approach.

In the last three weeks I’ve shared many ways to sustainably help to enhance the culture at your organization. Here are thirteen more (if you’d like a PDF list of all the items on a single sheet, email me). Do any of them in ways that work well for you and your organization; small bits, done regularly, over time, can make a big difference. If you want to approach the work more scientifically, setting up a regimen for yourself can help a lot (I love the Open-Book Management model of “Plan, Forecast, Actual”). Let me know what you learn—sharing generously can help enhance the cultural soil of all our ecosystems.

Lots of Connections

One of the best ways I know to enhance the health of our cultures is to make more connections. As Australian artist and musician Alexandra Rosenblum says, “Everything is connected and connecting.” (Natural Law #18: “Everything is naturally related and interconnected.”) Unfortunately, the Industrial model has taught us to separate and isolate. In nature, poor soil management often leads to the creation of large gullies or crevasses in what were once healthy fields. These same sorts of divisions appear—unnecessarily—in unhealthy organizational cultures and communities. Tensions rise and our energies are diverted into antagonism where they could be used for more meaningful, creative activities.

To counteract that, we need to actively work to make connections, to close gaps that don’t need to be there. We can do that systemically (see our work on One + One in Secret #48), and in the moment. Connect staff members across department and business lines, partners with people working the counter, line cooks with trainers, new staff members with long time customers, and members of your organization to ours. The other morning I invited an educator from Chicago to attend one of our huddles online. Last month Yodit Mesfin-Johnson, the director of New, and a couple of New staffers sat in on the Roadhouse huddle. A positive change for us has already emerged! Increased connection encourages cultural health, creativity, a sense of belonging, and the beauty and richness of our cultures. As poet Joy Harjo put it,

I remember when there was no urge
to cut the land or each other into pieces,
when we knew how to think
in beautiful.

Enhance People’s Sense of Purpose

Quite simply, cultures that are powered by purpose are significantly more energized than the “tired cultural soils” of organizations in which people are mostly just going through the motions. Purpose in the ecosystem metaphor is air. Without air, humans can’t breathe; without purpose, people don’t do great work. Every farmer will tell you that a well oxygenated soil is far healthier… metaphorically, a culture that’s filled with purpose! Going out of our way to remind ourselves and those we work with how much our work matters makes a big difference. Last night a customer caught my eye at the Roadhouse. It was their first time out to eat in a restaurant in 15 months. “We just want you to know that we’ve been picking up carryout from you all the whole time. It made a huge difference. It was a tiny semblance of what life had been like before, and what we knew, eventually, it would be like again. It really helped us stay sane.” I will share that anecdote (and others) in my weekly note to the staff later this week. Stories like that are the emotional equivalent of taking a couple of slow, deep, mindful breaths. Our problems won’t just disappear, but we’re in a much calmer, more grounded, more focused mental place from which to deal with them. As we like to remind ourselves here (and never often enough), “You really do make a difference!”

Read more here on the power of purpose.

Keeping It Real, Honoring Imperfection, and Embracing Humbleness

One of my big learnings over the last few weeks of cultural immersion is that people who are part of healthier cultures are adept at accepting their own imperfections, while at the same time still working actively for improvement. It is a sense of grounded humility about the culture itself—knowing all the time that we are neither heroically great nor horribly bad, just imperfect humans trying our best, together, to get better.

The work world has a tendency to take the hero worship that’s so prevalent in society and apply it to organizations, holding up a handful of “business superstars” as “models of marvelousness.” It sounds good, but I believe this approach is actually anything but. Osho warned us about this years ago: “Always remember the basic rule of life,” he said, “If you worship someone, one day you are going to take revenge.” If you wait long enough the heroes will eventually be seen as villains. By contrast, when we create healthier cultural soil we are able to embrace our imperfect collective humanity. Poet and author Hanif Abdurraqib says, “A person is a whole person when they are good sometimes but not always, and loved by someone regardless.”

I will say the same for organizational culture. If humility is, as I’ve written before, akin to topsoil, then actively being in a state of collective humbleness in our culture is an imperfectly wonderful, natural, way to stay grounded. I come back to Erin McMorrow’s recommendation to stand daily in our bare feet on the soil and connect. In the work world, I turn that into a challenge to myself to pause, for at least a few minutes every day, and take in the amazingness of the people I get to work with and what they do so well every single day. It’s always a humbling and happy moment.

Create Healthy Ways to Handle Failure

The more positively and calmly we can deal with shortfalls and setbacks, the richer and more resilient our culture is likely to become. As anarchist, geographer, and 19th century ecologist Élisée Reclus wrote, “It is a great joy to recognize one’s errors.” They are, in this context, like compost. We can take “death” and “loss” and slowly turn them into soil health that will help ensure a positive future. And as Leah Penniman writes in Farming While Black, compost is “the original black gold and primary way our ancestors fed the soil.”

