We can learn a lot about culture when we look at the science behind it. I don’t mean the science of organisational culture. Let’s instead look at bacteria and the culture that grows from it.

Stay with me…

In the lab

When we talk about culture in a laboratory environment we talk about bacteria. Those little microorganisms that float in a tangle. You generally can’t see them without a microscope but they reproduce rapidly, splitting off to form colonies and eventually you can see those colonies of bacteria as they take the form of culture.

In the lab, culture generally refers to growing these microorganisms selectively. They are grown with care, precision, and a goal in mind. And there are many ways to grow it, in a broth, in agar, in guar gum… You get the idea.

Now, imagine your organisational culture being just like that, made from many parts, in many ways, that can grow and change. It can be hard to see all the moving parts, however they all make a difference.

Good versus bad bacteria

From a human perspective, bacteria can be good and bad for us. Good bacteria help keep our bodies healthy, eat up unhealthy toxins, and produce oxygen. When we have bad bacteria around we can get unwell. Most of us would have experienced bad bacteria at some stage in our lives. And it can multiply just as fast as the good kind.

That is sometimes how it feels in an organisation.

If we have good culture, we thrive, we are healthy, and we feel like we belong. People can contribute at their best, collaborate and innovate, have strong and trusted relationships, and possess the confidence to speak up and know they’ll be heard.

In a bad culture, we don’t feel safe, we become stressed, and we can develop health issues. If people don’t feel psychologically safe, they will sit on issues rather than address them, leading to bigger problems down the line. Relationships will be fractious, and the work itself will suffer.

We want to increase good bacteria. We want to grow good culture.

How to increase the good bacteria

The speed at which bacteria multiply means that if conditions are perfect then you could grow over one billion bacteria in only ten hours.

For better or worse, organisational culture takes a little longer to grow. It needs more nutrients, more oxygen, more care. This is where some organisations and businesses become stuck. Organisational cultural change takes time. It’s not an overnight revolution where suddenly everyone ‘gets it’ and is completely aligned with the organisation’s purpose and feels like they belong.

Great cultures are built on solid foundations, over time.

Culture is many things. It is a shared way of describing the organisation and telling its story. It is the values and rituals that underpin each day. It is complex and contains sub-cultures. It is constantly adapting. It can keep an organisation running smoothly.

“Culture is the organisation’s immune system.” — Michael Watkins

In our bodies, we want our immune system to promote the good bacteria and stop the bad bacteria from reproducing. To support the immune system in this process:

– we need probiotics – those positive agents who help keep the good bacteria healthy and thriving. Within any team or business, those people who are the ‘probiotics’ are the ones you see caring for others, nurturing people, and keeping momentum going forward in a positive way.

– we need antibacterial agents – either to stop the bad bacteria from reproducing. At work, these agents might be processes, systems, or people that are working to keep bad bacteria in check and to help the immune system do its job with the good bacteria. These are often also change agents, those deeply engaged and passionate people who love great culture and know its importance.

– we need exposure – a healthy immune system has been exposed to antigens and bacteria and knows how to respond. In a work context, this means knowing what are the common mistakes or traps that organisations can fall into, and being up-to-date with the latest workplace culture mishaps happening beyond your organisation. This exposure helps a team learn and be prepared to respond effectively if an issue comes along internally.

– we need nutrients – an immune system needs the right nutrients and a balanced diet to fuel healthy immune function. Within a team or business, this is about proactively feeding positive behaviours, supportive relationships, and a clear sense of purpose, agency, and accountability. This includes knowing best practice and staying informed about new and proven ways to have a thriving culture. It’s about keeping these positive elements in balance with the compliance aspects of a workplace.

And remember…

Bacteria, both good and bad, float in a tangle, the same as organisational culture. It’s a network of things that form your organisation’s ‘immune system’. You need to understand that complex tangle to be able to support the great culture to thrive and grow.

If you need help untangling your organisational culture, reach out to us.