The Boss Show

Workplace wisdom with heart and humor

May 21, 2017

The Culture Monster: What To Do About It – Part 1

Your workplace culture is like tree roots.  Can’t see them, so you forget they determine the success or failure of the tree.  You can’t see your company’s REAL values and beliefs (never mind the plaque in the lobby).  But those REAL values and beliefs drive how people behave,  so they limit everyone’s potential.  Or not.


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Voiceover: It’s a Northwest lifestyle weekend on KOMO News. Now, a show for anyone who is or has a boss. This is The Boss Show with Jim Hessler and Steve Motenko.
Jim Hessler: Today on The Boss Show, we’re going to be talking about one of those words that you hear all the time, and we’re going to dive into it and talk about what it really means. The word-
Steve Motenko: Sex?
Jim Hessler: The word is culture.
Steve Motenko: Oh, sorry.
Jim Hessler: Close. You know, sex, culture. I don’t know. We’re going to talk about corporate culture today. It’s an important subject. We need to dive into it. I’m Jim Hessler. I’m The Business Guy and the founder of Path Forward Leadership Development and the author, along with my co-host, of the book Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face.
Steve Motenko: And I am Steve Motenko. I’m The Psychology Guy. Welcome to the show. I am a personal development coach as well as an executive coach, leadership development specialist. Work with Jim in his business Path Forward Leadership Development, and just love the work that I do helping to enhance the quality of lives of people and teams in the workplace. Jim, what’s up for today?
Jim Hessler: Two-part show. We’re going to do part one today on culture, and this is drawn from our book, we mentioned, Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face. This is the third Plank of the 12 Planks in our book, which is also the structure for our Path Forward Leadership Workshop, which is our flagship product that we offer to our customers and to the business community here and around the country. So culture, first of all, we have to talk about what it is. Because again, the risk here is this is one of these words that we use a lot and we don’t really stop and think about what it means. So I’ll put you on the spot. When I say the word culture, what do you think about?
Steve Motenko: The first thing that comes up is that it’s almost a deadly word because it can mean everything and it can mean nothing.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, good point.
Steve Motenko: And when you talk about okay, we need-
Jim Hessler: It’s like heritage or something like that, yeah. The national interest.
Steve Motenko: Right, yeah. And here’s why you should care about culture, because culture has a much larger influence on everything that you do than you can imagine, and the reason that there’s a disconnect there is that culture is, the metaphor I use is it’s the water that the fish swims in. So a fish doesn’t know it’s swimming in water, a fish doesn’t know that it needs that water to survive. A fish doesn’t know how that water impacts everything about its life. And your culture in your organization, but also your culture in every other way, the culture that you share with your friends, the culture you share with your family, the culture you share in your primary relationship, sets up the context for your life in ways that are way more powerful than we tend to imagine unless we really dive into it.
Jim Hessler: So let’s make that real. Let’s just talk about American culture for a minute. You and I both traveled overseas. A fun question of foreigners is when you think of Americans, what do you think about, and what are some of the words that they use to describe us? It’s kind of interesting. Materialistic often comes up, aggressive or assertive often comes up.
Steve Motenko: Self-absorbed often comes up.
Jim Hessler: Self-absorbed.
Steve Motenko: When you talk to people in other countries, Americans care way more about their own country and everything that happens, and way less about international stuff than most other countries.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, and part of that can be understood because we are so dominant in the world economy and things like that. We’re also seen as friendly, outgoing people by most of the world. More probably transparent than a lot of other cultures. Americans are always the ones that will sit and talk about themselves freely and their tastes and their interests and things, whereas people in other cultures might consider that impolite.
Steve Motenko: And I think we’re more individualistic than most cultures.
Jim Hessler: I think that a lot of people would use that word as well. So here’s the point of this opening here, which is those of us that grew up as Americans absorbed a lot of that just because we’re Americans and this is what we’re surrounded with, and so we tend to think of ourselves as a product of our own choices, of the direction we choose for ourselves. In fact in life, we’re often much more a product of the culture that we grew up in than we realize, and a lot of our thoughts and values are formed by others for us through cultural norms, which we’ll talk about. And this is also true in business. Businesses have cultures. When you walk into a business, whether you recognize it or not, you’re being absorbed into that culture or assaulted by it, as the case may be. So we’re going to dive into this what is culture, how as a leader can you understand and impact it, which is something we hear a lot of and we’re just trying to dive into it and think about what it really means. And particularly-
Steve Motenko: And why it’s important.
