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Work Culture Wars... and how to navigate them

The culture wars are going on all around us. If you can see a more transparent, more open way of doing business, then you are in them and have a role to play. Like any game though, there are rules ad it can be very helpful to know a few.

Have you ever received a shock from your boss?

Maybe you did something you thought was entirely appropriate only to discover that your manager, or worse, their manager, thought your actions inappropriate, disrespectful and disappointing?

I have to admit that that has happened to me more than once, and last week it happened to a younger client of mine.

Sometimes you just messed up but, in my experience, it is more often that you are stuck in the middle of a culture war.

There are six levels of substantive culture that organisations can operate in:

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However, not everyone in an organisation is always operating from the same level. In truth, the higher levels (generally 4 and 5) tend to be operative in only small pockets within and across organisations - not across the whole organisation.

It is also broadly true that the younger the person, the more likely they are to be comfortable at the higher levels.

So, back to my friend...

He received an email outlining how he had breached the expected standards of his manager, and all the high echelons were CC'ed into the email.. ouch.

Talking to him we came to the conclusion that he was in the middle of a culture war in the organisation and he had to make some choices about what game he was willing to play.

We distinguished four steps:
1. Be responsible for your own buttons.

"I am sorry for pushing your buttons, but I didn't put them there..."

I am still waiting for an opportunity to use this line but it captures the idea really well that before you can respond you need to be responsible for what's arcing you up (and you would be a weird-fish if you didn't have some kind of emotional reaction).

For my friend, he has a deep commitment to integrity so to have that called into question pushed his buttons. If he was to go forward consciously and make an appropriate reaction to the situation he needed to be able to recognise, and put-aside, that his experience that his integrity was being questioned that was making him angry. Whether it was or wasn't actually being questioned is not actually relevant... it's his reaction he has to manage.

2. Do you really want this fight?

Recognising you are in a battle for the 'soul' of an organisation, not just to get this particular issue resolved, means that you need to make an honest assessment of what you are asking of yourself.

If you are fighting for more transparency and increased co-design you WILL bump up against silos and older ways-of-doing-things. If you don't relate to each confrontation with the older cultural norms as part of this larger shift, then you will be slowly ground down by the resistance: infraction by infraction.

If you are conscious that this is what you are in for, then you'd better prepare yourself - or get out.

Even if you are up for the challenge, you need to decide if this is the right theatre for it. It's like gardening, the same amount of effort in good soil produces a very different result than trying to grow plants in poor soil, no matter how much energy you expend.

3. Get protection

If you have chosen that you are in this to help shift the operational culture of the organisation, how people interact - essentially the level of transparency - then you are in "The Good Fight", and it's going to take everything you've got and you will probably never be thanked for it...

It is also a fight that you cannot win, not without help and critically, some protection.

You need to recognise the role that you are playing. If you are a general you have more room-for-manoeuvre than if you are a foot-soldier, but in both cases, you need some level of agreement from the people you report to that this is a battle they actually want to fight.

A common problem with bright (generally younger) people in this position is that, standing for transparency, they forget to honour the hierarchy. I'm not saying 'don't get opinions from people across organisational boundaries' (even if it does mean ruffling feathers) or take risks - just make sure you're not trying to lead the pack without support.

The question to ask is;

who else in the hierarchy wants what I want?" and then go get their support?

I once had a wonderful boss who, in his 60's, covered me for every mistake I made (and wasn't shy holding back in letting me know what it cost him to do so). He was playing the same game I was, at his level and in his way. We had a partnership. I couldn't have accomplished what I did in that organisation without his implicit and sometimes his explicit support.

Check your boss(es) out

Sometimes I'm asked how to find these people. You'll have a sense and then you need to interview them. Be honest. Ask them if they would like to hear your perspective. If they do then you have a potential ally, if they don't, you don't. Then just tell them the full truth and take what you get back... if you're honest with yourself, you'll know.

With their permission to give it, they will take your perspective seriously. You must remember that, as true as it seems to you, they probably have a broader and fuller view of what's going on.

A great place to come from is to enter this 'interview' as a training opportunity for you: one day you will probably be in their position dealing with someone just like you.. so try to understand the forces and factors they are having to take into account. Understand their perspective as much as they will hopefully try and understand yours. If you can't manage some level of a "meeting of the minds", you're on you own!

4. Apologise... alot

So, you've chosen to play the organisational transformation game with this organisation. You've gotten clear on your position in the struggle and you've ensured you've got the 'authorising environment' to swing out a bit... so you play, you push the boundaries, you do things in new ways... you upset people, step on toes...

You will do your best but, as I said at the beginning, you can only be responsible for that people have buttons and you are going to push them. That means you are going to have to say sorry, alot.

A lot of us still feel that saying sorry is a climb-down, a loss-of-face. It's not. It is a courageous and honourable thing to do.

It helps other people regain their equilibrium and put their emotional and mental faculties back in play... they can be generous and thoughtful again after a good apology whereas before they were caught up in their own concerns.

The thing to be aware of is that you are not apologising for what you did (assuming you didn't do anything wrong by your lights), you are apologising for their experience. This is not splitting hairs. If you are standing for a change you can; resile from it, but you are not trying to upset people and you must clear that up whenever and wherever you can.

In fact, this may be the single most important piece of advice I could give anyone engaged in any kind of change program, whether at work or just in your relationships at home:

Develop a finely tuned, and proactive antennae for other people's upset. People hide it. You need to snuff-it-out and clean it up, even if they are not aware it's there.

Don't let ANY upset or frustration get past the keeper (you). Get interested in it whenever and wherever you can because it is behind the upset that the real transformations lie.

It's not an easy game, I wouldn't wish it anyone... but it's the only game that matters :-)

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