When we are asked to review an organisational culture, we never walk in guessing or assuming what we’ll find, but we do know three things from our experience:

  1. There is no perfect organisation
  2. There is no totally evil organisation
  3. Every organisation can be better tomorrow than it is today

The range we find as we complete organisational Culture Reviews almost always includes:

  • Good people doing everything they can to do the right thing. We
    check if they are well supported and encouraged to speak up when
    they think things aren’t right.
  • Bad people trying to skirt the system and not get caught. We
    consider whether the system finds them and holds them to account,
    and that guardrails are tough to breach.

Culture Reviews are hugely complex (makes sense, given you’re reviewing a deeply complex human system), but ultimately, you want an organisation with a high ambition to do the right thing, but with an openness to a lack of perfection, and an appetite to improve all the time.

Some things make me laugh.

When we talk culture, three statements always strike me as little red flags.  

                 “Engagement at 95%+”

As if! – I’ve never met a 95% consistently perfect person, let alone a consistently perfect organisation where all us imperfect people gather to work together.

                 “That never happens here”.

Things happens everywhere.

There is no suburb, organisation, or industry that’s immune from the reality of a bad person, or a good person on a bad day. Things happen. And sometimes they happen when you least expect it.  

                “When that happens, we ALWAYS do xyz. No exceptions”.

Having good rules around consequence is super important.

Having good processes around what happens when someone behaves badly, is also super important.

Having an expectation that the process is perfect, and always adhered to, will lead to disappointment.

You’re better off assuming that, despite best intent and clear rules, there was a tech glitch or a missed email, a scared employee who didn’t want to speak up, a leader who didn’t know what to do with a sensitive conversation, a good person who had a bad day, a leader who didn’t have time to listen and understand fully, or a bad person who showed their true colours and the person they showed them too was too scared to act.

I guess the moral to all three statements is to expect imperfection, rather than being blindsided by it. Not assuming the worst, but rather assuming reality. Assuming the fallibility of humans. Not suspicious of everyone, and managing to the lowest common denominator, but being open to an error, a gap, a break that you’re accountable to repair or resolve.

Perfection is Imperfect

The speech, the preso, the comms, the process, the leader.

I was asked this week by a Board Chair – “How do you make sure your culture is authentic?”

The answer is that it needs to be honest and real.

When there are perfect values, flawless leaders, and a culture that only ever looks shiny, you’ve created an environment where people polish themselves, and all their behaviours, to fit in. They don’t own mistakes, or seek to improve. Instead, they pretend to be perfect too.

How do you have an authentic culture – The same way you have an authentic leader.

An ambition for trying to be the very best you can for the organisation and your team, but acknowledging fallibility with vulnerability, and openness to learning. Confidence in your strengths, but acknowledging the need for others to compliment you and hold you in the spaces you have that fall a bit short.

The best cultures are unique and potentially a bit quirky. They’re right for their work, and their plans and their teams, but not for everyone. They’re not competing with anyone but themselves to be the best they can be. It’s like a perfect face that you totally love. It might be lopsided, or a little wrinkled, or make Dad jokes, but it’s the face you know and trust and love despite all those imperfections.  Its uniquely perfectly imperfect.

If in doubt, remember that no one trusts perfection.

Be your honest self, and you have a much better chance to develop trust, honesty, and openness to letting you know what’s really going on around you.

The line in sand – Imperfection versus Evil (and other shortfalls)

When we talk about imperfection, please don’t confuse it with awful, evil or illegal behaviour.

Every organisation must be clear on their line in the sand.

Clearly the law is one. For all of us. It is not OK to harass, assault, discriminate unlawfully, or bully our colleagues  – clear line in the sand.

But there’s a range of behaviours or shortfalls – imperfections if you like – that are much more common and need to be understood and mitigated.

Here’s the list of the big five that we see most often:

  1. Experience – where people, particularly leaders, don’t have sufficient experience or tools to handle particular issues, processes or practices. They want to do xyz, but they’re not sure how. How can you make sure everyone has the basic information they need and a trusted someone to call for advice if they’re unsure.
  2. Confidence – where leaders or employees don’t have the confidence to speak up or step up – based on power, tenure, hierarchy, or some other identity factor, how can you support the development of confidence through practice, and demonstrating how their speaking up will be calmly, confidentially and professionally be dealt with to resolution.
  3. Time – listening for the detail takes time and patience, so when people are pressed for time, and they meet people who are upset or struggling to tell their story efficiently or clearly, the combination can lead to misunderstanding or not appreciating the seriousness of something. You need to make sure people know to stop and listen patiently – to make the time.
  4. History is still seen as reality – if culture has been weaponised in the past, or the processes, practices, and leaders were not to be trusted, it’s hard work to build trust and convince people that things have changed.
  5. Misplaced organisational protectors – these are the people who try to keep everything hidden in defence of the organisation’s reputation. They are convinced of their role of ‘protector’, but in reality, they don’t let the sun shine on issues that need sunlight to be understood, resolved, fixed or stopped.

Imperfection relates to human fallibility.

You can smother fallibility with policies, processes, and expectations of perfection.

But if you’re genuinely good at improving culture, you stay open to fallibility, while supporting people to move through the limitations – to gain experience, confidence, and patience, to move forward from bad history, and abandon misplaced patriotism in favour of creating genuinely better workplaces.

Without sounding hokey, it’s about staring human fallibility in the face, and being kind enough to reach out and help rather than just judge. Acknowledging the shortfall and supporting improvement.

As for that illegal, never-ok line in the sand?

Well, that is always about very clear standards, and consequences every time those standards are breached.
No exceptions.

The Old Growth Mindset

A ‘growth mindset’ became an overused term a while back, but its actually the right one when you talk about culture.

A growth mindset is not about perfection, but about constant and continuous improvement.

Always open to and seeking ‘what could I do better’/‘what could we do better’?

When you see a growth mindset in leaders of organisational culture, you feel hopeful.

They won’t blame, they’ll own.

They won’t defend, they’ll listen.

They won’t skip across the surface, they’ll dig deep.

They’ll do the work.

When it comes to organisational culture there is no such thing as Perfect.

And that’s OK.

Change starts with honesty, acceptance, and openness to the fact that cracks and imperfections exist, and need attention.

There’s no wallpapering over them.