In the third of a 5-part blog series on mindful leadership and organisational culture, Sarah Carter explains how focusing time and energy on the building blocks of culture can transform our organisations.
Culture is something everyone’s talking about. We need to change it, to nurture it, to fix it, to address cultural problems. And – as leaders – it’s our responsibility to make this happen, to set the right tone for our organisations, for our fundraisers, for supporters, our service users and to ensure that this positive working culture is maintained.
But how do you set, inspire and nurture that positive working culture?
A healthy, life-affirming culture – whether that’s of an organisation, community or family - is built on a foundation of universal values like honesty, respect, decency and integrity. But it’s up to individuals, mindful and self-aware, to uphold and preserve these values.
The Building Blocks of Culture
When you look back at culture in a variety of guises (both in professional working environments and community groups), there are five building blocks on which cultures are built and organisational values established. These include: storytelling, initiations, rituals, symbols and practices. I'll come on to those in a moment.
Why is it important to understand how cultures are built? If you’re a leader that understands these building blocks, you’ll have a direct route to influence and transform your organisation.
You can create an environment in which people begin to feel more engaged – whether staff, volunteers or donors. You can use those building blocks to create a more positive culture; one that strengthens engagement, reinforces buy in.
So let’s look at a few of these building blocks and their impact more closely.
Whether we’re children, adults, communities, tribes, teams, organisations or nations, stories are how we engage people, how we bring people with us, how we inspire and engage them, how we communicate and understand who we are. As such, storytelling is a particularly important skill for leaders.
So what is it that makes a good story and encourages us to stick around to the end?
• A big idea
• Great characters
• Something universal that we can connect with on an emotional level
• A clear structure and a sense of where the narrative is going
Apply these principles to organisations and we can begin to see why storytelling is such a fundamental building block of culture – especially when we recognise that each and every one of us is a character in that story with an active role to play.
Initiations and Rituals
An initiation is the process of being formally invited into and accepting your place within a group or organisation; it’s an opportunity to introduce and share the values and story of the group and for people to see their place in that story.
A powerful initiation will make us feel bigger, part of something, greater than ourselves – greater than we previously thought we were. There are plenty of times when we initiate people into our organisations or our cause – for example, new trustees, recruits, volunteers and donors. People are also initiated into a new role when they are promoted – this might apply to employees or donors as they progress along the supporter journey.
Meanwhile, rituals are activities that are scheduled regularly into the working calendar to reinforce the organisation’s values. These rituals could be about showing respect or celebrating individual or group achievement. But it’s not enough to treat them as routine – value and meaning have to be built into them; their importance has to be consistently recognised.
Symbols are objects or images imbued with meaning by the group – the meaning isn’t inherent in the symbols themselves. They are deeply powerful repositories of cultural information that encourage us to feel a sense of belonging to a particular group or culture; to identify and associate ourselves with the culture on a deeper level.
The way we communicate them, the respect we have for them; the way we share and involve others in their power all contribute to creation of a symbol that takes on a life of its own and has both personal and organisation-wide power.
Think of where you use symbols within your organisation – your brand logo for example. What does it mean to people internally and externally? What work has been done to pack that symbol with meaning? What more needs to be done?
What other symbols do you have? This could include awards and recognition for people in your organisation that achieve consistently high performance or have shown commitment with length of service. What do these accolades mean to people? Have they become something to aspire to? Do you publicly celebrate when they are awarded or are they largely hidden away?
A practice is about embedding your intention into action. It’s about the actual application or use of an idea, belief, or method, as opposed to theories relating to it.Hence things like exercise are a practice. Meditation is also a practice because it’s about bringing that deep intention to listen to yourself into your everyday world; building it into your life.
Within organisations practices might include ways in which a company’s values and beliefs are embedded into the everyday, and made more than just words or intentions. For example, an organisation might say that it values its people but how does it put that into practice? Where do we actually see or experience that within the culture? To be a practice, this value needs to be turned into action and become a reality that is repeated.
Making the building blocks more conscious
Whatever your perspective, these building blocks have been there since human beings first started hanging around together in groups. They are fundamental to people working together successfully, to collective working and organisational cultures. And yet, within many organisations, they are not a conscious part of the culture.
Organisational culture can be communicated and embedded via these building blocks from individual to individual or generation to generation through relationships, learning and modelling. These blocks create a rich and fulfilling sense of belonging – an identity, helping people to feel included, to share a vision, to be part of something. And, of course, this has a direct influence on results; success of fundraising campaigns, supporter engagement and employee’s passion not only for the cause but for the organisation they are a part of.
Be aware of these building blocks, how they relate to one another, the power within them to create cultural change and the benefits of making them a more conscious part of our organisations.
First Published by Fundraising Convention on 19/05/2017.
Sarah has 25 years’ experience of developing communications & learning for some of the world’s biggest brands.