Be True to Who We Are

I stand by what Thelonious Monk said: “A genius is the one most like himself.” It’s true for organizations as well. As hard as it can be to fend off social pressure to conform and to not follow the trends, cultures are richer when they’re true to their own values and vision. I learned a long time ago that I would rather fail going after what I believe in than to succeed at something I don’t. Staying true to who we really are is easier said than done. It can be even harder when things have gone well and opportunities to expand come in faster than you can field them. John U. Bacon is right-on when he writes, “I’m not kidding… success presents almost as many potential potholes as failure.”

As Peter Senge says:

I believe benchmarking best practices can open people’s eyes as to what is possible, but it can also do more harm than good, leading to piecemeal copying and playing catch-up. As one seasoned Toyota manager commented after hosting over a hundred tours for visiting executives, “They always say ‘Oh yes, you have a Kan-Ban system, we do also. You have quality circles, we do also. Your people fill out standard work descriptions, ours do also.’ They all see the parts and have copied the parts. What they do not see is the way all the parts work together.” I do not believe great organizations have ever been built by trying to emulate another, any more than individual greatness is achieved by trying to copy another “great person.”

Visioning, the way we do it here, helps make that happen. It gives us an important tool that we can use to create the future we really want, not the future others want for us. It helps us hold course when other people put enticing ideas in front of us that sound appealing but may lead us away from authenticity. As Gil Scott-Heron sings in “I’m New Here,” “I did not become someone different that I did not want to be.”

Bring Better Energy

The better the energy we bring to everything we do, the calmer, more constructive, and more engaged our culture is likely to be. Getting—and staying—grounded day in and day out always improves the health of our cultural soil. See Secrets #20 and #21 for more on this. In nature, butterflies and birds are drawn to healthy ecosystems; in business it’s positive, values-aligned customers and staff. By contrast, if we bring negative, dissonant, disrespectful energy into the workplace, it’s like spraying pesticides on the soil; the casual observer may not notice anything in the moment, but over time the soil becomes more and more poisonous. In the end, little good will grow.

Beauty (Both Bringing It and Seeing It)

Like positive energy, adding beauty to our ecosystem makes everything better, and usually at very little cost. See “The Art of Business” for much more on this. Suffice it to say that the more we bring—and pay attention to—beauty, the richer our cultures will become. Educator Bill Strickland speaks wonderfully about the power of putting paintings and fresh flowers into schools in underserved communities. My friend, the painter, Patrick-Earl Barnes, says “art is how we think.” I endeavor every day to live up to his positive pronouncement. There are amazing people and amazing bits of beauty all around us, and I work hard to take note of them. Because as psychologist Abraham Maslow said, “The sacred is the ordinary.”

Practice Gratitude

Gratitude is a hugely effective way to enrich our cultural soil. It costs next to nothing, and it’s pretty much guaranteed to get good results for all involved. I’m a big appreciator of Martin Seligman’s 3 Good Things exercise: Write down three things you’re grateful for every day for a week. Seligman recommends that for each item we also respond to the questions, “Why did this thing happen to you? What does it mean to you? How can you have more of it in the future?” I also regularly use the SBA (stop, breathe, appreciate) and 3 and Out (give three meaningful compliments) exercises I made up for myself. All three of these simple, discreet practices can help us heal in the most holistic of ways. For a tiny investment of time, we can quietly add positive health to the lives of those we work with, and of equal importance, to ourselves.

Clear Expectations

Maggie Bayless helped to make “clear expectations” an important part of our culture back in the mid-90s when we started ZingTrain. In his forthcoming book, Let Them Lead (about coaching the local high school hockey team), author and friend John U. Bacon recommends the simple act of “letting everyone know what’s expected of them.” As John says, “Turns out, people want to know what’s going on. That’s a good thing.” Our Training Compact is an essential ingredient in this work, as are the “4 Training Plan Questions” that Maggie made part of our everyday lives at Zingerman’s back in the mid-90s. Our forthcoming Statement of Beliefs will help in this regard as well.

Check out the Bottom-Line Training® Trainer’s Tool Kit for more on clear expectations and our approach to training.

Sustainable Systems

The systems we stick with have an enormous impact on our culture. Lean, Open-Book Management, open meetings, staff partners, visioning, service, servant leadership, and many more have all had a hugely positive presence in our organizational culture. Paul pointed out years ago that on our Business Perspective Chart, systems and culture are portrayed visually as the two “bowls” on a balance scale, and each has to hold about the same weight for our work to go well. As Peter Senge said, “…vision without systems thinking ends up painting lovely pictures of the future with no deep understanding of the forces that must be mastered to move from here to there.” In an even moderately sized organization, culture without systems will hardly ever be a healthy one. Conversely, systems without a healthy culture will be hollow; a bad case of the bureaucratic blues, and a rather empty purposeless existence is pretty sure to follow.