Jim Hessler: And why it’s important, and also as a leader why you have to be so keenly tuned into the concept of culture. So Steve, let’s use the metaphor that we use in the book, which is a tree. It may not sound all that elegant a metaphor, but it actually kind of works. So let’s talk about this for a second. So you’re looking at a tree, and typically depending on the type of tree you’re looking at, you’re looking at maybe a half to two thirds of the weight of the tree is what you see above the surface. The root system is below the surface, it’s unseen, but it is every bit as much a part of the tree as what we see above the surface.
Steve Motenko: And in a way, it drives the health of the tree.
Jim Hessler: The tree cannot exist without it. In fact, it may be the most important part of the tree. And yet, it’s unseen. This is often the experience we have as employees is we see the tree, we see the part that’s above the ground, but we don’t necessarily understand what those roots are. What is it that’s underneath the ground that we often don’t pay attention to? It’s just there, it’s the water the fish swim in.
Steve Motenko: Right, and the tree may look healthy and the roots may be rotting. If you don’t know that the roots are rotting, then you don’t know that the tree is about to die. Similarly, the tree, part of the tree, may look not healthy and unless you understand what’s going on at the root level, you don’t know why.
Jim Hessler: Right, so there’s two really important ways in which this metaphor works, and why we play with it with our clients, this concept. Number one is the best outcome is to put those roots down consciously, to know what it is you’re wanting to build, what you’re wanting to grow, how significant that root system needs to be, and how that root system is going to be healthy. So a leader thinks about what’s below the surface. They think about the less obvious things that go into building the organization they want to build. So the positive side of the metaphor is the roots are what keep us grounded, they’re what keep us safe and stable and prevent us from blowing over in the wind. The downside of the root metaphor, Steve, is what? What do we tell our clients is the negative side of the roots?
Steve Motenko: I’m not sure what I’m supposed to say.
Jim Hessler: I’m sorry, it’s the part about making it hard for us to move.
Steve Motenko: Oh, I see. Okay.
Jim Hessler: Right, so when we’re deeply rooted and we have these solid, stable roots, we can’t move when we need to move.
Steve Motenko: Trees are not easily portable things.
Jim Hessler: Right, so your culture is something that in a very good way roots you and keeps you safe and stable. It’s also the thing that can prevent you from moving and changing and adapting to what you need to move and change and adapt to when things change in your external circumstance. So a tree is not very good at adapting to global climate change, for example. A tree is stuck where it is. If the temperature gets hot or if the temperature gets cool or stops raining as much, the tree’s not going to be very adept at changing what needs to be changed, and so your culture is both a good and bad thing. It’s something to be treasured, it’s something to be nurtured, it’s something to be watered and fed, and it’s also something that you need to be vigilant about it not rooting you in ways that make it impossible for you to change.
Steve Motenko: Right, because culture is typically as difficult to change as turning an ocean, the classic turning an ocean line or metaphor.
Jim Hessler: Right, and so back to that thing about American culture, for example. A lot of our culture’s built around our love of automobiles. I mean, there’s places in the United States where automobile racing is the most popular sport. We love cars, we love the mobility that cars give us, the freedom. And yet, we’re looking into a scenario in the future in which that love of cars may cause us to poison the planet in ways that we can’t recover from. So culture good and bad, neither good or bad, it’s both. And this is why it’s so important for leaders to pay attention to it.
Steve Motenko: Here’s a great metaphor that I think explores this. Researchers put five monkeys in a cage. Middle of the cage, there’s a ladder. Top of the ladder is a banana. One monkey, first monkey sees a banana, goes up the ladder, and the researchers douse all the other monkeys with cold water from a hose. They’re perplexed. Next monkey goes up the ladder, same thing happens. The researchers hit all of the other monkeys with water from the hose. Third monkey goes up to get the banana at the top of the ladder. The monkeys have gotten the idea now, and they beat up the monkey who goes up to the top of the ladder. Every monkey who tries to go up the ladder, they beat him up.
Now, the researchers take one of the monkeys out, replaces him with a new monkey. What does the new monkey do, of course? Goes up the ladder. What happens? All the other monkeys beat him up because they’re expecting the cold water. Researchers then continue to replace monkeys until all five monkeys have been replaced. None of the original monkeys is in the cage, and still out of the force of habit, every monkey who goes up the ladder to get the banana, gets beat up by the other monkeys. And if you were to ask the monkeys, if they could respond, why is it that you are beating up this monkey when none of them has experienced the hose, what do you think they would say?
