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.

The virtuous cycle of confidence

Most people are desperate to learn how they can build their confidence. For what I have found is that there are very few on this planet who feel genuinely self-confident. Even many who appear to ooze confidence actually live in a turmoil of inner self-doubt. What an unfortunate lot we humans are. Sure, a good proportion of us have every reason to lack confidence. (‘Don’t worry about that inferiority complex,’ the therapist comforts, ‘you’re just inferior.’) But even many who have amply earned the right to self-confidence – through their sizzling track record – have not managed to get there.

Over the years I have developed a way of helping people with their confidence. (Including me… eventually!) I first work on what enables confidence, and then tantalise with what it in turn enables. I have my tentative charges start by looking back on their achievements, and as they list them I invite them to explain these achievements in terms of the strengths that enabled them… achievement by achievement.

When I carry out this exercise with young people their first reaction is almost invariably to tell me it’s not possible, as they feel they haven’t yet achieved anything to speak of. But I soon show them this is far from true, and off we go. At all ages, I find it common that people understate their achievements, take them for granted, or simply forget key ones. And the same with strengths.

The reason for starting with achievements is that, unlike if one goes straight to strengths, achievements are tangible. And then as the exercise proceeds, it becomes obvious that without some underlying strengths (OK, and occasional luck) there could have been no successes. That way there’s no possibility of denying or avoiding coming to terms with them.

So, achievements, explained by strengths. Great – now it’s time for celebrating. But wait. Normal humble mortals – and certainly the British, definitely Kenyans – find this inordinately hard to do. Indeed they feel it’s most inappropriate, this blowing of one’s own trumpet… even to oneself. And the unfortunate consequence is that the shyness stands in the way of making the vital link to the self-esteem to which these unproud folk have earned the right. ‘Please go ahead,’ I beg, ‘I give you permission to enjoy looking back over the great things you have done, and at the strengths that enabled them.’

Unless you have linked achievements and strengths to self-esteem, you cannot take the next step to self-confidence. And I say again, many do not. Some of the most successful people, people bursting with endless talents, are among the most insecure and with the lowest self-esteem. The intelligent imagine themselves to be stupid; the beautiful are convinced of their ugliness; the creative insist on telling us how barren of imagination they are. Usually by comparison to – idealised – others.

Low self-esteem cannot but erode self-confidence. Just as high self-esteem is a must for healthy self-confidence. Note the ‘healthy’. For I’m not talking about hype. And I’m certainly not advocating cockiness. Indeed those who walk about with misplaced self-esteem and unjustified self-confidence are an absolute menace.

The next step is to explore what self-confidence enables. Easy: it enables boldness, the willingness to entertain risk and to go after big challenges. Oh, and the willingness to confront our weaknesses too, those that risk holding us back. Boldness in turn opens the door to more successes. OK, also to some failures. But for people with high self-esteem and high self-confidence, they find the strength to treat failures as opportunities for learning. Achievements by a different name.

Achievements – whether triumphs or mere opportunities for learning – are immediately available to feed self-esteem, and so the virtuous cycle of confidence is established.

If only more young people could be introduced to this cycle. Instead our parents, our teachers, our first bosses, far prefer merely to focus on where we need to do better, where we must ‘pull up our socks’. ‘Why is your maths still below par?’ stern parents enquire, for they want their little ones to be great performers, in all departments. But what such quest for comprehensive perfection can breed is precisely the kind of anxiety, the sense of inadequacy, that we must surely avoid as we pass through our formative years.

It’s not that we shouldn’t be good at maths. It’s just that performance appraisal is too often reduced to exception reporting. All the good stuff is taken for granted, and we hammer away at the weak points. For otherwise, it is said, the little person will lower their standards, become complacent. Will they? Or will they feel so discouraged by the shortfall in maths that it will affect their self-esteem and confidence in other areas too? How many people of great potential have failed to fulfil it thanks to the unintended consequence of going after failures and weaknesses at the expense of celebrating successes and strengths?

But even if we once were that child who was taught early in life that nothing we ever did was good enough, it’s not too late. That child may now be the CEO of a major corporation or a judge or be playing football for Kenya. They may wear elegant suits or horsehair wigs or drive a fancy SUV. But inside there may well be elements of that earlier little insecure person buried within them.

If that CEO or judge or footballer is reading this article I hope it helps him or her. It will require some quiet contemplative time in which to think back over their lives. When were and are they at their most successful? What factors were and are present? What strengths were and are on display?

Feel good about it, damnit. Relax. No complacency now. No smugness. Just feel the self-esteem flowing through. Not from puffed-up hype. Simply from evidence-based triumphs. A straightforward recollection of all those hard achievements… which would not have been possible without all those great strengths.

