Culture is defined as the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that are characteristic of an organization.
Organisations will often describe their desired culture by means of a series of written behavioural or value statements, for instance: We are innovative, caring, entrepreneurial; we will always put the customer first; we will never walk past a problem.
‘Value’ is an appropriate term for the descriptors of the desired culture. If we think about what we ourselves value most in life, it will be something that we are willing to sacrifice other important things to attain or maintain. We give things ‘value’ by what we are willing to pay for them – not solely in monetary terms, but by giving up other things of value for them. Therefore, if the stated ‘values’ of an organisation are really what it values, its people will sacrifice other things to ensure they are met, and will be rewarded in some way by the organisation (their colleagues etc.) for doing so.
This latter point is key.
To survive and thrive, a culture must be mutually self-reinforcing. Appropriate behaviours exhibited by individuals and groups must be supported and encouraged by other individuals and groups.
The ‘valued’ behaviours need to be recognised and rewarded in some way. If they are not, for instance if they are ignored or attract cynicism or are exploited by others’ self-interest, then they will not develop into a natural pattern for the organisation – they will always be hard-work and sacrifice, and it will be the behaviours of indifference, cynicism and self-interest that will become the true values of the organisation.
Vroom and Deci summarised the nub of this in their excellent paper on motivation: Organisations get the behaviours they reward, which are very rarely those they desire!
In other words, organisations, and ultimately everybody within them, must work hard and make sacrifices if they are to make the desired values a self-reinforcing reality which sits above individual self-interest and politics. It is not sufficient for the leadership to simply draft out a list of platitudes and stick them on the wall. The words are important, but only if they are reinforced by sustained action.
The place people most experience the true culture of any organisation is when they interact with others, and particularly when they interact with those people who can determine the success of what they are trying to achieve. And that place is most commonly in meetings.
In meetings, people discover how other people respond to their contributions, and the ways in which their colleagues appear to gain or lose, to encourage or disparage. They will discover the true cultural influences of which they will need to be mindful if they are to succeed.
If those true cultural influences are to bear any resemblance to the organisation’s stated values, then it is vitally important that people make sure that the values are reflected in how the meeting takes place, and that behaviours and responses which are contrary to those values are not allowed to hold sway. For instance, if your value is to be innovative, you will probably need to find a way to confront cynical humour and knee-jerk dismissals.
A good way to do this is to explicity review the conduct of your meeting against the desired culture of your organisation. Put up a list of the stated values and ask people how well the meeting reinforced those values, and what could have been done to better realise them. By doing this, you not only help people to think through what the values mean in the context of meeting behaviours, you are explicitly valuing them by sacrificing valuable meeting time to review and reinforce them – you are illustrating their importance to you personally as a member of the leadership.
Failing to take time to review things against the values sends the message that ‘the values my be okay in their place, but that place should not affect the normal running of the business’.