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Only You Can Prevent a Culture Change


US Ranger Bear cookie jar, circa 1960s. Only I can choose “not” to eat that extra cookie.

I’ve always liked Smokey the Bear Ads. You know the ones where he said, “Only you can prevent forest fires.” He made it so personal. He made me responsible. He put me “in-charge.” I controlled the destiny of the forest around me. I believe the same can be said about culture. While culture may rest in you, you by yourself are not a culture.

Let me explain.

Culture is one of the more nebulous words in our vocabulary. Whether discussing the culture of a country, pop culture, Culture Club, or the culture of a company – not only do people have different conceptual differences in what culture is, they have vastly different views on what kind of culture they prefer. Then comes the discussion on what kind of actions (positive or negative actions) drive cultural change. And do we even mention sub-cultures?

Webster defines culture as a way of thinking, behaving, or working that exists in a place or organization. The more I think about culture the more I am coming to believe that culture consists of thousands of daily interactions that come in all sizes and emotions.

In math terms, it is the summation of all the times people interact with each other. As I said earlier, a single person is not a culture. I am not even sure two people make a culture. Rather it is the collision of each of us into each other that creates a fragrance that defines our culture. However, a single person, or two, can interact enough with others to change the fragrance (for good or bad) because a little yeast can work its way through the whole batch. That makes changing culture hard – hard because you cannot control thousands of daily human interactions.

However, you can control foundational structure – if you take the time to figure out the cornerstones. Once you figure them out, you can rock the building (so to speak). It could be as simple as how a meeting is structured. How meetings are run says a lot about your culture – planning, trust, what is important and what isn’t. It is simple things that create hundreds of interactions a week that shape your culture.

Every company has a culture. There are great parts of the culture. There are parts of the culture that must evolve. There are parts of culture yet to be defined. We are each part of a culture – we are each adding or subtracting to the interactions – we are each improving the culture or subtracting from it. Over the next couple of weeks, I am going to explore foundational structures that control culture, and where teams can come together to shift culture.

It might be trite, but just like a forest fire can start with one, a culture shift starts with each individual. All your interactions in a day add up to your participation in a culture, which is part of the definition of the culture. Every where you go, there you are! Think about it.

As we explore the topic of culture I’d love to hear ways you have seen or think culture can be shifted. What’s worked? What didn’t? Why?

Be intentional!

Do you have enough change for life’s toll booths?

"Not even enough for a cup of coffee."

“Not even enough for a cup of coffee.”

A close friend once told me that he only liked change if it was loose and in his pocket. This is also the same guy who knows exactly how much the tolls are going to be between O’Hare and his destination. However, if you were to ask him to change his route you’d witness a melt down. What do you mean go a different route? Why?

Change is hard for people.

Change brings ambiguity; you don’t know what tomorrow will look like.
Change brings new routines; you have to learn and re-learn things.
Change brings new work; you may have to do something you never did before.
Change brings additional work; you may have to work harder through the change.
Change brings new people/new ideas/new stuff; you have to sort and absorb something different than the status quo.

Changes also can make things better…

  • Change can make us stronger
  • Change can make us more efficient, give us more time in our day
  • Change can secure a future path of security

Instead of fighting change, try embracing it.  It is hard going through it, but I have found it is always better on the other side.

I would be interested in hearing how changes at work brought a new and better work environment (culture, empowerment, efficiency). Feel free to comment below or tweet to me: @melissaholobach

kind regards,