10 things I learnt about organisational culture in 2022

Lady with a Lamp — Glow Of Hope by S L Haldankar. Culture lights up an organisation without being visible, just like the lamp does to the lady.

Over the last year, I and my team at Wisdom Tree worked with 15 not-for-profits in different capacities and durations. Here’s a snapshot of what we are learning.

These are not absolutes, there are nuances. Disagreements would be worthwhile, especially when expressed as comments on this post :)

1. First, start paying attention to culture

One of the most important culture interventions you can do is simply bring attention to culture. Where attention flows, energy goes. Any organisation can do this by being intentional about its ways of doing things. Essentially, this means making time regularly for collective reflection on work practices.

One of the most important culture interventions you can do is simply bring attention to culture.

2. Each person is actually a culture expert

People are experts at embodying their culture and living it on a day-to-day basis. The challenge is that they are immersed in it. This makes it difficult to objectively reflect on it. The most relevant suggestions of what needs fixing and what might work can often come from the very people living in the system. And not necessarily experts. Hence, it becomes even more important in culture work to tap into collective wisdom as a source of insight.

3. Intent is decisive

Culture work is subtle, yet its intent is palpable. People are extremely wise and perceptive to any manipulation. They resist participating in something that does not have their good at heart. Coercion is not an option for leaders and consultants. It is the intent that galvanizes people to shift their default ways of operating. Some metta in your heart will go a long long way in making things work.

4. Culture work is ideological and political

The ideological roots of the organisation are often invisible but they deeply influence culture. Culture also determines how power plays out in the system. Healthy cultures are born by building shared power. If this is not done, culture initiatives will be resisted.

Culture also determines how power plays out in the system

5. Culture catalysts have to be insider-outsiders

Embracing the organisation’s ways and existing culture is the first and necessary step for a facilitator to engage with it. (we love doing that!) At the same time, not being an insider allows us to bring energy and ideas from outside the system. It is a participatory sport and no one can sit in the stands as a spectator, commentator or coach.

6. Inner alignment x outer conditions = Creating the energetic field

An energising field gets created when the inner worlds of the participants and the outer reality of the collective are in sync. Culture is about unblocking organisational energy. We can only create conditions for culture to thrive and for people to participate. To do this, we have to till the soil, tend to the space and trust collective wisdom to do its work.

7. Without ethics, this work can become social engineering

“Get my people motivated” or “Make them work as a team” are typical mandates. Any OD practitioner or facilitator with their tool kits can make this happen temporarily. Culture work does not coerce or seduce people into new ways of behaving. It is a playful invitation that has to be collectively considered and bought in. The gap is not the skill or ability alone, but the willingness to do this together. Ethics are essential because we are working with deep layers of shared reality.

Culture work does not coerce or seduce people into new ways of behaving. It is a playful invitation that has to be collectively considered and bought in.

8. The founder’s / leader’s ‘blessings’ are inevitable for success.

There can not be culture shifts without the founder’s authentic willingness for things to change. We are learning how organisations are expressions of the founder, and their DNA is imprinted in the organisation. Any subtle resistance from leaders can quickly de-energize the effort and make it tokenism.

9. Every culture has its strengths and we must build on them

The culture toolkit can make us want to apply every tool and try every shift in pursuit of the ideal culture. The real work, however, is in reminding the Culture of its life-giving forces and appreciating what works in it. Then the work is pressing only the acupressure points, rather than doing a whole body overhaul.

The real work, however, is in reminding the Culture of its life-giving forces and appreciating what works in it.

10. Culture work is no longer a luxury

In this phase of humanity, our capacity to work together and evolve depends on our collective ways of being. With burnout, mental health issues and attrition being the norm, it is only culture that can hold people together in a lasting way.

Disclosure of interest:

As a part of Wisdom Tree we do culture work, so there is a direct interest in and commitment to this work spreading :)

In the coming year, our intent is to make this knowledge more accessible across the sector, so that more people can avail of it and we become an even more thriving sector to work in.

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