Culture vs. culture

At NEP lately, we’ve been up to our armpits in culture work. So, we’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why culture is always a hot topic in business. Of course, we believe it should be.

Culture is always present. It exists whether you manage it or not. It is as old as time. Cultures exist all over the world; from the most ancient tribal cultures, to classroom culture, to the culture that is present in a small group of friends. The way we behave makes up part of a culture but largely it is the expectations we silently agree on and live up to about those behaviours that defines our culture.

When embarking on a cultural program, senior leaders usually start with the question “what do we want our culture to be?” It’s a great question, so long as it is supported with “what IS our culture today?” The gap between the two answers cannot be too big if a shift is to happen successfully.

Have a look around your environment, be that at home, or work, or a local club you belong to. What are the unsaid expectations within that group. Is it always a quiet group? Or, is it usually loud and full of energetic conversation? Are you all great at keeping things private within your group or is that important to you? Perhaps you always cover particular subjects together or avoid some. How do people dress? Is it common practice to bring gifts or take shoes off at the door? These are all indicators of culture.

However, it is not the practice itself, but usually “why” you are engaging in this practice that is important. Is the group quiet out of respect for others, or is it quiet because there is a lack of confidence?

I love Michael Henderson’s dual definition of culture:

 “Culture is: What it means to be human here.” And, “An unwritten social contract that turns a person into a people.”

It implies that these small practices and expectations we have are all part of defining our group’s idea of being human. How you are expected/allowed to show up as a person in this group? And, it is powerful? We often mould how we behave to fit into a culture that we want to be a part of. This is driven largely by our fundamental need to connect with other humans. We mirror them. We accept norms and silently agree that we will operate a certain way when we are together. It “turns a person into people.” We are agreeing to the “why” behind the actions.

A culture that is high performing is one where “what it means to be human” is to really be your best self. The practices at play all allow the individuals to find this behaviour and inspire them to continue to do this, to evolve, to grow and to help (serve) others to do the same. Perhaps you have a high-performance culture in your home. Perhaps in a friendship group, or if you’re lucky, in many cultures around your life.

At work, ask yourself where your culture doesn’t quite live up to helping people be the best version of themselves. This is the beginning of identifying the gap for a meaningful and high performing culture. Identify the values that are present when these behaviours happen. These are the values you will have to work on and perhaps change the definition of to set new standards. Perhaps there are values that might need to be replaced, but that’s another blog post altogether.

If you want to evolve and really learn what it means to be the best version of you, it’s time to start looking at the cultures within your life and working out how great a gap exists between today’s culture and the one that will lead you to where you want.


If you’d like to find out more, join the conversation in our next open workshop.