Category Archives: Culture

Context is Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I believe you when you say that a key managerial component is setting context. How does culture fit in to context?

Context is culture, that is why it is so critical for managers to set context. Context is the culture in which we do our work.

Beliefs and Assumptions. Culture is the way that we see the world (Grodnitzky). Culture is the lens through which we see every element of our surroundings. Culture is what we believe to be true (whether it is or not). It is the collective consciousness in our workforce.

Connected Behaviors. Culture drives behavior (Grodnitzky). Lots of things influence behavior, but culture drives behavior. These behaviors are attached to the way that we see the world. Change the way we see the world and behavior changes. If, as a manager, you want to change behavior, you have to change the way you see the world. Change the context, behavior follows (Grodnitzky).

Tested Against Reality of Consequences. Every connected behavior is challenged by reality. Is the way we see the world aligned with the reality of consequences? No plan ever survives its train-wreck with reality. Everyone has a plan (the way they see the world) until they get punched in the face (Tyson). The reality of consequences tempers the way we see the world. As a manager, do not believe that you can get away with a bullshit culture.

Customs and Traditions. Those connected behaviors that survive the test against reality produce our customs, rituals, traditions. These routine ceremonies reinforce (for better or worse) our beliefs and assumptions about the way we see the world. Some behaviors are simply repeated often enough to become rituals. Some traditions are created to enshrine the belief. Either way, over time, make no mistake, these customs will have their day against the reality of consequences. Be careful what you enshrine.

Context is the environment in which we work. What does yours look like? -Tom
Many thanks to my mentor Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything.

How to Set Context With Your Team

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

I hear you say that management is about setting context. I think I understand what that means, but I do NOT understand how to do it.

Culture is context. Setting context is the prime objective for every manager. Context is the environment in which work is done. Work is making decisions and solving problems. This is fundamental managerial work. Three moving parts –

  • Communicate the Vision. This is the future picture of a project, picture of a product in a package, the output from a service. This is what a clean carpet looks like.
  • Performance Standard. This is the what, by when. This is the objective in measurable terms. This is the goal – QQTR, quantity, quality, time (deadline or evaluation period), resources. The vision is full of excitement and enthusiasm, specifically defined by the performance standard.
  • Constraints. There are always constraints and guidelines. Budget is a constraint, access to resources is a constraint, time can be a constraint. These are the lines on the field. Safety issues are always a constraint. When the project is finished, you should go home with all your fingers and toes.

That’s it, then let the team loose to solve the problems and make the decisions within the context. Do not make this more complicated. It’s always about the fundamentals. -Tom

How a Manager Creates Context

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

We have plenty of time to fight fires but never any time to make a plan of attack and everyone pull their weight. We are a bunch of individuals doing our own “thing” without the total picture perspective. We are the “managers” in the business. But we don’t manage; we fight the next fire, sometimes of our own creation. When other managers are not concerned with how their tactics affect the next process in line, the culture will not change. It’s a culture of, now that my part is done, I wash my hands of the problem and pass it along to the next manager to deal with. No ownership of the problem, so, no solution that benefits everyone. How can the culture change when the people with the culture don’t want to change?

One of the most important contributions for every manager is to create context. No behavior is isolated. ALL behavior exists inside of a context.

Context is a mental state. Wilfred Bion calls this the Basic Assumption Mental State (shortened to BAMS by Pat Murray). If, as a manager, you don’t understand the behavior, all you have to do is get in touch with the Basic Assumption Mental State or the context held in the mind of the team member. What do they believe, in that moment, about the context surrounding their behavior?

If a manager does not create the context for a team member’s behavior, the team member is free to make it up. (Because all behavior exists inside of some context.)

Let me muse about the context of your team members.

  • The most important thing around here is not to get blamed for anything.
  • The most important thing around here is to make sure, if you make a mistake, it does not get connected back to you, that someone else can be blamed.
  • The most important thing around here is that if you make a mistake, make sure it cannot be discovered in your work area, or your part of the process.

If this is what the team member believes (BAMS), what context has been created by the manager that supports those beliefs?

If you want to change the behavior, the manager has to change the context for the behavior. Gustavo Grodnitsky simply says, “Change the context, behavior follows.”

Step one, for the manager, is to determine the constructive context to gain the appropriate behavior. Then make that context visible, by example, by discussion, by observation, by consequence.
If you are a manager, what is the context to gain constructive contribution from your team?

