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Organizational Culture

Shifting a Culture “from V to A”

Shifting an ecosystem in ecologically sound ways

In the spirit of picking up the phone that I wrote about in “Working Through Hard Times,” I dialed the number of a friend the other evening. She’s an amazing leader who lives halfway across the country. Someone who is humble, focused, and persistently positive in her leadership. She has vision, she’s grounded, and determined to do the right thing—and has been living servant leadership for years.

A few months ago, she made the move to a new organization, not because she was unhappy in her previous position, but more because she felt like this new opportunity gave her a shot at doing even more meaningful work in a field in which it was very much needed. The company of which she had been CEO before, is huge. This new job sounds like it’s about ten times the size. It’s so much bigger than the scale we work at here, that I can’t really get my mind around it. Clearly she can, and does. I’m confident that she will slowly but surely make really meaningful things happen.

While many aspects of this long-established company she’s now leading are already working well, there are others that would benefit from improvement. That is why she’s there. As she works, slowly but surely, to help remake the culture into something more positive, she and I have talked a bit about how folks in this new setting had become rather passive in their approach over the years. Well meaning, and certainly working hard every day, but still, many had become kind of quiet victims of circumstances that they felt were way beyond anything they could influence. I’m guessing that at this company, as is true in so many places, people have “decent” jobs. Benefits are good and so is the pay, so sticking with the status quo for many folks starts to seem the most “reasonable” strategy. The impact of that mindset on the organizational ecosystem isn’t great—it leads to a slow but steady diminishment of health. Hope dims. Beliefs steadily become negative. Fear of failure starts to outweigh the drive to make a difference. Low grade, quiet anger and cynicism sneak in. As Jared Himstedt, the musician behind a great album entitled Wild Okra (and now the head distiller at Balcones Distilling), said in one of his songs, “There is darkness and anger, where patience and tenderness should be.”

When my friend filled me in on all this, to be clear, she wasn’t complaining. What she described is essentially the energy crisis in the workplace in Secret #19 in Part 2. These are well meaning people who have been disempowered by the ecosystem in which they’ve been working for so many years. And as Thich Nhat Hanh says:

When you plant lettuce, if it does not grow well, you don’t blame the lettuce. You look for reasons it is not doing well. It may need fertilizer, or more water, or less sun. You never blame the lettuce. Yet if we have problems… we blame the other person. But if we know how to take care of them, they will grow well, like the lettuce. Blaming has no positive effect at all, nor does trying to persuade using reason and argument. That is my experience. No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding. If you understand, and you show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.

Where to even begin then? The industrial model teaches us to look for a singular solution, the quick fix which can improve things immediately, or to purchase a few new parts that will quickly have the “engine humming again.” Unfortunately—or maybe, fortunately—nature doesn’t work that way. One can make stock trades online in about six seconds, but it still takes many years to nurse the soil back to health and rebalance an ecosystem.

Secret #28 in Part 2 is called “Moving Your Organization from V to A.” The “V” stands for “victim mindset.” The “A” is for “active,” or, if you like, “anarchist.” The subtitle is “18 Dos and Don’ts of Better Management.” I have done them all both poorly and well over the years, so I feel confident saying that if one consistently does the things on the “A” list and steers super clear of the ones on the “V” list, the organization will slowly but very surely shift towards the positive. In the years since Secret #28 first appeared in print, I’ve done, as many of you know, a lot of other learning—organizational ecosystems, beliefs, hope, and other things have been on my mind a lot. As I pondered the rather daunting challenge my friend is facing, I put together this additional list of things that can help move your team (and yourself) from V to A. The ecosystem model reminds me that, regardless of the size of the organization you’re leading, all of them matter and all are important. Experiment, adjust, trust your gut, and try a few more. And, as Thich Nhat Han said, “No blame, no reasoning, no argument, just understanding… show that you understand, you can love, and the situation will change.”

