When I teach students in my undergraduate psychology course about culture, I always start with helping them learn about their own. Many times students who are members of a majority group will have difficulty identifying what aspects of their routine, clothing, and diet represent their culture. Turn the tables and assign them an “exotic” culture to research and they easily spot the cultural indicators. Culture is invisible, at least our own often is. We are so steeped in our culture we hardly notice it other than to observe when something different intersects with it.
The same is true for corporate cultures, which is today’s hip way of referring to human resources, physical plant, and corporate governance procedures. Culture is now currency in many sectors, with conferences, webinars, and initiatives all focused on defining, spreading, or improving the invisible essence of a company. In some ways these efforts are about branding, but the branding effort is internal rather than external. Savvy businesses in the day of social media are furthering the internal branding effort, the Culture effort, into a strategy to engage external audiences more deeply than pure marketing or product might do. The most successful Culture practices are translating to the outside observer as authentic, organic, and participatory atmosphere within the organization.
The Circus Hotel and Apartments is a series of hostel, hotel, and flats designed to immerse the traveler into the life of Berlin, Germany. Rather than a box with a bed, the hotel aimed to create a community of travelers that would learn and support each other, while becoming a meaningful, if temporary, part of the community in which it operates. Resources are used to spread this message to workers and to patrons. A hotel magazine connects the traveler to staff, who are columnists, featured guests, and contributors. Add to this a set of policies around uniforms, customer responsiveness, and community participation and the experience for the visitor is one of belonging, even if they have never been. And, it works, the Circus has been able to grow and expand despite economic challenges, they are committed to a living wage for their staff, and place an emphasis on sustainability. They have staff that are committed to their vision and the community. And under the hood, the imperfections that exist are part of the tapestry that makes up their Culture.
How do you take these lessons into your own organization? My students always struggle at first when labeling their cultural indicators, how would your employees and leadership team fare when asked this of your organization? How about if you turn the tables and frame it as a question about the competition’s culture, or a client partner’s culture? Often this is easier and may be a starting point for your organization to conduct a Cultural inventory of its people and practices. Once there is widespread recognition of what your organizational culture really is, you can begin to enhance or message the culture more easily.
What is the value of identifying Culture within an organization? It can lead to some high profile industry wide notice, which in turn can lead to talent finding you rather than you hunting talent. These certainly are great benefits, but an additional, and I think more important one, is that knowing culture allows you to better understand the transitions and challenges that will arise in the organization. By knowing that your organization is shaped by a leadership vision of independence and autonomy, you can predict that growth, which will bring with it additional regulatory demands, will likely be difficult for staff. Using culture to frame the challenge and the opportunities it presents will assist in shaping a productive response to the change.
A word of caution. Remember that earlier point that effective organizational culture is often organic and authentic? Sometimes cultural pride can transform our replication efforts into repetition or sloganeering. Avoid treating your organizational culture as an object to be manipulated or messaged or you will devour whatever amount of commitment your employees and stakeholders have provided. “Cultural Evangelists” are trendy now, a designated staff person that is in charge of programming and spreading the message about your corporate culture, and in charge of alerting leadership to problems within the cultural fabric of the company. But the real staying power of spreading your culture lies in the people and the positions you already have. Empower them with ownership of the environment they share, and allow authentic expressions of support, and you won’t need an “evangelist” to spread the word; you’ll have missionaries in spades.
I am sitting in a cafe about 5300 miles from my home in New Hampshire and reading news of a young mother’s murder while on holiday in Turkey. A few days before I left New Hampshire my local paper reported on my trip and the fact I would be traveling with my family for the next 5 months. I went online to locate the story so I could share it with my family through email and I noticed a comment following the article. In it a man scoffed at the travel plans, warned (us?) that the US would not be able to help us if we needed it, and sarcastically implied we were entering this experience with blindness and folly. It struck me as incredibly ironic coming only a couple of weeks after school children in a safe community only 2 hours from our home were gunned down. Is there real safety in the world? Was I being irresponsible for bringing my family?
And then the news of Sarai Sierra’s trip and death. Why would a mother leave her children, why was she gone so long, what was she really up to? The insinuations and accusations were flying as the search for her revved up. I myself had a thought that perhaps she was trying to get away. But then they found her, dead, and likely killed the few hours before she was to board a plane home, early, to surprise her son for his birthday. And I felt my heart break for her, for her boys, and for everyone she was inspiring with her journey.
Because she is me, I am her, and our choices really not so different. I am sure some will take her death as proof that she was selfish or that these kinds of choices are inherently fool hardy. And I think about the father soldier who will not return, about the business traveler dad that has to be on location for months at a time, and about the young woman pursuing a high stakes career with travel that is deciding not to have a family. I think about the ways in which their choices are seen as necessary sacrifices and how some herald their decisions. But not so for a mother, and I can’t be sure that a mother of children any age would be judged less harshly.
As I was thinking about Sarai’s life and her decision to travel for a month to a part of the world she did not know I was struck by the choices she must have had to make. Her boys were 9 and 11, on the verge of teenage years, but well after the demanding toddler and kindergartner years. She started her family in her very early 20′s, when many are still figuring out what they want to be when they grow up. I imagined her as a selfless mother, captured by photos of her children that then flourished into photography as a passion. I imagined her planning meticulously, and deciding that the time was perfect, her boys back in school after the holiday break, she would be back in time for winter break and birthdays, and still time with them in school to edit and work on the fruits of her trip before summer came crashing in and she was back to schlepping active boys to and fro.
My husband and I talked about her trip, talked about her leaving her boys. We brought our 5 children with us on our adventure; we judged her. And I reminded him of our privileged ability to pay for the tickets that were not already covered in my travel grant, talked about the choices a parent faces when trying to time their lives and their children’s lives. When is a parent allowed to place priority on their personal or professional development? Would this have been any different if her boys were in college? Worse if they were infants and toddlers?
I am sad for her family. But I do not want her death to be a warning to ambitious parents, mothers or woman who might be mothers, to not pursue their passions. You can place your children’s activities and interests above your own, lots of women do and our US culture praises this. But if you feel empty, exhausted, resentful, shortchanged- are you really giving your best to your family? Does the choice really have to be so black and white? Can’t we cheer on parents, dads and moms, who pursue their passions AND try to negotiate the shifting sands of parenting as best they can? She is a heroine, and I will think of her often as my children are offered opportunities to change their lives. I hope they are always ready to love others and follow their dreams, and I will pray they are as safe as can be while still being part of the world.
Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP is a Licensed Clinical Psychologist, Professor, Entrepreneur, and Diversity Columnist.
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Loretta L.C. Brady, Ph.D., APA-CP, 2011-2014