Tag Archives: culture

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 to Get a Team Member to Ask for Help (when they need it)

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
I have a member of my team that works hard and handles day to day tasks well, but, when his plate gets a little too full, I often don’t find out about it until after an issue happens with a client. I do my best to stay on top of his task list and he knows he can always ask me for help, he just doesn’t. Every client has different times where they are busy and times they are quiet so I need my team to let me know when they need additional resources to hit their deadlines. I think not-asking for help is a mixture of pride and a lack of foresight to see trouble coming. As his manager, how can I help make this situation better (without looking over his shoulder all day, every day)?

Response:
Little problems, allowed to fester, become big problems. And, as the manager, you would have fixed the little problem (when it was easy to fix) if you had only known.

This situation has several parts to it –

  • The team member’s recognition the problem exists.
  • The team member’s understanding where to go for help.
  • The team member’s mindset (belief) about the problem and the channels for help.

Problem Recognition
As the manager, given the same circumstance, you would have recognized the problem or at least the potential for a problem. Your team member may not see what you see, yet, you rely on your team member to spot the trouble. Spend time with your team, in general discussion, on problem identification. You can start with debriefs of completed projects.

  • What did we expect?
  • What went well?
  • What went wrong?
  • How did we find out what went wrong?
  • How can we recognize something-going-wrong next time?
  • When we recognize something-going-wrong, what can we do about it?

Next move to existing projects and ask the same questions.

  • What do we expect in this current project?
  • What do we do well, what are our strengths?
  • What could go wrong?
  • How will we find out something is about to go wrong?
  • How will we recognize something is about to go wrong?
  • When we recognize something about to go wrong, what can we do to prevent it?

Channels for Help
These debrief meetings lead into project status meetings. A project going OKAY doesn’t really tell us much. Create some sort of shorthand or code that describes specific states of projects. You can use project stages, color codes, alphabet codes. You pick. Most importantly, identify the code level when the decision is in the hands of the team member and the code level when the decision needs to surface to the manager.

I am suggesting a formal structure that guides your team to ask for help. As the manager, you are currently trusting the team member to make a decision without context. Create a context that provides specific guidelines about when and how to ask for help. Your team can (and will) help you create this context as part of the project debriefs.

Culture
Culture is a set of beliefs that provide context for behavior. Without context, the team member will create their own context, which can be misguided to the purpose of the project. Most team members do not think about the future implications of problems allowed to fester. Here are some questions to structure what we believe about the future of the problem.

  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a day?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a week?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a month?
  • If nothing is done, what will happen in a year?

Ask your team to collectively imagine into the future. It is a powerful way for a manager to get in touch with current mindsets and create a context to anticipate and prevent problems in the future. Change the context, behavior follows.

Fix Accountability, Change the Culture

From the Ask Tom mailbag –

Question:
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.

Response:
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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Our online program, Hiring Talent kicks off Jan 15, 2016. More information here.

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

Structure and Culture

Thinking out loud here.

During the past two days, I have laid out posts related to –

  • In spite of clear work instructions, does culture trump output?
  • In spite of personality inputs, does culture trump output?

If you learn anything about me, you know that I am a structure guy.

  • For those who think their organizational challenges revolve around personality, I tell you, it’s not a personality problem.
  • For those who think they have a communication problem, it’s not a communication problem, it’s a structure problem.

Structure is the defined accountability and authority in working relationships, both managerial relationships and cross-functional working relationships. Structure is the context, in which we work.

Culture is that set of beliefs that drive our required behaviors in the work that we do together. Culture is the context, in which we work.

So, I am beginning to wonder if organizational structure and culture are inextricably tied together. Does structure equal culture? Does culture equal structure? Do the warm and fuzzy concepts of culture have a science underneath defined by levels of work and structure?

I believe so.