Write a vision for the future—Of late I’ve written a lot about the value of visioning, and there is even more in the books. It’s a hugely powerful tool to help people see a future in which their lives and their work will be better, one in which they’re engaged and active. As Rebecca Walker, co-author of What’s Your Story?, says, “Writing it down is transformative… Writing is a declarative, powerful, alchemical experience. It is beyond our understanding. It is this time’s iteration of the ancient tradition of telling stories.”

Help people change their beliefs—When people have been allowed no meaningful say in the way their work is organized, or how the company they’re a part of is run over a long period of time, it’s almost inevitable that the outcome will be what philosopher Rollo May called “passivism.” Positive psychologist Martin Seligman says it’s “Learned Helplessness”—the negative belief that we cannot make a meaningful positive difference, so why even bother trying? One of the ways Seligman suggested addressing this is through what he called “Learned Optimism.” Teaching people to choose positive beliefs about themselves and their organization, the ability to have a positive impact, etc. Read up on the self-fulfilling belief cycle in Secret #40 and you’ll see just how hugely powerful this shift is likely to be.

Engage and include—When leaders reach out to me for guidance on enhancing their organizational culture, I usually ask them what it is that they’re trying to achieve. A common response: “I just want people to feel more engaged.” I smile every time. It’s not as difficult as I believe they’re making it out to be. My question back: “Why don’t you just engage them?” Ask them the same sort of questions you would ask your business partner, your CFO, your board of advisors, or your best friend? It works well one on one, and in groups too. Start meetings with icebreakers so everyone talks. Open your meetings to anyone on staff who wants to attend. Share information lavishly. Engage your staff in additional parts of the organization that aren’t in their day-to-day work (here we call it One + One). Open your books. Appreciate. Invite opinions. As Terry Tempest Williams writes, “In a voiced community, we all flourish.”

Honor the input—In situations where we need to rebalance our ecosystem, consider overweighting our leadership paths towards those whose voice has been left out. Sometimes the best thing for the organization in the big picture is not the best idea in the moment. Given two different inputs—one that you think is slightly less great from a staff person and another that’s slightly better from someone higher in the hierarchy, if you can, go with the staff person’s suggestion. As Peter Block writes, “There are too many people in our communities whose gifts remain on the margin.” Instead, we can welcome them in.

Help bring out the artist in everyone—If you believe, as I wrote in “The Art of Business” that everyone is creative, then helping bring out the artist in each of the people we work with is always a good idea. No one who looks at their life like it’s a meaningful work of art in the making is bored, cynical or indifferent. They may be anxious, but they believe in what they’re doing and they’re eager to go do it. The drive to learn, to find and share beauty, and to make creative new connections becomes the norm. It’s true today, in 2021, more than ever. As Lebanese musician Lynn Adib said, “Creating art in this time is not a choice, but a matter of survival.”

Purpose—I wrote a bunch about purpose a few months ago. People who have been taught to work without purpose are, in the ecosystem metaphor, not getting enough air. Spiritually they will slowly but surely suffocate. Their energy lags. Settling for so-so starts to seem perfectly fine. Helping staff see how much impact their work can have helps breathe new life into everything they do.

Be vulnerable—As many of you already know, this is the basis of Brené Brown’s good work: “Vulnerability is not winning or losing; it’s having the courage to show up and be seen when we have no control over the outcome.” Leaders who let staff know that they aren’t always sure what to do, that they need help, and that making mistakes is inevitable will build credibility and encourage creative collaboration in the process.

