The Standard Approaches to Fixing Organizational Cultures (and what you can do differently)

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes

There’s an adage related to culture: the fish are the last ones to know they’re in the water. 

A fish wouldn’t be aware of the water surrounding it, anymore than you are consciously aware of the air you breathe. The only time you become conscious of air is when it’s suddenly absent, polluted, or you fall into water.

Culture is like water to fish, and air to you: you were born into it, it’s always been there, and you likely haven’t given it much thought. You become aware of your culture when you are alone for an extended period of time (culture necessarily includes people), it becomes toxic, or you’re placed in a different culture. The more radical the experience, the more conscious you become of your own cultural upbringing. 

There’s another similarity between culture, water, and air: the health of the occupants is partially determined by the health of the environment. Like dirty water or air, if your organization is not obtaining the results you want (i.e., it’s not healthy), your culture is likely the primary cause. 

You now have a clean-up project on your hands. “What am I going to do?” 

This post was written for you. 

Two standard approaches…

When a leader decides to purify their organizational culture, one of two approaches is often used. Neither is particularly effective; sometimes, either only creates more pollution. 

The longer you hold out, the longer you’re losing out on the talent capable of bridging relationships with customers you can’t get.

The first approach involves hiring and promoting only those people whose cultural identity matches leadership. It’s a simple case of allowing our cultural biases (languages, customs, beliefs, rules, norms, and so on) to influence our thinking. It’s a human thing: we associate with those with whom we share the most in common. More often than not, it’s an unconscious process. Even when consciously avoided, it’s easy to slip back into the same patterns. The “right” culture becomes the culture most comfortable to leadership. 

This approach is like adding only those fish suitable for your fish tank. There’s a problem with this approach: the United States has become an increasingly diverse and heterogeneous culture. This means it will become increasingly harder to find, hire, and retain those similar to yourselves, no matter who you are (if it hasn’t happened already). Like the natural environment, your favorite fishing holes (church, friends of colleagues, etc.) will dwindle in number, with more fish spreading out into a growing number of cultural ponds unlike your own. Sooner or later, nobody will be able to take this approach outside of family-owned businesses.  

The longer you hold out, the longer you’re losing out on the talent capable of bridging relationships with customers you can’t get. The majority of potential employees and customers are a wide collection of fish from other environments (cold versus warm water, saltwater; lake, river, ocean; etc), who all share one thing in common: they aren’t like you. In a postmodern world, those who insist on their way or the highway get left on the side of the highway. 

The alternative approach is to take a collection of fish from different environments, dump them into the same homogeneous tank, and demand conformity to that environment, regardless of the shock to the individual or system. In other words, “THE CORPORATE CULTURE” (with all appropriate sound effects) becomes the only acceptable culture, in which all must conform or die. Besides the rapid and ongoing employee turnover created through this approach, it also creates resentment, cynicism, backbiting, and outright hostility between those able to adapt, and those who cannot. 

Like organizations, individuals often react in one of two ways when placed in a different pond: some flee the tank, while others try to change the tank to their own liking. 

These problems will continue, even if victory is yours. People, like fish, tend to be territorial. Once the Sneetches win the war, they’ll form new cliques based on arbitrary distinctions. This process is otherwise known as groupthink, one where reality doesn’t break through the darkened group of employees now arguing among themselves. For another example of this dynamic, see politics. 

One approach focuses on changing out the fish, while the other forces adaptation to the tank. Neither works. The former doesn’t work because people are even more diverse than fish, and there is never enough “perfect fits” for your environment. The latter doesn’t work because you’re demanding from people what they can never give: cutting off a part of themselves before leaving that part at the door, all because it doesn’t conform to your culture.

Both approaches share one commonality: instead of reducing conflict, they increase conflict. The former results in a group increasingly focused on protecting its homogenous view, while the latter increases stress among a group of people inhibited from being themselves in the presence of those disapproving (come to think of it, it’s exactly like politics).  

There is a third approach, one not often tried because it demands more from leaders than it does followers. The solution? 

Join the school of fish.

…and what you can do differently

Like organizations, individuals often react in one of two ways when placed in a different pond: some flee the tank, while others try to change the tank to their own liking. 

How will you know when the tank needs cleaning? When you see it too. How will you know when your great plan is not working? When they tell you. When will they start telling you? When they feel comfortable that you are one of them. 

In contrast, a select few will decide to set aside their own cultural preferences before embracing the current cultural environment. They’re not bothered by swimming in ponds other than their own. In fact, they have experience swimming in many different ponds, whether across a continent, or across the street. These people know (or are about to learn) something most do not.

How do you unify a herd of cats? Put out the food they all eat in common. 

Instead of fussing over their own preferences, these people work towards meeting the preferences of others. Build your culture around their efforts. When you do, others will follow. You’re no longer trying to make your organizational culture into this or that. 

Instead, you remove the emphasis on this or that, focusing instead on whatever helps your group to meet the goals and needs they share in common (which, of course, means actually knowing what they share in common. Whether from warm or cold water, salt or freshwater, ponds, lakes, or oceans, they’re still fish. Successful leaders meet the needs of their followers and this means jumping into the school with them as one more person with goals and needs. 

How will you know when the tank needs cleaning? When you see it too. How will you know when your great plan is not working? When they tell you. When will they start telling you? When they feel comfortable that you are one of them. 

By the way, the culture follows the leader, meaning that, before they can become comfortable with you, you have to be comfortable with them. Now you know why many don’t take the golden road – the select few are just that, by choice. 

When you swim with the school, combining your efforts with theirs in a common struggle, a new cultural core begins to form. Modeling combines with coaching and teaching, initiating a transformation from within. 

Want a healthier organizational culture? Get out of your tank and into theirs.

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