Building the culture of an organization and evolving it could be one of the most challenging, complex, subtle and enriching experiences one could be part of. This article is my understanding of culture and how we can work at strengthening and evolving it. These insights emerge from my own role of building culture in my organization People First Consultants and my work and interactions with my clients.
3 parts of the Culture of any Organization
Culture is the ‘interiority’ of an organization. To me culture has at least three parts:
- This comprises of the stated values, principles, norms, assumptions and beliefs.
- For something to be truly cognitive it needs to be conscious in the present.
- Conscious would mean the intent of the values and principles of the culture are remembered and honored on a day-to-day basis in the action and decisions taken.
- Values and principles can be understood at a surface level and reduced to rules, regulations and guidelines. This is necessary to communicate and share the culture with team members in the organization. However if we stop here we get mere dogmas to represent something as living and dynamic as culture.
- Values and principles can also be understood at a deeper level in terms of its core essence. If we arrive at this layer of essence then the real meaning and import of the culture is understood and internalized and many different forms and methods of honoring it and fulfilling it can be created. Understanding the culture at its core takes us closer to a living experience of culture.
- This comprises of emotions, feelings, energy and drive that are celebrated and directly & indirectly rewarded in the organization.
- This is what is actually felt and present as the day-to-day living part of the culture.
- This often emerges through the energetic and emotional presence of the ‘heroes’, ‘heroines’ and role models of the organization.
- Predominately these are the qualities that are seen as leading to the growth, development and wellbeing of the organization.
- In many organizations the emotional part of a culture is perhaps stronger than the cognitive part. The emotional part is important to sense to understand culture from a living and felt level.
- A good place to look for to understand the emotional part of the culture is at the bonding and clusters of togetherness connections present within members of the organization.
- When some part of a culture is repeated either at a cognitive or emotional level, over a period of time it tends to get unconscious and repetitive.
- The habitual parts of a culture would have two components. First is the core and essential culture of the organization, which is so much internalized now. This is almost like we have lived the culture so much that it is now part of our blood. This is good to have and represents the stability of an organization.
- The second habitual part of the culture is practices that have been merely repeated and thus have become mechanical now. This is the most difficult layer as often it is unconscious and persistent to change. However it is an important layer to be made aware and conscious of, so that what needs to be retained can be retained and what needs to be changed can be changed. This layer requires great tact from the OD consultants and coaches to inspire leaders to become aware of these habits positively and inspire necessary work within themselves and teams to make these conscious.
3 processes operating within culture
Across the cognitive, emotional and habitual parts of culture I have seen three processes simultaneously existing:
1.Permitted / Expressed fractals of Culture
- These are parts of the culture that are celebrated, admired, revered and encouraged to be present and expressed in the organization.
- In its best condition these are inspired in and through people and thus emerge naturally and organically.
- In its reduced condition these are demanded from people and thus come out in a forced and artificial manner.
2.Suppressed Fractals of Culture
- These are emotions, beliefs and assumptions that are suppressed as they are seen by self and others as being out of tune with existing culture.
- However just because something is suppressed it does not disappear, but it often flows covertly and under the guise of some other emotion or behavior.
- For example if positivism and joy are valued in the culture often we will find that frustration, dissent, anger and rebellion are consciously or unconsciously suppressed, put under the carpet and ignored by self and others.
- Unless what is suppressed is heard and transformed it often keeps recurring through different individuals at different times.
3.Evolving Fractals of Culture
Evolving fractals are parts of the culture that are transforming by holding the core and embracing new forms of expression of the culture. This has three simultaneous movements
- Depth: This is the core of the culture that is clearly understood in the collective and is sustained over time, always with an increasing attempt to penetrate into the deeper meanings and living of the same. This is deepening and strengthening the unique flavor or interiority of the organization.
- Widen: This is to consciously accept diverse new elements and characteristics to add to the existing culture. This is to bring in the best from these new elements to enhance the expression of the core culture in many new and evolved ways. This forces a culture not to move into mechanical repetition and makes a culture to be open and aware of new ways of expressing the core.
- Integrate: Allowing the friction between the old and new ways of expressing the core culture to consciously co-exist till there is natural integration. This enables the culture to embrace the new, honor the existing and through both enrich the core.
Conscious Culture Circles
First it is rare for an entrepreneur or a group of leaders to conscious clarity the culture at the birth of an organization. If they do it, then this is a conscious seeding of culture. If not what may emerge is an accidental culture with the base point emerging as what is being currently practiced and held as important in the organization. Whether conscious or accidental, over a period of years the culture stabilizes and the organization has a flavor. We may often find that some portions of culture are nourishing to the employees, clients and overall context and some do not. So periodically there needs to be ‘Conscious Culture Circles’ that are facilitated, to see and draw insights into some of these questions:
- What is our core culture? Are we holding the depth and purity of it, no matter what? Is it alive every day?
- What is the culture that is actually lived today? How do we internalize further the core culture and embody its uniqueness?
- How do we recognize both the surface and deeper understandings of the core culture? Are we asking deep questions to ensure the surface rules & guidelines are aligned to the deeper essence of culture?
- How we shift from merely following some surface rules and guidelines to a more conscious, energetically connected and organically deepening way of living the culture?
- Do we discern parts of the culture that have become habitual and can we bring in more awareness and consciousness into that?
- Can we provide a safe nonjudgmental space for the voices of dissent and suppression to be heard and made transparent in the organization? How can we discern objectively their degree of alignment with the core of the organization, even if they have different ways of expressing them?
- How can we consciously seed in diversity and newness to widen, enrich and integrate old and new embodiments of culture?
- How do we create action plans for changes and interventions to bring within self and teams to further live, embody and evolve the core culture consciously?
Author: Arul Dev, Founder CEO, People First Consultants.
Co-creation: If you are working in this space and have some insights, do offer it in the comments space below. This will help us to share our experiences of working with cultures in organizations.