The Experience Many Leaders Miss (and how to gain it)

(Estimated reading time: 7 minutes)

How well do you know your followers? 

If you’re like many managers and leaders, the answer is “not much.” Time is always the challenge: the constant drumbeat of operational tasks interferes with the kind of in-depth conversations necessary for learning about them and their challenges. This dynamic is true for all leaders throughout any given organization, regardless of position in the hierarchy.

Some organizations recognize this problem, sponsoring efforts like company picnics for increasing association and building relationships. Although better than nothing at all, such activities result in leaders and followers knowing each other in only one way: as coworkers. 

The problem, of course, is that each of your followers is more than a mere employee. 

Regardless of the quality of the relationships, your association likely ends with the end of the workday. You commute back to your neighborhood, while they commute back to theirs. This disconnect between you and your followers is far greater than different neighborhoods. It also includes different associations, hobbies, interests, families, upbringing, heredities, religions, ideologies, education levels, values and norms, to name just a few. 

In short, you don’t know your employees because you don’t know their culture. 

And, if you think they’re like you, you’re living a lie, one likely reflected in your broken organizational culture.

A wider world

The differences between your world and theirs are not readily apparent on the surface. Modern society camouflages our differences with broader, culturally enforced themes (such as consumerism, or commonly shared forms of entertainment). Peel back the veneer, and you’ll realize that all of these numerous and subtle differences are having an impact on the relationships within your organization. 

Digital mediums have exposed a massive cover-up, one we unconsciously lived in for many generations: we are not a homogenous nation. Why this happened is the subject of another post, but the important thing to note is that we are not a homogenous nation, but a heterogeneous nation, one increasingly fracturing into tribes along a multitude of cultural lines. We are in the midst of a cultural war, and it’s only growing worse through our use of digital silos and echo-chambers. 

This continual conflict outside the walls of your organization is a primary source of conflict in your organization. The conflicts experienced in many organizations are only surface tensions. Most (if not all) of your followers are constantly simmering under a low heat fueled by cultural conflicts, delivered each day to their smartphones and digital devices.

Resolving any conflict requires knowing the source of the conflict (the device is not the only problem). How do you gain awareness and understanding of these outside sources when you have little time for interaction? 

You can’t engage with their culture as the boss. 

The same way you learn about any other culture: by immersing yourself in that culture. 

Those who have lived abroad already know this. Immersing yourself in another culture provides expansive knowledge of the human experience, highlighting what you have always taken for granted within your own culture. You discover subtle differences between individuals, groups, and entire communities, even when those differences are between two people living in the same community. Two people from the same nation, geographic region, and cultural upbringing will still possess differences in cultural expression due to differences in age, associations, or emphasis on different themes. 

There are two requirements before we begin discussing how to immerse yourself in the culture of your followers. First, you’ll have to set aside what you know, what you think, and what you believe. When I say “set aside”, I don’t mean throwing these things in the recycle bin while invalidating who you are. Instead, it means preventing these things (personal knowledge and beliefs) from interfering with the purpose of your activity: observation

Setting these things aside allows for modifications to your perception with the data as your guide. The more successful you are at putting aside your biases and preferences, the more success you’ll have in gaining cultural awareness. If practiced honestly and authentically, you’ll eventually stop seeing people in terms of either red or blue.

The second requirement? You can’t engage with their culture as the boss. 

In fact, it’s better if you are not known at all. 

Undercover Boss

It’s called the Hawthorne Effect.

In social science research, the Hawthorne Effect is an observed phenomenon that, in the presence of authority, people will often behave differently than they normally would. It’s the old saying of “when the cat’s away, the mice will play”. 

You likely do it too. Do you behave the same when your boss is around? How about the pastor? The police? It’s safe to say your followers likely do the same. Although not a surprise, many leaders fail to recognize the natural consequences from this dynamic: bad data. Not only are they behaving differently when you are present, but they are also telling you what they believe you want to hear. 

To put it bluntly, how are you going to make sound decisions when the reports are sprinkled with bulls**t? How perilous is your position when you are only being fed what you want to hear and see?

The B.S you get is not relevant. What is relevant is that their normal behavior (along with their thoughts, beliefs, passions, and so on) will not be present. This means that you have no idea of the culture they live in, because they don’t show it to you. 

Lack of time is always a half-truth

How do you compensate for this, gaining the necessary experience of their culture for better understanding and relationship building? By immersing yourself in cultures similar to your followers, but in a different location from your followers.

First, engage in conversation. Casually ask your followers about their hobbies, interests, activities, and passions. To use an easy (albeit possibly outdated) example, if many of your followers are involved in youth sports, find a youth sports league, away from where your followers are participating. Have a seat in the stands. Strike up conversations with other parents, starting with the sport in question before letting the conversation naturally drift. Listen attentively for openings that allow the conversation to go deeper. Ask them about their challenges. Hear the answers. 

The goal is to collect data, taking in the experience while mindfully comparing what you see, hear, and experience to your own culture. Ask as many questions as time allows, carefully hear the answers, and use those answers as prompts for your next question. It’s their culture, and you are a guest. Conduct yourself accordingly.

For the introspective leader, this ample amount of data will cause a profound shift in perspective, giving rise to a variety of challenging questions. What are the assumed beliefs and values here? What are my own? What motivates these individuals? What are the motivations of the group? How do my motives differ from theirs? How do these differences impact our organization and our primary business/service offering? How does their culture influence our organization, and to what degree? How many different variations are there?

Envisioning the above scenario raises many possibilities for gaining cultural awareness. For an organization of mostly unskilled or semi-skilled labor, it may mean engaging with various community organizations alleviating poverty. For an organization of skilled labor, it may mean attending a church, even if religion is not your preference or the denomination is not your flavor. Since we live in a social-media driven digital age, it likely means participating in online groups. Competitive advantage goes to those who relocate to the communities where their followers live.

(Related: The value of an ethnographic life) 

The challenge, of course, is to rearrange your time outside of operational tasks to capitalize on these opportunities. Yet, if you say you don’t have the time, I disagree. “Lack of time” is always a half-truth. Yes, organizational culture is one of many tasks you face each day. 

Yet, a leader’s first first priority is to mold and develop others (a fact not known to many leaders, surprisingly). If you don’t know the culture of your followers, your molding and development will be limited – communication breaks down because you can’t relate to the forces influencing their lives and their decisions. 

In short, you are not qualified to lead. 

What’s more, the techniques for gaining cultural awareness do not take an inordinate amount of time. Many experiences are even family-friendly: you’ll be giving your children a valuable education while you do it. 

“Time” is often a mask for the real reason: fear.

It’s understandable. Stepping into a new environment requires vulnerability, and vulnerability includes the risk of being rejected by others. It’s a primal fear, rooted in our psychology and well known to social psychologists. The fears don’t end there. Stepping into a different culture means being unfamiliar with your surroundings. Your values, norms, and beliefs may not apply. Your authority won’t mean squat. Your answers, expertise, and prowess may not be applicable in your new environment.

These are unfounded fears once you engage with the task in front of you. The only thing you’ll experience is a healthy dose of humility, a good thing, even liberating. You don’t have to fix what you see, nor do you need to come up with solutions. For now, all you need to do is observe and ask questions. Bask in the data and information as both enlighten you. 

When the time comes for making better decisions, you’ll engender trust and loyalty among your followers as someone who “gets it”, whatever “it” is.

Get to “it.” 

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