Feed the Culture Organism

One of my favorite martial arts exercises was trying to go with my partner's flow. It wasn't about hitting or even blocking, just trying to be so in tune with his energy that I could mimic his movements.

In reading Stan Slap's explanation of culture in his book Under the Hood: Fire Up and Fine-Tune Your Employee Culture, that exercise came to mind.

As Stan explains it, employee culture is an organism that exists in companies of all sizes and its primary purpose is to protect itself. There is no way to force it to do or go along with anything, and if you want any initiative to succeed, you have to figure out how to appease this organism.

What does it want?  Since its purpose is self-protective, it wants energy. Stan explains that to keep the employee culture happy and "fed" with energy, you need to do the following three things:

  1. help employees understand the past and context behind messages, 
  2. give them predictable rules to live by and make decisions by,
  3. and give them something they're proud to be part of.

Culture wants predictability, not because it hates change but because if it knows what's coming, needless energy won't be spent deciphering clues. That energy can then be diverted to what you want them to spend it on.

This also means two very important things—

  1. no one can be above these rules and accountability, not even "senior management";
  2. and if you have change coming, first prepare the culture for it.

Remember, to this organism, context and information are energy. Start by explaining what will remain the same and then explain why the change is necessary and good for them. And first sell the change to those most affected and have them sell it to the rest of the culture.

Company culture is something I've been interested in and reading about for a while, but this treatment and explanation of it is different and has gotten me thinking. Although I've held senior roles, I've occasionally taken a lower position for various reasons; these have invariably been mistakes. This book has made me realize one reason behind this.

As an executive, I was in the loop and often had to roll out change initiatives (I've actually been hired to do this several times). Since communication is a key part of my management style and key to any successful change, I would work hard to keep my staff and others in the know. I therefore did not realize how different and difficult it would be to no longer know what was coming.

So for the managers out there, how are you going to feed your employee culture the energy and information it needs to be healthy and productive?


Karina is VP of Operations and HR at 24/7 Teach.

Originally posted on Business Common Sense blog.

Disclosure: IndieBound affiliate link included.