Management Consultant Mike Eldon

Building a healthy culture

Imagine you’re an invisible person touring the world’s organisations. What will you see and hear? What vibrations will be coming from those who work there, from leaders, from support staff, from this or that department? Will the vibrations be pleasing? Will you resonate serenely to the high and aligned energy? Will the faces be smiling? In some, perhaps yes. But in many it’s more likely that there will be an almost permanent tension, an ongoing sense of conflict and unease.

Worse still, from top to bottom there’s often a sense that this unease is inevitable. It’s always been there and it always will be. Because we human beings, most believe, are a selfish and unreliable lot. We don’t trust or respect each other… and we’re right not to. Our deep insecurities put us in a permanently defensive mode and one of our greatest competencies, derived from deep experience and practice, is in finding others to blame for what has gone wrong.

But wait. You did see that some organisations have managed to defy this ‘normal’ state. How did they do it? How did they build a healthy culture? Let me tell you, it doesn’t come naturally, and it doesn’t come easily. Those who have found ways have worked very hard not only to build alignment but to maintain what they have created. For we also have to acknowledge that if there’s anything more difficult than getting a group of people to develop ways of working well with each other it is to keep it up. Never mind if the composition of the team changes.

Those with healthy cultures invest considerable time in working at it. They know that if they succeed, the returns on the investment will be transformative. (Those who don’t spend time on such issues are convinced the whole culture-building thing is a waste of time – time that could be far better spent just ‘getting on with the work’.)

How do successful culture champions spend time on it? They talk. They indulge in deep, thoughtful, respectful, appreciative conversations that are filled with goodwill and good intent. They seek feedback from each other, ensuring that no significant gap exists between the messages they intend to get across and what actually does. And they are emotionally intelligent people, who know how to pass delicate messages without giving undue offence.

They not only get better at saying what they mean, they are the kind of people who mean what they say: they are reliable, responsible folk, whom others trust. And because this is the prevailing culture, the way people do things in their environment, then in addition to being trustworthy members of this healthy culture are also trusting of each other.

These people engage in big groups, they do so in small groups, and not least they do so one on one. They are open with each other, very open. They are open with their appreciation of each other, and they are open with where they would like their colleagues to do things differently.

Their style is likely to boil down to an exchange of offers and requests. For most people, it’s the requests that more readily come to mind. But what we need to accept is that the more generous we are with counterbalancing offers the more easy will it be for the ones with whom we are ‘negotiating’ to agree to our requests.

In high performance teams such negotiating takes place with a graceful generosity of spirit. And generosity requires boldness. For the offers may well require sacrifice and inconvenience, but we make them willingly, knowing the compensating hoped for rewards. It is only if we are prepared to make ourselves vulnerable, if we are willing to take a risk, that we earn the right to expect good things to emerge.

In any group – never mind one that is willing to take risks – mistakes and failures will occur. But in high performance teams, when this happens it is not the signal for the unleashing of that far too common phenomenon, the blame game to which I referred earlier. Instead, there follows a dispassionate analysis of what individuals and teams can learn from the unfortunate experience, in order to avoid a repetition. There is an acceptance of what happened, with no crying over spilt milk and no recriminations. If one or more people have performed poorly, there is sympathy, forgiveness… and support.

I really admire teams that retire to a retreat simply in order to strengthen their cultures. It takes faith that it will be a worthwhile investment of their time, and it takes guts – not least on the part of the leaders – to be willing to expose themselves in front of their colleagues. In my experience the organisations that are most likely to indulge in such activity are those that are already ahead of the pack. They wish to refresh their culture, to push the envelope, to inject yet more positive energy into their human system.

As the retreat unfolds surprises are normal. Individuals are confronted with unexpected feedback. Sometimes, and often with the quieter, humbler folk, it is unexpectedly positive, as a result of which they glow with enhanced confidence. And sometimes – not infrequently with the noisier ones – it can be quite destabilising. For the first time those with whom they interact regularly, maybe their peers, maybe their juniors, have found a safe space in which to tell them how much they inhibit others, how abrasive they appear, how domineering.

I have observed situations where the one being told they come across in a certain unfavourable way emerge from such workshops with significantly changed behaviour. But I have also witnessed conversations where the assertive style of a boss was quite misinterpreted by some around them, and where this provided an opportunity for easy and accepted clarification. ‘I had no idea I was coming across like that,’ some say. ‘It was not at all my intention, and in future please be quick to let me know if I am.’

Many boisterous leaders, who naturally throw around a lot of energy, do so partly to energise others. Unfortunately it doesn’t always work that way. And it takes a company retreat to find out.