Jim Hessler: Because we’ve always done it that way.
Steve Motenko: And to what extent does that describe your organization?
Jim Hessler: Yeah, we’re a lot more like these monkeys than we’d like to admit we are. And they don’t know why they’re acting that way. It’s not an objective reasoned response. It’s just something that’s embedded in their brain as a pattern of behavior that is enforced on them by a culture. Now, what that leads us to is the first big root that goes down on the ground from the tree analogy that we talked about, which is what does the organization believe to be true? So these monkeys came to a belief that climbing the ladder was a bad thing to do.
Steve Motenko: Right, regardless of whether the belief is ever stated. And of course, monkeys can’t state the belief and it still holds power, total power.
Jim Hessler: And not only is the belief never stated out loud as an agreement amongst them, it’s also not based on any evidence or science. It’s a belief. That’s what a belief is. And this is one of the hardest things, I think, as a leader, is to look through the way your organization’s operating and say what are the beliefs that people are holding that are driving them to behave the way they are, and are those beliefs valid? Are they based on actual metrics or evidence, or are they just beliefs that became part of our folklore, almost, as a company?
Steve Motenko: And are they the beliefs that we truly want to promulgate through the organization, or are they beliefs that have simply been created by default, by maybe one or two powerful personalities, that then become subconscious in the organization?
Jim Hessler: So yeah, and so with our next segment, I want to get into some real world examples of things that get instituted as cultural norms and values in an organization without evidence, without it really being based on facts. If you’re a leader, you need to have one of your eyes and one of your ears directed at culture. You need to be walking into your organization every day and saying why are the people in the building acting the way they’re acting, good and bad? What beliefs, what cultural norms and values are driving that? If you do that, you’ll be a better leader.
Steve Motenko: Jim, you’ve mentioned a number of times earlier in the show you started a sentence with if you’re a leader. I just want to remind everyone who’s listening that you are a leader, regardless of whether you have positional authority, because truly a leader is anyone who has any influence on any other human being. And guess what? That means you. So everyone, positional authority leader or not, has the opportunity to influence culture. You might think, “Oh my God, it’s too huge. I’m in a 10,000 member or employee organization.” But you can influence the culture in your relationships, with your boss, with your direct reports, with your peers on your team. You’ve got influence, use it.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, thank you for that clarification, too, because maybe a better thing for me to say is if you want to lead or if you aspire to lead, rather than if you are a leader, which leans towards being a hierarchical position. And the other thing is your contribution to the company, from a cultural perspective, may be more important than any strategic or operational influence that you could have because culture really is about changing … Changing culture is largely about changing what people believe to be true and how they think about the challenges that are in front of them.
Now you know, I probably mentioned on the air a number of times, a lot of my career experience was built on doing turnarounds, which is go into a distressed organization, an organization that’s losing money in some sort of turmoil, and get it turned around. And I always say that the logistical parts of that were always kind of the easy parts. Change the marketing strategy, maybe advertise differently, make some hires, maybe fire some people that aren’t working out. It was really … The most difficult work was to change what people believed to be true about that business, and once we changed what they believed to be true, then all things became possible.
Steve Motenko: Right, because another of the roots that we talk about in that tree metaphor is norms of behavior, but you can’t change norms of behavior without changing the beliefs underlying them. So I think the qualities of culture that really get people’s attention are when we ask questions in our workshop situations like, “Is it okay to speak the truth to the boss? Do we show up on time? Are we encouraged to be creative and innovative as opposed to just doing what we’re told?” So those are-
Jim Hessler: Is this a meritocracy? Do people get rewarded for contribution, or do they get rewarded for politics? These are cultural questions.
Steve Motenko: These are cultural questions, but they all stem from beliefs. You can’t change the answers to any of those questions without changing the beliefs underlying them. You can’t tell people, “Well, you need to tell the truth to your boss,” if the underlying cultural belief in the organization is “That’s not okay. You’re in a hierarchy, you behave according to your position in the hierarchy.”
