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Organizational Culture

Another Deep Look at How We Can Continue to Enhance Our Cultural Soils

Small acts of enrichment done diligently over time yield big results

Another Deep Look at How We Can Continue to Enhance Our Cultural Soils – hand holding basil plant

This is the third segment in what has become a four-part series on the subject of regenerating our organizational cultures. You can find the first part, as well as the second segment, in the resource library. Throughout this series, I’ve shared my metaphorical model where culture is the “soil” in which people, products, and processes are growing. All of our cultures, like soil on a farm, can benefit from becoming healthier. It is by definition a slow process; cultures, like soils, cannot be changed swiftly. Unlike a new car, we can’t just drive to the dealer and head home with a new one. What we can do is work steadily and determinedly, in harmony with nature (both human and ecological), to strengthen our cultures, a tiny bit at a time.

Last week I shared a wealth of holistically healthy ways to slowly but surely enhance our cultural soil, and in the process, improve the lives of the people who are a part of it. This week I have a whole bunch more. To be clear up front, even small amounts of any of the items on these lists are likely to help the health and vibrancy of your cultural soil. You don’t need to do them all on the same day, or even do all of them. Putting these techniques to work is, like good farming, a craft, not an exact science. As regenerative soil expert Jon Stika says, there are many tools that a farmer can apply—the key is to use them wisely, adjusting the application regularly, based on an up close and very personal understanding of the soil with which one is working.

I try to remind myself regularly that enhancing soil in nature—and culture in organizations—is a process that takes time. If I were to do two additional acts of generosity tomorrow, it would be nice, but it would have little impact on the culture as a whole. Imagine, though, that you or I were to commit to doing two or more acts of generosity a day for a year? I’m betting we’d notice a small but meaningful bit of movement. Better still, imagine ten of your colleagues, each doing two acts of generosity a day over a period of two years? That would, by my math, add up to over 14,000 small acts of generosity in 24 months. You will be sure to have a noticeably more generous culture. Slow and steady, patient and gently persistent, is likely to get the best results. As I wrote last week, it generally takes about three years—and often more—to meaningfully change an organizational culture for the better. Dr. Stika shares that it’s much the same for soil on a farm. You certainly can’t “fix” either of them in five or six weeks! It’s worth noting that going quickly overboard on the other extreme is likely to fail too. Telling your team to each do 20 small acts of kindness a day starting tomorrow is probably more likely to evoke opposition and cynicism than it is to enrich the cultural soil the way you would like. Taking time to talk things through, share the “why” behind what you want to do, and a vision of how it will look when you’ve done it well would help. Getting agreement together on a set of standards and a regimen are more likely to have the kind of positive impact we’re all looking for. And then sticking with the program for months, and more likely years, will probably be markedly more effective still.

All of this does require us to pay attention at a deeper level, to be open to insights and understandings. Dr. Stika was asked what gets in the way of more folks learning more about regenerative farming. “Knowledge!” he answered. At first that seemed like a nonsensical answer. Knowledge gets in the way of learning? Yes, that’s right. Old beliefs block the way for new ones. As Edgar Schein, whose insightful work on culture has both informed and inspired me for many years, once said so insightfully, “Learning new things is easy when there is no unlearning involved.”

Is it worth doing so much slow steady work to study and then enhance our cultures? Dr. Schein assures us that it is:

Learning about culture requires effort. You have to enlarge your perception, you have to examine your own thought process, you have to accept that there are other ways to think and do things. But once you have acquired what I would call a “cultural perspective,” you will be amazed at how rewarding it is. Suddenly the world is much clearer. Anomalies are now explainable, conflicts are more understandable, resistance to change begins to look normal, and—most important—your own humility increases. In that humility, you will find wisdom.

Here are a series of small and meaningful things I believe we can do to slowly but surely enrich and enhance the cultural soil of our organizations. Others, again, are in this blog post. A few more learnings are to come. If you like this work, please share it liberally—changing a culture is always, by definition, a collective effort.

