We’re told it’s “a strategic priority with impact on the bottom line.” But an organisation’s culture is difficult to define, a pain to measure and nigh-on impossible to scale and maintain — especially in a large business. So, how can leaders harness this most unruly of value-creation levers?
At its simplest, “harnessing your culture” is about reducing the chances of “good” people doing “bad” things. Or, to put it another way: making it make it more likely that, when faced with a choice, your people will choose the “good” thing over the “bad” thing (where “good” means “aligned with your organisation’s values”).
It’s tempting to focus on hiring and appraisal processes, but these will always be imperfect — in a time of acute skills shortages and new employment models, it’s impossible to populate a business only with “good” people who share an organisation’s values. And, even then, “good” people sometimes do “bad” things — when they’re under pressure to meet targets, for example.
“I got 330,000 people. I will guarantee you that probably dozens of them are doing something wrong right now.”
~ Warren Buffett, CEO, Berkshire Hathaway
But there is one crucial — and often overlooked — element that is key to culture. And I found it not in a best-selling management book, but in a humble dictionary.
It’s not just what we do when we think people are looking
I’ll admit, until recently I assumed that culture was about what we do — how we behave. After all, it’s behaviour — and bad behaviour, more often than good — that earns column inches.
But the fear of being exposed and punished for bad behaviour, although certainly a powerful disincentive for many, only works to a point — as evidenced by reports of wrong-doing at the Metropolitan Police, 10 Downing Street, Rio Tinto, and West Ham FC to name a few.
So, frustrated by a seemingly endless supply of scandal, I went in search of a solution — and picked up a dictionary for inspiration. I’m glad I did. Because I realised that, when it comes to culture, we’re missing the point. Culture is about how we think, not just what we do.
“Culture: a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organisation (such as a business).”
Rethinking how we think about culture
So, how can we take a leaf out of the dictionary — and harness our organisation’s culture by changing how we think?
By embedding a “way of thinking” in the organisation that naturally gives rise to a “way of working” that is aligned with its values. In practical terms, this means focusing on critical thinking — equipping people with the skills and tools they need to think critically, ask searching questions of others, and open themselves up to challenging questions in return.
Or, in other words, using the power of questions to stimulate deeper, sharper thinking. A simple question like “What other options have you considered and why did you reject them?” can help you to identify and challenge poor thinking before it turns into bad behaviour. It can also spark curiosity and creativity, taking your thinking in new directions.
When this “way of thinking” is practised at every level of the organisation, it stimulates a “way of working” that is more likely to align with your values. Critical thinking becomes a culture carrier — and your culture becomes the strategic lever you need it to be.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors.