Culture: The Invisible Person In The Room

“Life Would Be Simple Without the Visible People”
– Culture, 2018

“Our culture needs a radical overhaul.”

“It’s just part of the culture here.”

“I would love to do that, but culturally it wouldn’t fly.”

I don’t know if you’ve ever heard things like that, but I have, quite regularly, in fact, over the past few years, from both clients and programme participants.

Actually, I like to think of culture as the invisible person in the room … and I’m always fascinated to think about what they would say. Would they honestly feel that they were as dominant as those sentiments make them out to be?

I imagine they might actually say something very similar, but opposite: “I’m doing my best to have influence around here, but the people just don’t allow it.”

Cultural influences

Cultures are sometimes explicit: “This is the way we expect things to happen around here. See, it’s written up there on that massive banner.”

Sometimes they are implicit: “I wouldn’t say it that way next time,” in hushed tones.

It could also be said that a workplace culture is formed primarily from the sum of a few key influences:

  1. Firstly, the people who started the business (if it’s still a young company), or the people in leadership.
  2. Secondly, the history of that business (i.e. the successes or challenges they have had in their recent past, and what has made them successful or not).
  3. And thirdly, the influence of the “cohesive majority” in the current workforce.

(A myriad of other smaller factors, of course, also feed in case by case!)

So, can we actually go about “creating” a culture? Well, yes, I think we can if we choose to.

Creating the right environment

What I’ve observed over the last few years is that telling people what culture you want, or trying to create it through words and catchphrases isn’t the way to get results. It’s about creating the environment in which people can most naturally embody the culture you would like to see, then allowing space and time for them to get used to it.

  • If you want more autonomy: Try a move to hot-desking, and ensure every individual has the tools they need to do their work without being tied to a fixed desk. One client of ours cut desk space by 30% and moved to an entirely hot-desk approach (in an office of thousands of people, by the way). There was uproar to begin with. However, a few years on, both the leaders of the business and people on the ground are both fairly unanimous in the same sentiment: “It’s the best thing we ever did.”
  • If you want more communication between teams: You could try using Workplace (it’s basically Facebook for work), which encourages more social communication between colleagues, and other communication should naturally follow. Again, one client of ours trialled using it as their sole intranet … and has never looked back. While other software may be needed for process, they feel the community feeling Workplace has created has fostered exactly the type of internal connections they were hoping for.

To get everyone in the room in harmony with everyone else, they all have to sound, feel and think in a similar way. But rather than telling them how to do it, first try thinking about what would create the environment to encourage it – and then allow them all to assimilate to that behaviour.

Both the visible, and the invisible people.