Mindful Awareness

If culture is the soil of our organizational gardens, then getting into it in a meaningful way will almost certainly be grounding. As we pay careful attention, we allow new learning to sink in slowly. Taking time to reflect on what we’ve learned and what we’re doing, daily, can help us in much the same way as Erin McMorrow recommends that we stand still with our bare feet on the ground: “Grounding actually opens a door to shift the way we think about nature, technology, and our bodies. It’s a pathway to feeling better.” To Erin’s point, I’ve come to see that studying and caring about culture slows us down in the best possible way. Although 21st century society is teaching us to go faster, shallower, and shorter (tweeting?), getting into culture is the opposite. It’s aligned with nature. It encourages us to notice the nuance. It’s about deep, meaningful work. It’s about connecting and caring. It helps us learn to pay attention to our own impact. It lets us lead more gently, and helps us stop looking for “the next big thing” or “the most important idea,” and lets us breathe into the natural reality that we didn’t get the way we are last week and that we aren’t going to get out of it in a week either. The more we notice the nuance, the better we’ll be able to enrich our culture; the more we teach mindfulness to others we work with, the calmer and more collected they’re likely to become as well. It helps to tune in to what Rebecca Solnit calls, “the things that don’t get measured and can’t be bought.” Mindful awareness, I’ve come to believe, is probably a prerequisite for meaningful affection.

Develop a Culture of Leaders

Cultures get richer when more of the people who are part of them think and act like leaders. I just finished reading the galleys of my friend John U. Bacon’s forthcoming book Let Them Lead. It tells the story of how he coached the hockey team of his high school alma mater, the Huron High River Rats, helping guide the group from being one of the worst in history to one of the best over a three year period. (As I’ve been saying, it seems to take about three years to make meaningful lasting change in an organizational culture.) One of the ways John did that was by what he calls “creating layers of leadership.” As he advises anyone in a leadership role, “The more power you have, the more you can give away—and the more power you give away, the more power you will ultimately have.” I agree. Here at Zingerman’s we do much the same by asking everyone to take responsibility for leadership from their first day—regardless of position, tenure, age, experience, or anything else.

If you want to use the farm and soil metaphor, I suppose that the industrial model would be to hire people simply to pick fruit or weed. No one asks these folks what they see or smell or feel, and they aren’t asked for their input on how to run the farm. The sense of powerlessness that comes from that way of “mindless” working will, like a fast growing invasive weed, take over the company’s cultural soil. It creates what Rollo May called the problem of “passivism.” One participant in a culture like this shared, “We’re living in a time where everyone sees what’s wrong and still does it anyway.” For more on this, see Secret #22, “We’re All Leaders,” in Part 2.

Learning and Teaching

Learning is like working out for your brain; active learning, brought lovingly into our workplaces, will almost always enhance the quality of our cultural soil. Peter Senge wrote extensively about learning cultures in the classic The Fifth Discipline. Dr. Senge said, “Through learning we become able to do something we never were able to do. Through learning we reperceive the world and our relationship to it. Through learning we extend our capacity to create, to be part of the generative process of life.”

Twenty-five years ago Maggie at ZingTrain taught us that teaching was the highest level of learning. Whatever we teach, we are likely to learn more effectively. As poet Gil Scott-Heron said, “I was a better writer when I was teaching. I was constantly going over the basics and constantly reminding myself, as I reminded my students, what made a good story, a good poem.”

Teaching and writing (which is teaching on paper) is a way to get better, or often even good, at the things we haven’t historically been adept at. If you want to build a new belief, or a different skill set, into your culture, teach it regularly for two to three years. The teaching won’t fully fix the problems, but it will get you started on changing the soil. By the way, I didn’t say “hire someone else to teach it.” I mean you, and I, learn to teach it. As Scott-Heron once said, “You have to learn and keep learning.”

