Business culture is an accretion of layers, just like the crust of the earth. While the surface often represents the current moment in history, dig a little and you are likely to find something less sophisticated, empowering, and inclusive. A “default” business culture — meaning what we revert to given no other input or direction — lies below the felt aspirations of many firms to create more open workplaces. This default culture is a set of practices and assumptions based on the negative side of old-style formal hierarchy. It includes such â€œinvisible rulesâ€ as:
These and other related beliefs do not operate all the time, but are still in the ground beneath our feet, and sometimes by only a matter of inches. Sometimes, when things become dysfunctional, that default system comes back from the grave. Effective leaders reject these older beliefs and act in ways that ensure the “zombie” culture stays in the ground where it belongs.
To fully â€œdrive fear out of the workplace,â€ it is essential for everyone to be involved in actively rejecting this antiquated culture that divides the world into messengers who get shot and leaders who donâ€™t listen. Both are stereotypes reflecting our fears of one another and our need for self-protection. “Actively rejecting” means moving into action and personally behaving in ways that contradict these negative background beliefs.
The courage to speak up and the courage to listen are the way out, and they require us to â€œstay in the tensionâ€ of the moment, the anxiety, stepping past all of it, particularly the fear that our sincere engagement with others will cause damage, distress, and repercussions or that we will simply experience humiliation and anger because nothing will be done about the obvious organizational problems we chose to bring forward. If we have two enemies in this work it is precisely the fear of repercussions and the belief that nothing can change.
Change can happen, but only if we actively choose to create a different kind of workplace, one where people seek and express understanding rather than make disconnected and insensitive speeches behide one anothers’ backs. Change happens only if we refuse to let fear guide our steps because fear is the essence of the old rules. Change happens only if we choose to address what is right in front of us.
This all works best when it is done in the name of being of service to one another and to our customers. This is a matter of letting our best selves move forward together.
It is essential to understand that rejecting this background culture is not the same as rejecting people.
We have all participated in the negative side of the default culture. We’ve all been carriers and are all responsible for its presence. We have all contributed to it at one time or another, particularly when things have gone wrong or there have been tough challenges. Here are some of the ways we can move forward together. This is certainly one of those circumstances that calls up the dictum often attributed to Gandhi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”
None of this is to say that our only task should be the rejection of old ways. That’s only the beginning of a different kind of workplace freedom and with that rejection comes the responsibility to define and live — as best we can — what culture we do want. I was encouraged a few days ago to find “Your Culture is Your Brand,” an article by Zappos CEO, Tony Hsieh, as a great example of the experiments, innovations, and new thinking that are needed to bring alive positive, value-based work cultures.
Between these two realms of old and new, of unconscious victimization and conscious choice, is a cultural cross-over point of major proportions. Many organizations are ambivalent about which way to go and are some type of mashup of both worlds. Some seem to want to rely upon and return to the past; some strain for the future. This can be an anxious space but also a good one for forging our own leadership. Opportunities abound. Surely this is a time that will shape and define us and our organizations for a long time to come.