  • Goal – this is where vision statement, mission statements come in. Most are pabulum that do NOT contribute to context that drives behavior. But try this one from Southwest Airlines – Wheels up. That’s it. That’s the context. Everything a team member does should support getting an aircraft quickly (and safely) into the air. Southwest found they make more money when their planes are in the air than they do when their planes on the ground.
  • Accountability – we normally place accountability one level-of-work too low on the team. In describing level-of-work, Elliott Jaques clearly identified the manager as the person accountable for the output of the team. This one Basic Assumption Mental State, that the manager is accountable for output, is a game-changer.
  • Example – every manager is in a fishbowl and every team member is watching. “Do as I say, not as I do,” creates disaster. Lead by example is not simply a nice leadership principle. Humans are wired to mirror behavior they see. Blaming and punitive behavior by the manager creates acceptable mirroring behavior on the part of the team.
  • Discussion – the manager can talk about context with the team, or the team can talk about context at the water cooler. The manager gets to pick.
  • Observation – the manager is in a position to observe behavior and bring attention to those behaviors that are constructive and point out behaviors that are counterproductive. The manager is in a unique position to breathe life into behavior, for better, or worse. You get the behavior you focus on.
  • Consequences – what happens in the face of underperformance? Is it punishment and blame, or is it learning and improvement?

Context drives behavior. Managers create context or allow team members to make up their own. Change the context, behavior follows.

Fix Accountability, Change the Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

You seem to think that when the manager is held accountable for the output of the team, it’s a game-changer. You seem to think this one idea has a significant impact on morale.

Mindset drives behavior. This is a central premise to culture. What we believe, the way we see the world, drives behavior.

When a manager believes the team is accountable for their own output, it creates a punitive, blaming mindset on the part of the manager. I often hear the refrain from one manager to another, “Well, did you hold them accountable?”

And I have to ask, “Accountable for what? And just what managerial behavior is involved in holding them accountable?”

Is it a matter of reprimand, jumping up and down and screaming? Is it a matter of volume, frequency? If I told you once, I told you a thousand times. At that point, I am convinced that I am talking to a manager who has no children.

Managers who engage in this behavior have a direct negative impact on team morale. Response is predictably fight, flight, freeze or appease.

But, when the manager is accountable for the output of the team, everything changes. A manager accountable for the output of the team will –

  • Take extreme care in the selection of who? is assigned to the project.
  • Will take extreme care in the training of team members assigned to the project.
  • Will take extreme care in the work instructions for the project.
  • Will take care to monitor the progress of work on the project.
  • Will take care in the coaching of team members who may struggle in connection with the project.

Why? Because the manager is accountable for the output of the team. The attitude, the mindset, moves the manager from blaming behavior to caring behavior. If this becomes the mindset of all the managers, the entire organization’s culture changes. We don’t need sensitivity training, or communication seminars. We just need to fix accountability.

Smartest Guy in the Room

“What do you mean, change the context?” Ruben asked.

“Jason is the smartest guy in the room, or, at least, he wants you to think that,” I nodded. “Right now, his attitude is counterproductive. So, change the context. You do some internal training, from time to time?”

“Yes, but that’s my job,” Ruben assured me.

“No, that’s what you believe. You believe that’s your job. What if you believed it was Jason’s job?”

“But, our internal training is usually about something new, not like we have a training manual, I have to figure how a process works and then determine the best way to teach it,” he protested.

“Sounds like you need the smartest guy in the room. What if you believed it was Jason’s job to teach? Change the context, behavior follows.”
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How to Change the Behavior

“Is Jason smarter than everyone else in the room?” I asked.

“On some things, yes,” Ruben replied. “But, that’s not the point. Even if he does know something the team doesn’t know, he doesn’t have to shove it in their face. He needs to share, so everyone on the team can get better. That’s what teamwork is all about.”

“What do you believe about Jason?”

“Well, he is smart, but I believe his behavior is counterproductive. He makes his teammates feel bad,” Ruben pushed back.

“If he is so smart, do you think he could be an effective teacher?”

“Not with that attitude,” Ruben raised his eyebrows.

“In what context could that attitude be different,” I wanted to know.

“What do you mean?”

“Ruben. Look. Behavior does not happen in a vacuum. It happens in a context. Change the context, change the behavior. Could you change the context?”
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How Does Culture Drive Behavior?