Jim Hessler: Right, and here’s where it gets really complicated is often a cultural value or belief system is built around bad data. The example I love to use for my career is the first time I had an outside sales job was with a big company, big distribution company. And I had never sold outside the building before, and I went around and asked a bunch of sales people, “What does it take to be successful in this organization? Tell me what you do to be successful.” And almost to a person, every one of them repeated the same mantra to me, which is “It’s a numbers game. You gotta make a lot of calls, you gotta show up. You gotta do the milk run. You gotta just keep yourself in front of people, that’s how you’re successful in this business. Make 12, 13, 14 calls a day, and I guarantee you’ll be successful.”
Steve Motenko: And it makes sense.
Jim Hessler: Well, and it made sense.
Steve Motenko: On the surface.
Jim Hessler: Well, here’s the point. It made sense to them because they had been successful. What they didn’t realize is that wasn’t why they were successful. They weren’t successful because they were making a lot of calls. They were successful for a lot of different reasons, but your culture builds around success to a certain way that wants to just repeat history. What we say in our book ‘Land on Your Feet, Not on Your Face,” which we have an entire chapter or plank, we call it, on this subject, is that the role of the leader is to be both the greatest champion and the greatest critic of their company’s culture.
Steve Motenko: Depending on to what extent the culture is working for the company.
Jim Hessler: Even if it is, even if your culture is working, I think as a leader, you’re looking for fallacies. You’re looking for paths that people are going down that are just based on habit, repetition, and untested beliefs.
Steve Motenko: Right, I agree with that. I was thinking more of the champion piece because your role is not to be a champion of your culture if you deeply believe that the culture is not working towards success for the organization and everyone in it.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, but there’s probably something about every business that’s worth celebrating, so a lot of leaders think they have to be cheerleaders. They think they have to be constantly talking up the good stuff about the company, and you know what? You do. You need to really, constantly validate what’s good about your organization, what’s good about your people, and what you value and love about the company culture. At the same time, you’re holding this other thought, this great idea that the sign of a first great mind is the ability to hold two different thoughts in your mind, two contrasting thoughts in your mind at the same time. And I think this is really part of the essence of leadership. I love my company, there’s a lot to love, there’s a lot to celebrate, and I’m terrified that we’re going to lose everything tomorrow.
Steve Motenko: Yeah, or simply that there’s so much we could do to get better. I think about that in regards to our business Path Forward. I’m a champion of our model. We have a longitudinal leadership development model, meaning we work with people over a course of time, and that’s the only way that works to create sustainable leadership behavior change. And our model is focused on reflection and dialogue and practice and feedback, not on a teaching situation where somebody stands in front of the room and lectures for hours. All of that is fabulous, and we serve our clients really well. And there is so much more that we can do.
Jim Hessler: We’re not nearly as good as we’d like to be.
Steve Motenko: We could be.
Jim Hessler: You know, or as we could be. And there’s nothing wrong with holding those two thoughts in mind, and I see leaders struggling with this sometime is, “I want people to feel good about working here, I want people to be proud of what we do.” What I think these types of leaders don’t understand is that comes across really pretty shallow after a while. Employees start to see through that, and I think if you’re just constantly celebrating your company culture and you’re defending it and you don’t really want to hear anything to the contrary, that wears people out after a while because people are smarter than that.
Steve Motenko: People know that your organization is not perfect, as much as you’d like to believe it.
Jim Hessler: Yeah, and so a leader who’s constantly telling their employees how great their company is, I think in a way is almost demeaning their intelligence. Because there’s nobody who works there, who is smart and observant, who doesn’t know that there’s things that need to be changed, so why can’t we just be honest about that? So this leader is this person with one foot in the celebratory mode, and the other foot in this “Oh God, if we don’t change tomorrow, somebody might take everything away from us, we might be screwed.” And our culture is just as likely to root us in an unhealthy way as it is to root is in a healthy way. Next show about culture, we’re going to talk more about what the leader can do in order to transform a culture into something that’s healthy, and very specific actions the leader needs to take.
Steve Motenko: And remember, you are that leader. You do have influence over culture.
Jim Hessler: Back to Steve’s point earlier, we’re not just talking to executives here. We’re talking to anybody who wants to be an influencer and have a role in the future success of their company.
Steve Motenko: The Boss Show is produced by Path Forward Leadership. Our sound engineer today, as usual, is Kevin Doddrell.
Jim Hessler: If you missed any of this show, you can get it in its entirety online at, and that’s also where you can go to subscribe to the podcast or to contact us.
Steve Motenko: Maybe bring us into your workplace. Thanks for listening.
Jim Hessler: And don’t forget rule number six.
Steve Motenko: Rule number six.

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