What emerging research teaches us about workplace culture change.
“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker
If you are one of our clients or collaborators, or even if you have stumbled upon this post by chance, I certainly don’t need to tell you that having a diversity of perspectives in your workplace is a good investment. This is a well-settled fact. Organizations with ethnically diverse boards and executive teams were up to 35 percent more likely to outperform their more homogeneous peers. For gender, it is 15 percent [Check out this heavily cited McKinsey study]. The challenge, of course, is how do we get there, if we don’t have strong diversity already?
One of the areas of business that can cause the most confusion and challenges is around the value that strategy is of a higher value than workplace culture. Perhaps the easiest way to describe this is that strategy is an objective plan for your business or organization. A business plan is an example of a defined strategy for a business. A grant proposal is another. The strategy is simply an idea of the best way to get from point A to point B, assuming all goes well and according to plan. Well, we know that things sometimes do not go well. In fact, things can go south and the common denominator when this happens is the people.
I like to think of people as the culture, with the tone for that culture being set by the leadership of the company.
After a company strategy is defined, the financing secured, the leaders assembled, it is time for the secret sauce- the culture. The people. The people are the ones who are in charge of implementing the strategy. Now, if your strategy for your company is being implemented by robots from the same make and model, then read no further. You don’t need to cultivate culture. You are set. Of course, I am kidding, but I am also not. Leaders I have worked with who lead from a dominant leadership style do forget that the people on their team are not robots. I can sympathize, as running a business is incredibly difficult, with so many moving parts, and people are typically the biggest potential variable to whether the company’s strategy gets implemented. Many leaders’ impulsive response to this is to say things like, “It is my way, or the highway.” Or, “In this company we do it X way and we don’t have room for Y or Z ways.”
So, if you have a dynamic team, of different ages, genders, ethnicities, nationalities, and so on, then please join me in this inquiry. Because I have found, even for those of us who claim to be the masters of culture, there are a few things to still to learn.
One way to better know your company’s culture is to ask yourself this question:
How well do the people in your company interact, collaborate, communicate and care for one another?
If your answer is- “not very well, thank you,” then hold up one moment before you act. These actions usually include calling an urgent leadership team meeting, scheduling one on one meetings, or hiring an outside consultant. The good news is that you can act, but that the answer to how to start building culture is that it starts with you.
To create a culture of belonging it is helpful to start with yourself and whether you feel, and as demonstrated through your actions, that you interact, collaborate, communicate and care for your team. If you are feeling a block on how to improve your actions and feelings in this area, consider following some of the great thought leaders who are supporting mindfulness for leaders. Cornelia Cannon Holden and her company, Mindful Warrior, is one example (a small disclaimer: she is one of our clients). I also love the latest book by Marc Lesser, The Seven Practices of a Mindful Leader. Both of these thought leaders encourage a regular practice of mindfulness for their leader clients. I am also a huge fan of the work of the Strozzi Institute with tools that can be implemented during the workday to reinforce a mindfulness leadership style.
I have practiced mindfulness myself for the past several years and have found that it helps foster joy, humility, empathy and perspective, all of which help me support a culture of belonging at my company and for my client’s companies as well. I am also developing a somatic practice, which has helped me stay centered on my leadership style throughout my workday.
The neuroscience that supports a mindful practice is quite simple. If our brains are calm and resilient then we can support our people by being a calm and resilient presence. This, of course, is easier said than done, but when committing to diversity, this is critical. It is very hard to have empathy for the people on your team, if their experience is different than yours. If you cannot have empathy for those whose experiences are different than yours, then you certainly will not be able to support a culture of belonging. And belonging is the critical factor for maintaining diversity over time.
The most common human emotions that keep people from performing at a sustainable level have to do with pain, isolation, longing, shame, and a feeling that somehow one is less than perfect. The antidote to these emotions is a culture of belonging. If the concept of belonging is new to you, try out these four questions, from Lesser’s book:
- What groups do you belong to?
- When do you feel as though you don’t belong?
- What undercuts your feelings of belonging?
- What supports your feelings of belonging?
If you feel comfortable with your abilities to be calm and resilient, due to some regular mindfulness practice you maintain (or you were simply born with an extraordinarily calm brain), consider what it might look like to ask your leadership team or people to answer these questions for themselves and then to consider a final question: What can our company do to help you feel like you really belong? See what you can do to listen with curiosity to the answer and consider how you might fit a solution into your weekly key performance indicators for your company. Because McKinsey.
I hope you have fun with this one! And of course, if you have any trouble along the way, please feel free to check out our Become a Client page if you would like to work with us in incorporating these ideas into your company’s legal and organizational strategy.