“He doesn’t fit the culture,” Ruben explained. “Jason’s okay, knows the technical side of the business, but he doesn’t fit the culture.”

“What do you mean, he doesn’t fit the culture?” I asked.

“He doesn’t fit the team,” Ruben replied. “Our teams work together, support each other, help each other. If someone asks Jason a question, he snaps the answer, he treats the other person like they are stupid. And, they just want to know the answer to the question.”

“What does Jason believe about the team?”

“What do you mean, believe about the team?” Ruben looked puzzled.

“You said this was a culture problem,” I nodded. “Culture is a set of beliefs that drive behavior, for better or worse. Ultimately, those behaviors are repeated and become an unwritten set of rules that guide the team in the way they work together. That’s culture. But, it all starts with what we believe, what you believe, as the manager, what Jason believes as a team member. If you want to change the behavior, you have to change the context. What we believe, what Jason believes, creates the context and drives his behavior. What does Jason believe about the team?”

Ruben looked up into his brain, “Jason believes he is smarter than anyone else on the team. Jason believes that he could do all the work better than anyone else on the team. Jason believes the other people on the team slow him down. When someone asks a question, it proves Jason is right, that he is the smartest person on the team and he wants everyone to know it.”
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Sibling Rivalry

“The biggest problem I have,” Andre complained, “is getting my people to work together. I want them to be like a family. I want them to feel like they belong to a tribe, you know, an extended family.”

“Oh, really,” I looked surprised. “It is a noble feeling to impart to a group of people, to get them to feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. So, what seems to be the problem in getting them to work together?”

“There always seems to be petty bickering between the personalities. It’s not overt passive-aggressive behavior, but the conversations that end up in my office are petty transgressions. Someone borrowed a stapler and didn’t return it. Someone took a snack out of the company refrigerator. Someone had a bright idea that the group ignored or made fun of. Someone got passed over on a new project. Someone got passed over for a promotion.”

“So, what do you think the problem is?” I asked.

“I think it’s the culture of the group,” Andre nodded.

“And, who sets the culture?” I prompted.

“Ultimately, I set the culture,” he thought out loud. “Funny, I want the group to feel like a family, an extended family, but I end up with sibling rivalry.”

Built on a Dollar More?

“Now, you have me confused,” Max protested. “Yes, the bonus becomes an entitlement, so it loses its power to motivate.”

“Is it possible,” I asked, “that the bonus never had the power to motivate in the first place? Let’s talk about you. You said, that sometimes you enjoy work. Why do you work?”

“I told you. I get a sense of accomplishment. Some of the work, I actually enjoy.”

“Like what?”

“Sometimes, I get someone on the crew, it’s their first job. They become part of a team, working together and I can see a sense of pride on their face. As a manager, I enjoy that. I get my own sense of accomplishment.”

“And, their first paycheck?” I prompted.

“Yes, there is a smile on their face.”

“So, compensation is important, but if that is all there is, your team members will jump to another company for an extra dollar an hour. So, how do you build your system? How do you, as a manager, build your culture? Do you build your culture around a bonus, or do you build it around accomplishment? You only get what you focus on.”

Parlor Games at Best

Samuel Pierce felt it was his duty, as Chairman of the Board, to make sure the new CEO was grounded in reality. “Catherine, I just want to make sure that you are up to the challenges you face as the new CEO, and that you are not being too idealistic.”

Catherine Nibali was chosen as the successor CEO to a company in trouble.

“You will have the union to deal with,” Samuel warned. “I know it was here when you arrived, but it is here nonetheless.”

“That’s true,” Catherine agreed. “The existence of a union is only one indicator of the deeply ingrained misconceptions this company drifted into. The people systems were based on false assumptions of managerial leadership. It’s no wonder the union was able to take hold. But, Samuel, there is more. The union is only the tip of the iceberg.”

“With all due respect,” Samuel interrupted. “Your predecessor, Al Ripley, tried a number of things. He re-engineered many of the work processes, he allowed group dynamic exercises, ropes courses, results based incentives, group bonuses.”

It was Catherine’s turn to interrupt. “Exactly,” she stared directly at Samuel. “Parlor games. Parlor games that, at best, might create a small burst of productivity, but in the long run, laid the ground for the union and shaped a culture that provokes disruptive behavior. We stand for what we tolerate.”

This is the beginning of the next book, sequel to Outbound Air. Find out how Catherine got here.