Tag Archives: context

Context is Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

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

Response:
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
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Many thanks to my mentor Gustavo Grodnitzky Culture Trumps Everything.

How a Manager Creates Context

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
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?

Response:
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.

Who Sets the Context of Work?

“But, you are still here. What’s in it for you? What keeps you here?” I asked.

Riley had to think. Turnover on his team was high. Morale was in the dumps. He described his team as lifeless. “I guess I just don’t feel the same way they do. I know the work is hard. I know we have to pay attention. I know the work doesn’t stop at 5 o’clock. But for some reason, for me, it’s important to be here.”

“Why do you think it’s important for you and not so important for your team? At the end of the day, you are all working on the same projects.”

“Well, my manager and I talk about the work,” he explained. “We talk about the results of the what we do, as a company. I feel that I make a contribution, as a manager. What I do is important. In spite of how hard it is, it’s important.”

“You feel that way, because you and your manager talk about the work, the importance of the work? Have you ever talked about the work with your team?” I asked.

“Yeah, but, it’s different with them. I mean, they don’t get the whole picture. They don’t seem to understand it the same way that I do. For them, it’s just a job.”

“So, the context of their work, is that it’s just a job? Who is accountable for creating that context?”