When it comes to workplace culture, why is it so easy to point out the flaws in others while ignoring our own? Rhonda Brighton-Hall (FCPHR), Director of the AHRI Board, makes the case for honesty.
I had the pleasure of attending the Human Synergistics Conference in Sydney on Tuesday. It was a great line-up – from Olympic gold-medallist Katie Kelly (oh my goodness, how inspiring is she?!), to Michael Combs from CareerTrackers (who in his spare time has built a second brilliant business called CareerSeekers to work with refugees and asylum seekers), to Jen Whyte from Avnet Technology (who has done some fabulous culture work across different industries), to Shaun McCarthy and Rob Cooke from Human Synergistics (who really do provide some of the best thinking in the world on workplace culture and what to do about it).
We listened and learnt from these experts, people who are genuinely making a difference to our understanding and our collective ability to improve organisational culture in pragmatic and tangible ways.
Right in the middle of the morning, David Morrison spoke and he offered this simple definition of culture: “It’s the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”
This got me thinking. That is why the stories we tell about culture so often have the current leaders as heroes – we talk our own workplace culture up, always describing it as attractive and positive and all things good. While others outside our tent – competitors, disgruntled customers, former employees, social commentators – call out the flaws and inadequacies in our one-sided versions, we power on believing our own stories.
They are, after all, what binds us together and makes us proud. We dismiss the flaws as ‘just one bad egg’, or ‘something taken out of context’.
The truth is, culture is as flawed as human beings.
Yes, it’s rich with positivity and potential and good intent, but equally flawed with fallibility, greed and self-interest. Once you have more than 10 people in one room with one goal and one way of working and treating each other, you’re open to pockets of ‘less than ideal’. Inside most big organisations, culture is good and bad, has good pockets and bad pockets, and possibly even good and bad days.
So, if it is inevitable that culture is flawed, why try to manage it? Well, because it is worthwhile to fight the good fight to make culture as good as it can possibly be for every stakeholder – every employee, every customer, every person we interact with – on every occasion we can possibly make it. To make it as open and inclusive and consistently good as we can get it. And to improve it even when we think it’s pretty good already.
How do we do that?
There’s lot of levers to pull, but a good place to start is by telling more honest stories. By making the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves as honest and complete as we can make them. By incorporating the flaws and inadequacies, the challenges and the issues. It’s in these real stories that we can find genuine opportunities to improve.
David Morrison added another point later in his presentation when he spoke about improving workplace culture. He said, and I paraphrase, “to disrupt culture and improve culture, you have to disrupt the very people who benefit most from it. The people whose careers were built on it; on whose success depends on it staying as is.”
The challenge is that includes the storytellers themselves. Culture is not simply a PR tool or a way of inspiring loyalty and pride. It’s a reality for whoever interacts with an organisation, and it needs to constantly be challenged to be better, and managed to be the best it can be.