See Secret #10 in Part 1 for more about systems.

Positive Communication and Plenty of It

A lack of information in an organization is rarely a good thing. As Toby Hemenway says, “Nature abhors bare soil.” People will fill in the void with their own versions of reality, which, with all due respect, are rarely accurate. By contrast, keeping people in the loop, sharing information at every level, enhances the culture enormously. We have long had in our Guiding Principles a commitment to lavish sharing of information. The more we help people understand what’s going on, offer context, a hopeful frame in which to process what they’re hearing, and a way to impact the outcomes, the more positive our culture is likely to be. It’s a big piece of why I wrote the nightly notes that I started sending when the pandemic began last March (see “Working Through Hard Times”).

Enhance the Spirit of Generosity

The spirit of generosity, in the ecosystem metaphor, is moisture. Too little and you end up with a culture that’s dry, unhealthy, and stingy of spirit. Dry soil will blow away. Self-centered and narcissistic cultures can become the equivalent of organizational Dust Bowls; hope is diminished, ego becomes more important than ecosystem, and things can come apart all too quickly. As musician Joanna Gemma Auguri writes in her song “Molecules of Light”:

The dried soil is cracked
Steps disperse the dust
In vanishing light

In a more positive light, I like to think about applying the spirit of generosity through the equivalent of “drip irrigation”—lots of small, almost invisible, acts of generosity, done regularly, over time that can encourage health at modest cost, and without ever flooding out the field. Moist soils clearly hold together more effectively; what grows in them will benefit in wonderful ways.

Think Regeneratively

What is regenerative agriculture? Farmer and author Joel Salatin says, “It’s any kind of agriculture that increases the commons rather than depleting the commons.” It’s the equivalent of what we write about in this bit from our 2032 Vision: “We work to harmonize the many parts of our organizational ecosystem; people and place, the planet and our processes come together, and all are better for the collaboration.”

Dr. Rattan Lal is professor of soil science at Ohio State who speaks passionately and eloquently about the importance of soil health. If farmers don’t manage their soil well, he shows in his extensive studies, the ecosystem on, and around, the farm will erode. The damage, he says, is much, much bigger than just not being able to pay bank payments: “When farmers are desperate, they will do things that are harmful to the soil. When people are hungry and desperate and miserable, they pass their suffering on to the land. And when the land suffers, it passes its suffering on to the owner. This is a vicious cycle, and it never ends.” Dr. Lal drives home the point, concluding, “This cycle is more dangerous to the world than weapons of mass destruction.”

Farmers, Dr. Lal believes, have a responsibility to the greater good, and using a regenerative approach to agriculture is one of the best ways to honor that responsibility. Those that do, he suggests, are providing society with what he calls “ecosystem services.” When we think holistically, he suggests, we take the soil health more seriously, and we all stand to gain. As he says, “The health of soil, plants, animals, water and the environment is one thing, and is indivisible. If the health of soil goes down, everything else goes down with it. Including people.”

The same is true in business (and probably communities and countries as well). When people in an organization feel desperate, they will pass their pain onto the culture of which they’re a part. The damage that causes will, in turn, inflict additional pain on the people in the culture, and they will, in turn, go on to do even more damage. This is equally true for leaders and people on the front line. Over time, the pain is inflicted on the other parts of the greater ecosystem—our loved ones, our neighbors, our school systems, ourselves. The more pain we inflict, the more damage we cause, and the more we are, ourselves, damaged as well. As Dr. Lal says, “It’s a harsh cycle that you can see playing out in much of the world.”

Like working on the farm with soil health, our engagement with organizational culture isn’t easy. There are hundreds of factors to take into account, and thousands of considered opinions from experts that can send us spinning, often in opposite directions. If we overthink the work, we can get lost in an intellectual wilderness. Edgar Schein suggests a different approach: “Let the complexity inform you rather than turn you off.” If we follow Dr. Schein’s advice, we can see that, paradoxically, there’s an elegant simplicity to the work as well. As Dr. Lal says with a smile, “The soil is like a bank account. You have to put in more than you take out.”

I believe that mindful applications of any of the many items I’ve written about over the last month can give us a great set of tools and techniques with which to do that work. Being a student of culture and a sustainably-minded steward of the organizational soil can help us slow down, to pay close attention. We can learn to love the nuance, to notice the significance in small things, to bring love, care, hope, and humbleness to all we do. I will also continue to work on visioning, develop new products, and be mindful of marketing. But it’s become very clear to me that enriching the culture can only help in every facet of work. In fact, it is our work. As Erin McMorrow suggests, “Perhaps we have been standing on the truth all along. What if the simplest solution on the planet is beneath our feet?”

*** This post is an excerpt from Ari’s Top 5, a weekly newsletter from Ari himself. Sign up to receive Ari’s Top 5 here!