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People Watch the Walk

By | Carly Fiorina | Building leaders & problem-solvers. Keynote Speaking I Consulting I Leadership Development I Author

“Culture” is often a loaded term and means many different things to different people in different contexts. In an organizational or team context, “culture” is often diminished as something for the HR team to worry about. Or perhaps it’s viewed as very important, as in the focus on building diverse, equitable and inclusive cultures. Here’s the truth: no matter how people view the term, as unimportant or all-important, and no matter how people interpret the word in their context, an organization’s or team’s “culture” is defined by the realities of “what’s it like to work around here.”

What’s it like to work around here? Who gets promoted? Who gets listened to? Who sits at the table? Who does most of the talking? How do decisions get made? Who makes them? How do people communicate? With whom and when? What happens when someone makes a mistake? What happens when something goes wrong? What, and who, gets celebrated? How do people interact?

Most organizations have Statements of Values. Most have Codes of Conduct. Many have a plaque on the wall with the title “Our Culture.” And no matter how lofty or well-intentioned these presumably sincere declarations may be, “culture” is defined not by these statements, but by the way people behave day in and day out. When it comes to organizational or team culture, people watch the walk and tune out the talk.

This is why cultures are so difficult to change: because culture is defined by people’s behavior and behavior is much harder to change than the words on the wall. Yet, despite the difficulty, if a team’s aspirations change, if circumstances change which require new ways of doing things, if a festering problem must be tackled and actually solved this time, behavior must change.

Behavior in an organization is like software in a computer: it makes the hardware perform its purpose. A team’s goals, strategies and mission are its purpose. Its structures, processes, metrics and results are its hardware. And culture, behavior, “what’s it like to work around here,” is the software that gets it done – or gets in the way of getting it done.

So how do we change cultures? The first step is to acknowledge what the culture actually is, rather than what we want it to be. If we aspire to an inclusive and diverse culture, who is actually sitting at the table? Who does most of the talking? How do people deal with disagreements and process different points of view? Who gets hired, who gets fired, who gets promoted and who gets left behind?

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