The root of culture

Find out what it means to me

Every once in a while I come across something that points to the heart of what makes work work. I find a couple a year, so it’s a short list. This month I’ve found two and that’s remarkable. It’s time to talk.

I’ll start with the links. It may seem puzzling at first how these two are related and what I’m driving at, but for me they speak to the same root. The triangulation tells me this is important. I invite you to trace my train of thought and glimpse why these go to the heart of healthy organisations. They point to a simple, powerful, transformational shift in perspective. Signposts to the chasm to be crossed if we intend to build organisations that create a sustainable human future.

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Photo by Dmitriy Adamenko

So, here’s what caught my attention:

Christine Porath kicked this off for me. Let’s be clear, the “being nice” mentioned in the title massively under-plays her message. Nice is a poor cousin to her real point: respect with kindness. When I say “kindness”, I don’t mean the “nice” sort of kindness, I men the type that’s simultaneously generous and demanding and commands respect. I usually explain this by saying “kind is not always nice”.

It calls on your best self, even when your best self doesn’t feel like showing up.

Christine opens with a “Either you lift people up by respecting them, making them feel valued, appreciated and heard, or you hold people down by making them feel small, insulted, disregarded or excluded. And who you choose to be means everything”. There’s nothing nice about that. It’s an invitation to live from a place of profound respect. A brave place that neither gives nor accepts shit.

Culture in practice

My ears prick up whenever I hear someone pointing to how a human workplace is a multiplier of both people and outcomes. Not just because I believe in it, but because I’ve done it. I’ve been there, I’ve built it, over and over. I reckon ten times in the last ten years. Starting small and scaling up each time, I’ve seen genuinely hard, imperfect and beautiful things happen. Each time as unique as the people and the situation.

When it’s good, the results are impressive, both on the bottom line and on the human scale. Probably 10x good.

Christine’s research uncovered that incivility is a killer. To quote: “incivility made people less motivated: 66 percent cut back work efforts, 80 percent lost time worrying about what happened, and 12 percent left their job”. I’ve seen incivility in action. I’ve been incivil myself and I’m absolutely not saying I’m perfect.

Toxic culture

The results are toxic. It reduces intelligence, it shuts down connection, it fires up cortisol, it gets people distracted and nervous and the results go to the bottom line in spades. Cisco’s conservative estimate was 12 million dollars a year lost to incivility. It’s an impressive number. The interesting question is: “where does incivility come from?”

I’ll take a safe punt that you didn’t get out of bed this morning with a specific intention to demotivate, demoralise and belittle the people you work with. So where’s it coming from? It’s easy to link fear and ego to incivility, but where do those close cousins come from? Sometimes it’s unconscious, sometimes it’s a reaction to your situation, but I’ve been in stressful, fearful situations. Sometimes I’ve reacted with civility and other times with incivility.

Roots run deep

So, where’s the root? I see a line that traces back to respect. Brené Brown explores this in her book, Dare to Lead:

“Do I, or am I willing to, believe that the people I’m interacting with are genuinely doing their best with what they’ve got?”

Is my underlying belief about this person one of respect or one of contempt? It’s as true in personal as in professional relationships. Once you trace in back to this belief, you see the root. Operating in a world of continuously changing partial information, belief drives feelings, feelings drive assumptions, assumptions are rationalised and judgements get made. This whole edifice drives your interactions and micro-interactions — the stuff you radiate but are unaware of.

There’s scant point creating an “incivility policy” to rationally address the presenting symptoms of such a full-stack issue. When people talk about culture change or mindset change — transformation of any kind — it’s about accessing, surfacing, examining and questioning beliefs. If belief is non-negotiable, progress will remain out of reach.

Choosing a different way

Which brings me to Calm, the Basecamp book. I loved Rework and Calm is brilliant for the same reasons. For me, pointing out the madness of “best practice” — the kind of practice that believes incivility is a necessary, even desirable way to treat people — is both a challenge and a relief. It’s great to question what you hadn’t realised were your assumptions and a relief to hear that it’s not just me that believes in the synchronicity of doing good and doing well.

It’s a book about making choices. Hard choices that take courage to go against the grain.

When received wisdom doesn’t seem to fit your context, do you follow the experts because “no one got fired for hiring IBM”, or do you step back and make your own decision about whether the emperor really is wearing any clothes? One is trying not to fail and the other is reaching to succeed. There’s no right and wrong, but who you choose to be means everything. Make your choice.

The choices explored in the book are about respect for the dignity and autonomy of the people in an organisation. Choosing trust and a generative mutuality to create long-term positive and sustainable relationships, over controlling, extractive interactions that drain and ultimately extinguish connection over time.

The bottom line

For me, Incivility and Calm point to what it means to transform work. To switch from command and control mindset that disrespectfully believes the worst of people to one that believes in humanity, responsibility and invitation.

I use the word “human” to describe the kind of environment that welcomes a whole person, encompassing fun times and tough times, achievement and imperfection, generosity and challenge — a place of connection and empathy that calls our best selves to not just show up but step up, in a way that’s authentic, individual and growth-centred.

Ultimately, profound respect for people, as free individuals, not owned, but invited, is the root of solid culture.

Good boundaries are absolutely part of that. Done well, boundaries make fear and control not just obsolete, but thoroughly incongruous. It does take courage, it’s about not infringing on autonomy, it requires uncomfortable levels of trust and that means vulnerability, which is the same as saying courage.

With what strength and understanding I’ve mustered over the years, I’ve consciously chosen and risked better. With each increase in responsibility for the care of others I’ve bet bigger, year on year, and the numbers bear testament that this is no cute idea. It’s learnable, repeatable and a powerful driver of pretty much every positive indicator, especially the humanity of those around you.

I’ve seen the dead come to life and at the same time I’ve seen the management accounts. Doing good and doing well are not a zero-sum game. Profound respect is generative, for people, for profit and for purpose.

Hands-on culture and techology. Work hard be kind. Chief Engineer and head geek at Foundry4 (https://foundry4.com)

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