Teach free choice—As I wrote about extensively in Secret #32, most of the country has been trained to argue loudly for “freedom,” but at the same time, to act as if they have little or no choice in what’s happening in their lives. We’re trained to blame bosses, spouses, coworkers, customers, and suppliers. Conversely, owning our choices—and ultimately owning our lives—quickly, quietly and effectively erodes the victim mindset. While there are always consequences, we do have choice. I know this is much easier for me to say than for someone who is struggling every day to pay rent. As leaders we can help others to consciously reframe things, to, as Peter Block says, “claim their own freedom.” Edith Eva Eger, positive psychologist and Hungarian Holocaust survivor, makes the point powerfully,

…victimhood comes from the inside. No one can make you a victim but you. We become victims not because of what happens to us but when we choose to hold on to our victimization. We develop a victim’s mind—a way of thinking and being that is rigid, blaming, pessimistic, stuck in the past, unforgiving, punitive, and without healthy limits or boundaries. We become our own jailors when we choose the confines of the victim’s mind.

Encourage self-awareness—Self-reflective, self-aware, mindful team members will make mistakes but they’ll be mistakes of the best kind—good folks trying to do the right thing after giving serious collaborative thought to the actions they’re about to take. As John Gardner, a Republican who served as Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare under the Democrat Lyndon Johnson, said, “One of your most fundamental tasks is the renewal of the organizations you serve, and that usually includes persuading the top officers to accomplish a certain amount of self-renewal. But to help you think about others is not my primary mission this morning. I want to help you think about yourselves.”

Lead with love—Once an organizational ecosystem has slowly but surely become healthy—and certainly still imperfect—the love will begin to manifest. But as leaders at any level, we don’t have to wait. We can choose love as the first ingredient in any action we take. It’s not about saying “love” aloud all day, but rather about imbuing love’s essence into all our words, our actions and our intentions.

Dig into the culture gently and patiently—In the context of an ecosystem, there are no quick fixes, which is painful to those of us who are impatient (that’s me). As Edgar Schein said, “Culture is deep. Culture is broad. Culture is shockingly stable.” Moving into the ecosystem in nature, in his new book Underland: A Deep Time Journey, Robert McFarlane talks about scientist Suzanne Simard who went into the forest to study and “peered below the understory, into the ‘black box’ of the soil—a notoriously challenging realm of study for biologists.” Simard says that, “Metaphorically… the ‘understory’ is… the sum of the entangled, ever-growing narratives, histories, ideas, and words that interweave to give a wood or forest its diverse life in culture.” Understanding the “understory” is equally challenging on the organizational end of the metaphor in which soil is the culture. It takes time, patience, and gentle attention. Gradually, slow and steady improvements, made in the same way a sustainable farmer or skilled forester would work, will eventually add up to a big positive difference.

Just putting this list together I started to feel like I was moving into a bit of overwhelm. Yet this list is just the beginning. There are a thousand entry points towards making our ecosystems healthier over time; hope, humility, leading with dignity, servant leadership, the spirit of generosity, energy management, and ethical leadership all matter. Having systems like Bottom-Line Change or LEAN with which folks can learn to lead with help a lot. I remind myself that in nature there is never one fix. That each change we initiate will in turn trigger ten or twenty more. That all of this is about incremental, in-the-moment, small changes. The late great Stas’ Kazmierski always used to tell us to simply begin where we felt best about starting and where we felt like we could most meaningfully make a difference. And as my friend Shawn Askinosie says, “Before the organization can begin finding its collective vocation, the culture of dignity, appreciation, kindness, and community should be established. However, if you wait until the climate is perfect then you’ll never move on to the next phase.”

While in our fantasies we want everything fixed in a few weeks, nature moves much, much, more slowly. The work will never be done. Still, one day, here and there, you might look up and, as has happened to me for a few minutes at various points, look around and realize just how many great people and how much great work is happening around you. As someone told me the other day, the point isn’t the pot at the end of the rainbow—it’s the rainbow. And in the ecosystem metaphor, I’ll remind myself as much as you, rainbows appear when the sun (“hope”) hits moisture (“the spirit of generosity”) for a few minutes, at just the right angle. This, I remind myself, is the point. As Toni Morrison said, “Beauty was not simply something to behold; it was something one could do.”

*** 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!