Culture. Nations have them, communities, companies and even families all have them. Culture is a set of behaviours, the means of knowing who and what belongs. How to act and the way that decisions are made. Often, it is created without a lot of conscious thought. How things are done, are just, well, how they are done. If you had a chance to change a culture that you belong to, would you? And if you could, how would you?

Or, what if you were starting something from the ground up? What information would you use to create the culture you want?

Yesterday I sat in on a meeting of members of a new committee from various social service organizations. They are working towards creating a brand-new organization. One meant to serve the mental health needs of the youth in the community and surrounding area. In their discussions, they rightly noted that a part of the plan must include culture. Kudos to them for recognizing this need. They have a tall task ahead of them.

No doubt you have seen headlines about the best places to work, but what makes them stand out places? It may not be exactly what you think. While salaries, health plans and vacation are all important, it’s what happens in the day to day work experiences that make for places people want to be. Consider the fact that people spend at least one third of their day at work. The interactions that happen there are integral to our happiness. Not just at work, but outside of it too.

Cultural belonging and identity

In the book the Culture Code, author Daniel Coyle, talks about what makes for a successful culture and what doesn’t. Providing multiple examples,  Coyle suggests it is Safety, Vulnerability and Purpose, that sets great cultures apart. Be they sports teams, restaurants or movie studios.

Consider safety for a moment. What does that mean to you? Is it about having the freedom to present a new idea, share information about a project that isn’t going well or contribute to a conversation? It could be all those things, but at the root, as Coyle notes, is a sense of belonging and identity. More than just who shows up for work in a group, it is about the level of connection that members feel.

When you go into a group as a newcomer, you often observe and search for the clues as to who belongs and how they interact with each other. How and when do people talk to each other and how do they tackle problems?

One of the challenges for any new company or organization is to ensure that knowledge silos don’t develop. The protection of knowledge can supersede the greater purpose of the people being served. Creating a new multi-organizational structure presents both opportunities and challenges. How well will they do? Well, that depends.

A culture of trust

To share knowledge and information there must be trust and where does that come from? It’s built on vulnerability, a word we don’t often think of within the work culture. However, this is where the opportunity to really be there and support each other shows up. It gives you the chance to be yourself, to be imperfect and still acceptable. A strong culture learns how to foster vulnerability as a strength instead of a weakness and this must include the leadership. By admitting to a need for the help of others, be that with input, feedback or in practical means, it opens a different dynamic.

When I was creating a volunteer program from the ground up, I found that by seeking the input of the few current volunteers and the staff in all the departments, I opened pathways of communication. Instead of pretending I knew exactly what was needed, what was working, I asked the people whom I was looking to lead and to support.

That willingness to say “I don’t know what you need, what’s worked before and what hasn’t, please tell me”, built a strong foundation from which to grow. I have been told many times, by the staff there, that it was the best volunteer program they’d ever had. Why? Because by opening to my vulnerability, we could begin to create relationships of trust.

Many leaders don’t do this, believing it undermines confidence in their ability to lead. And, while it seems risky perhaps to exhibit that vulnerability, it must occur for trust to develop. As researcher and author Brene Brown notes, it’s not trust and then vulnerability. It’s vulnerability that builds trust. Of course it needs to be authentic and it also needs to happen often. in the small daily moments in which we interact. It’s not about big shows of vulnerability, but what happens day to day. Over time, this becomes the culture.

Show me a shared purpose and I’ll show you a great culture.

Coyle’s final point is that a strong culture has a shared purpose. This is not the mission statement, or at least not in the way that many companies think of it. Rather than a plaque on the wall, it is the heart of how priorities are determined.  It isn’t enough to say that the company provides X to Z. A shared purpose outlines the priorities in how to achieve the big goal. Over time the priorities may shift but they will always be in line with how everyone serves the bigger goal and how they serve each other.

It is the ongoing efforts of everyone, not just the “decision makers” at the top that drive home the purpose.

Create safety, trust and shared purpose and it is doubtful that you will hear someone, including a boss, say “that’s not my job”. Because of course, within the larger context, the best leaders are the ones just as willing to empty a garbage can as they are to lead the meeting.

If we don’t feel our individual efforts are a part of the bigger picture, if we are just cogs in a wheel, or part of a departmental silo, then it is far easier to remove ourselves from the meaning behind our work. Check out with the brain and then the feet.

For that fledgling organization, as it looks to create a new way of bringing mental health services to the youth, they are right to think of culture. Not only will the employees be happier and more engaged, but the people they serve will feel the difference too.

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