Friday, April 10, 2015

What's Your Cultural Problem?


We read and hear about it all the time, "experts" and "normal" people, alike, explaining the cause of an important issue as a "cultural problem". You hear it on the news, on the bus, at the coffee clutch, the classroom, the board room, the family kitchen. You read about it in books, newspaper and magazine articles and, yes...on blogs. Just scroll through the results of a culture-related search engine query and you'll find some of the most talked about issues of our times in the results. For example, search "It's a Cultural Problem" or "It's a Cultural Issue" and you'll find myriad communications on: Bullying and Hazing, Family Life, Gender Equality, Addiction, Education, Religion, War, Race and Ethnicity Differences, and Workplace Issues like Employee Engagement, Environmental Safety, Employee Safety, Product Quality, Product Safety, Customer Relationships, and Leadership, to name a few.

So, we are all aware and able to identify that culture is at the core of the greatest problems of our times. The solution is simple, isn't it? Fix the culture and you fix the problems. Easy. Right?

What is a Culture?

Here's the definition: Culture is the shared and learned way of thinking and acting among a group of people within a specific organizational context.

Culture- It's Not As Simple As It Seems

Culture is everywhere. Each one of us operates within multiple cultural contexts. Even what appears to be a clear-cut context such as a company culture isn't really what is seems. The truth is, the culture is divided by sub-cultures, both formal and informal.

Let me illustrate: Both Company and Family Cultures are divided into sub-cultures because of differences in thinking created by Five Factors of Cultural Influence:
  • Proximity- Location-specific thinking.
    • Different company facilities, divisions, and departments in different locations have a high-risk of identifying and translating different meanings of values based on the influences the people have on each other because of the strength of their exposure to one another. It's that whole "you are the average of the five people you spend the most time with" thing.
  • Functional- Process-specific thinking.
    • The process one group in a given location follows to create value (intrinsic and extrinsic) can affect how they perceive different key value-propositions.
  • Resource- Constraint-based thinking.
    • The uneven distribution and limited availability of important resources (Time, Materials, Equipment/Tools, and People (Skills, Expertise, Leadership) between different locations and functional areas can create different views on values-based principles like:
      • Internal safety and security
      • External safety and security
      • Quality
      • Efficiency and Profitability
  • Expertise- Experiential-driven thinking.
    • Each individual's unique combination of age, level of education and training, and amount of experience can skew how they perceive values and how they should be applied in different situations.
  • Position- Authority-driven thinking
    • How leaders exercise the authority in their areas of responsibility and the power their position provides will influence how employees think and act.
    • Appropriate uses of authority and power will influence others to engage and exercise their creativity.
    • Inappropriate uses will influence others to disengage out of fear of punishment. 
Each of these influencing factors can play a role in any given context and definitely affects the quality of the culture whithin which it exists. Cultural issues can be enormously complex if we don't take a systematic approach at solving them.

Our human tendency is to allow our Expertise to drive our decisions which, in and of itself, is not enough.

The Common Denominators

There are three common denominators in the influencing factors associated with cultural complexity: Values, People, and Relationships.

The Potentially Simple Solution to Cultural Issues

Create a consistent definition, and understanding of the definition of values and value-propositions for your people across all locations, functions and levels of expertise within the company-level context. Create a culture where thinking and actions are focused on using expertise, resources, and functional capabilities to identify and implement innovative solutions that contribute to your purpose and mission.

In other words: Align people on values. Get them to use those values are the primary drivers for decisions, actions and behaviors and you'll et the conditions for creating meaninful and lasting mutually-beneficial relationships.

I've said it before: Mutually beneficial relationships are magical! Why? Because, when they occur, every stakeholder involved walks away from the situation feeling like they got more out than they put in. 
    • The desire to make a connection and stay connected is reinforced. The kinds of employees and customers you need to be successful will be attracted to you.
    • Trust is created through a history of shared positive outcomes. Be consistent and reliable and they will come to you when they really need help.
    • The willingness, or conviction, to transcend conflict is strengthened when the highest form of love is achieved in a relationship. You may recognize this concept. It's what you mean when you say things about wanting people to, "Go above and beyond," "Go the extra mile," "Take the extra step," "Hit it out of the park." It's what you're talking about when you say your highest performing, most loyal team member has "An intangible quality." It only happens if the bonds of connection and trust are created and consistently reinforced.

How to Solve A Cultural Problem

1. Define Your Company Culture- The culture you really want.

2. Identify and define the problem.
  • Identify WHAT value-propositions are not being fulfilled and WHEN.
  • Identify WHAT Influencing Factors are involved and WHERE (It could be could be all of them).
  • Identify WHO is not fulfilling those value-propositions.
  • Identify WHY they are not fulfilling them. The answer will fall under one, or both, of these two categories:
    • Capability- Identify the conflict, or gap, between process, resource constraint, or experiential situations at the locations involved and the expectation.
    • Will- Identify the conflict, or gap, between the value-propositions the individuals involved are choosing to fulfil and the expectation.
3. Solve the Capability and/or Will problem. 
  • This problem. Now. 
    • Don't try to solve every problem all at once. 
    • Incremental, systematic change will change the culture one problem at a time. The change can be positive or get to choose which depending on how engaged you are.
      • As a leader, you're either part of the problem or part of the solution.
  • Find conviction, belief in what you are doing, and you will create Values-Driven Leaders who will:
    • Know what the culture you want them to create looks like.
      • So they can Think before they take Action.
    • Do things that will reflect it.
    • Be successful at building lasting mutually-beneficial relationships that are meaningful to your organization's success.

Every culture is a reflection of how it is led.

  • Do you feel like you keep addressing the same problems with your employees?
  • Do it feel like you're constantly trying to fill gaps in your talent pool and want to reduce employee turnover?
  • Are you frustrated with employee attitudes?
  • Does it seem like you're constantly chasing customers? 
  • Does it feel like you can't make key customers happy no matter how hard you try?
These are all symptoms of cultural problems that create enormous amounts of frustration, waste, and lost opportunities for you, your company and the key stakeholders critical to your success. 

Do you know how to lead the efforts necessary to fix the cultural problems that are at the root of these symptoms?