Why being nice to customers is a good idea

I started writing this at 30,000ft, over the Sahara Desert, where Virgin Atlantic was pampering me to death – and I wasn’t even installed in their uppermost class. ALL Virgin staff, whether in their office or at the airport or in the sky, are permanently, relentlessly friendly and cheerful. And genuinely so. It doesn’t seem to require a big effort. It’s not training. It’s just the way they are.

The airline does a great job looking for such good people when they recruit. And in reflection of Richard Branson’s bubbly personality, they’re encouraged to be their full joyous selves once they join. They’re genuinely pleased to be with you and to serve you, and you can’t help but be put in the best of moods by them. Their smiling enthusiastic culture is deeply infectious, better than any spa, any therapist.

And there’s more to this positive attitude. Their people display a generosity of spirit that constantly aches to do MORE for us, to exceed our highest expectations consistently. They keep coming round to ask if we’d like a glass of water, or perhaps some other drink. They cruise through with trays of refreshing juice, with soothing hot towels, with whatever they can think of that will give us pleasure, make us feel spoiled.

So many organisations proclaim they want to go the extra mile for their customers. Not a few manage to persuade themselves they actually do. But you and I know that, anywhere in the world, hardly any even manage to make it through the first mile, never mind subsequent ones. For the vast majority, ‘exceeding customer expectations’ remains an empty slogan, a lifeless value on a stale list (that probably also includes ‘respect’ and ‘integrity’ and other ideals that exist only as wishful thinking).

It’s always puzzled me why the world is this way, why so many customer-facing people, from the most senior to the most junior, are so palpably indifferent to their customers, often downright mean and rude. Even if there’s no competition, what kind of minds are at work, what souls inhabit these unfriendly, unresponsive vendors? What inhibits them? Why do they feel they’ve been prohibited from being nice to customers, that it would somehow be a betrayal of what their employers really want?

I say this remembering my only ever flight – and long may it remain so – with one of the largest American airlines. After being soundly and gratuitously abused by one of their ground staff, a colleague of his, trying to make amends, confided in me that he would sometimes berate her for being ‘too nice to customers’! I could hardly believe it, but given the way he’d behaved with me and some of my fellow passengers, his philosophy was obviously based on the assumption that we customers are but an indisciplined source of irritation.

Surely there’s a cure for this dreadful sickness: tell those who serve customers (ie just about everyone, one way or another) that they indeed have permission to smile and to be polite, to be responsive and reliable, to deliver quality and to go the extra mile. It’s OK, we allow it. We encourage it. Excuse me, we insist on it! Be happy. Make others happy. Simple.

While in London I went to a nice little Italian restaurant on the Strand that has been going for over forty years. All the waiters are jolly, and long before the end of the meal we felt they were our friends. (I’m happy to say this isn’t so unusual in Kenya.) They wanted us to enjoy the food and the service, and they wanted us to leave feeling we were happy we came.

I don’t how much those waiters think about the emotional link they create, or about the loyalty they build. But their warmth is exactly what makes us want to repeat the experience. We’d even be prepared to pay a little more for their tender loving care, preferring their brand over others and so making it our first choice. Many organisations tell us their vision is to be the whatever ‘of choice’?  But how many have the slightest idea about how to have us become addicted to dealing with them, forsaking all others? Pathetically few.

Too many companies are so obsessed with controlling costs, with making sure no customer walks away with any tiny amount more than they’ve paid for. They’d rather die than offer a concession after disappointing or irritating us. But they’re so concerned about being wonderfully cost-efficient they completely lose sight of the bigger picture – and that their very efficiency completely overwhelms their overall effectiveness.

We customers feel the meanness. Yes, feel: we’re human, we have emotions… and we vote with our feet. We go elsewhere, to someone who understands what it takes to satisfy our need to be treated well. We want quality and we want a good price and speedy delivery and all those things. But it can all be for nothing unless we feel welcomed.

For this to happen when it most counts it’s vital to empower those down the ladder. They see when there’s been a service failure, and they’re the ones who should there and then use discretion, not feeling bound by restrictive systems and rules that provide easy justification for saying ‘no’. By the way, on my return journey with Virgin, their in-flight entertainment system refused to work. So being Virgin they were ready with their ‘pole’: a printed ‘Sorry’ form for each of their passengers, awarding us all a bunch of extra air miles. Perfect.

People buy from people. And we’d far rather buy from friendly helpful ones, who enjoy dealing with their product or service, and who enjoy dealing with us. So relax. Smile. Not because you’ve been trained to. Not because it’s hard work. But because that’s the social you, the full, natural you. You’ll live a healthier life, and a longer one… and you’ll have lots and lots of customers who can’t wait to spend their money with you.