Act with Compassion and Empathy

A good farmer can feel a problem in the soil long before it shows up on a test—what Dan Barber’s farmer friend once called, “the doom before the doom.” Empathy and compassion are great tools to help us correct our cultural course in gentle and caring ways. Jane Dutton and Monica Worline wrote a highly recommended book called Awakening Compassion at Work that’s loaded with loving ways to enhance the quality of our cultures. As the Dalai Lama says, “If you want others to be happy, practice compassion. If you want to be happy, practice compassion.” Empathy also helps. A lot! It’s about being sensitive to small shifts in the cultural soil, and responding gently and caringly. I have no doubt that the more we bring compassion and empathy to our cultures, the healthier our cultural soil will become. Karla McLaren’s book Empathy is an excellent resource! In the spirit of building a learning culture, I’m reading it right now, and I’ve gifted copies to a trio of coworkers in the last few weeks as well.

Emphasize Dignity and Humanization

Another cost-free, incredibly powerful way to enhance our organizational culture. You can read much more about my take on dignity in “Working Through Hard Times.” The more I dig into dignity, the more I’m convinced of the positive power it brings forth. The simple commitment to culturally treat every human with whom we come in contact with dignity will always make a positive difference. As Archbishop Desmond Tutu says, “If you want peace, be sure everyone’s dignity is intact.” It’s become clear to me that the more we honor each individual for the unique human being they are, the better our culture will be, and the more we contribute to the health of our own ecosystem and that of our surrounding ecosystem as well. Irish storyteller and film critic Gareth Higgins says this of films, and I’d suggest we work to do the same in our organizations:

I have a simple view of what makes a movie great: …does the movie help us become less human or more? In a narrative film, do the characters’ doubts and loves, the pain they suffer, and the results of their actions leave us with a deeper sense of our own humanity?

Effective Storytelling

The stories we tell show us a lot about the culture we are—knowingly or not—creating. As Neil Gaiman says, “Our stories will outlive us. Let’s make them good.” The stories we share—both casually and in planned training sessions—plant beliefs in our culture. If we tell stories that glorify drama and destruction, or that demean others, they will inevitably deplete our cultural soil. By contrast, intentionally choosing to share stories that model the way we want to be in the world makes a big positive difference. I talk about how long it took me and Paul to write the 2009 Vision back in 1994, how we did a lousy job of living open book management for the first three or four years before we got good at it, and how most people thought we would fail early on, but we persevered. I share how Paul and I regularly disagree, but keep coming, with respect and dignity, back to the discussions; or how a new staff member saved a situation on their sixth day. The more positive the stories—including stories of meaningful inclusion, positive diversity, perseverance, and pushing past problems—the healthier your culture is likely to get. I could go on, but you get the idea. I’ll paraphrase Neil Gaiman’s words: “Our stories will outlive us. Let’s choose them wisely.”

Grieve and Grieve Again

I wrote some about grief last week. Reflecting on it over the last few days, I realized more and more how much effective grieving and learning to caringly deal with loss needs to be a part of a healthy culture. That can be said, I see now, in countries, communities, and families as well as in healthy company cultures. There’s no way around the reality that we will all, inevitably, experience loss. I don’t think they teach classes on grieving in business school, but it would probably be smart to start soon. If we don’t learn to grieve in our organizational culture, we can get caught in denial. We can act out our unacknowledged anger on others. Alternatively, it’s actually the embracing of the losses, healthy grieving, and deciding to move respectfully through it that can lead us to a healthier future. 

I see this with Tammie (my significant other) on her farm. I carry a lot of sadness with me. Always have. The smallest losses trigger it. When a tomato plant dies on her farm, it hits me hard. I realized that over the last four years I’ve watched her lean into that sadness and grief for the plant and just keep going. She does it, impressively, without hardening her heart or losing her energy to pursue excellence. She continues to find the joy and the beauty that, almost inevitably, exist right next to the plant that just passed on. These are of course my words and my perspectives, so they say probably as much or more about me than her—like most things, we often project what we feel onto others in order to understand our own struggles. My point is merely that we enrich our cultural soil when we learn to live with the losses and still work hard to make and see the beauty that is still there, and also still to come.

If we don’t let go of the past, mourning the people, products, and problems (yes problems that come to an end need to be grieved as well), we’re likely to hold onto things that aren’t all that helpful. This can be a particular challenge in cultures of companies that happily—like us—have survived for many years. John O’Donohue framed it well:

Sometimes, when people in a society are unable to read or decipher the labyrinth of absence, their homeless minds revert to nostalgia. They see the present as a massive fall from a once glorious past, where perfect morality, pure faith and impeccable family values pertained, without critique or alternative or any smudge of complexity or unhappiness… based both on a faulty perception and on unreal nostalgia. What is created is a fake absence in relation to the past. It is used to look away from the challenge and potential of the present and to create a future which is meant to resemble a past that never actually existed.


I figured if we want a creative culture I could model it here by making up my own word for this. A big part of effective work on cultural enhancement is embracing that our cultural development work will never be done. I see that, not as a burden, but as a blessing. If we do our work well, we get the chance to go out and do it again. And if we don’t do it all that well, I suppose at least in the near term, we get to go out and do it again too. As Peter Senge says, “The journey is the reward.”

An industrial and competitive mindset leads us to think linearly. We start, we work, we finish. We’re either a success or a failure. “We’ve arrived.” The ecosystem model helps us think in cycles. If there’s an end, it’s only a point in a circle that we pass by in a few seconds, a point that sits right next to the next point, which some might say is the start. But in nature there’s no real start and no real end. Life builds on life. Problems happen, smiles shine through the sadness. Profits pay for some things, losses lead to reflection and, hopefully, recovery. Part of creating a healthy cultural soil is thinking, appreciating, and working in cycles. We learn to be patient with ourselves while pursuing improvement at the same time.

Joan Chittister writes, “It’s the beauty within us that makes it possible for us to recognize the beauty around us.” I can quickly think of 38 things in our culture right now that need to get better, and I’m committed to working on all of them. At the same time, part of what makes the culture rich and healthy is me remembering, no matter how hard a day I may have, to appreciate the little things even while we’re going after big ones: the deliciously dark crust on a killer loaf of bread from the Bakehouse, the great energy in the eyes of a new staffer I met on Saturday, the smile from a family who’s back in to eat in person for the first time in 15 months, and the sweetness and subtlety of the Rancho Meladuco date I ate in small bites with my coffee this morning. Gil Scott-Heron said, “The revolution will not be televised.” In our world, and in farming, the work will never be done. Cycles and seasons just start anew, and we continue to work to enrich our cultures.

Molly Stevens and I have been good friends for over 30 years. Her cookbooks are incredible and she’s a terrific teacher. She’s one of the people I pick up the phone (see “Working Through Hard Times” for more) to call regularly to get grounded. She wrote this bit about her gardening work at home, but I realized it could easily be transposed onto what we do in business and life and leadership. Her humbleness, self-awareness, commitment to growing and learning, to keep coming back to the garden day after day, year after year, is what it takes to slowly craft the kind of organizational culture most of us want to create. Whatever you do in your life, maybe you can relate to what Molly wrote:

I don’t consider myself a real gardener. Some of this disparity comes from social comparison. In other words, when I look around at the scope and success of my neighbors’ gardens and listen to my friends talk about their enthusiasm for growing things, my own efforts (and energies) pale. Plus, I am surrounded by an impressive number of dedicated and skilled farmers whose products I can buy at nearby farmers’ markets at least 4 days a week during the season. So, it’s no surprise to me that every spring—usually when facing the daunting task of cleaning up last years’ wintered over mess—I wonder why I even bother. But then, I’ll get out there and spend a few hours playing in the dirt—raking up the dead leaves and other debris, checking to see what perennials survived the winter, turning over the soil in the vegetable garden—and, before I know it, I feel a creeping delight and optimism about what my gardens might produce this year.

I feel pretty much the same way. Every morning, I take a deep breath, do my journaling, appreciate the great things, try to get my mind around what I want to do better, and get to work on the Zingerman’s equivalent of “raking up the dead leaves and other debris.” And then, I too, feel optimism, eager to see what wonderful things we can create together in our culture.

Looking for some ways to build your culture? Check out these books and upcoming ZingTrain sessions:

  • The American Dream Game – We did this with all of Zingerman’s managing partners a few months ago—highly recommended!
  • Creating Training Plans that Work – ZingTrain’s “house specialty”! A whole different way to look at training and build the health of your cultural soil while you’re learning!

*** 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!

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