unCUlturers: musings on organizational culture & development (and stuff about credit unions too)
I've seen and heard it time and again. "We're going to fix our culture." Or, "For the next six months we're going to focus on our people." Or, "I hope we can get our morale issue under control so we can get back to business."


Imagine if you took this approach to a health and wellness program. In fact, many of us have had this very experience (don't judge me). It usually begins around January 1, doesn't it? We get really motivated to get in better shape, eat right, and so on. We buy gym memberships and workout clothes that fit a little snugly (because after all, we're going to lose weight, right?) and march off to the gym, determined that this time will be different. This time we won't give up in March. We'll at least give it until June.

We all know that to get lasting results in the health arena, we have to continually manage ourselves in this area. We have to keep eating right, and we have to keep getting to the gym to exercise. It's an ongoing thing, or at least it should be.

The same is true in regards to group culture. In our organizations (for most of my readers, that means our credit unions), we too often try to stick bandaids on culture issues rather than taking a long-term, strategic approach to them. Rather than understanding that culture is an ongoing initiative, we relegate it to some sort of temporary project.

Six months later we end up on the couch, bothered that we can't fit into our workout clothing; but not bothered enough to actually do something about it on an ongoing basis. There's always next year.
There was a soda brand a few years back that labeled itself the "uncola." It wanted to be different. It wanted to be better.

Southwest Airlines also appears to get it. They've taken concrete steps to establish a culture altogether different and unique. They've embraced the idea of being silly, odd, even irreverent. Their corporate culture is unlike any other out there. They've built an unculture. They know who they are organizationally, and aren't afraid to let the world know that they're different, countercultural, counterintuitive, etc. They're glad to be the unculture.

And don't think for a second that it doesn't matter. If you don't think that type of attitude and cultural climate have a positive effect on both their employees and their bottom line, you're kidding yourself. You know those silly commercials on TV that show bag handlers ripping open their shirts to display the words "Bags fly free" on their chests? Yeah, those are all actual Southwest employees. When asked why they chose not to hire actors for the commercial, Southwest's response was basically something like "Well, we didn't really think actors could capture the spirit, passion, and attitude of our employees." You think choosing the unculture just amounts to wanting to be silly? Think again. Southwest is full of passionate, engaged employees.

And lest you think this is all just a bunch of touchy-feely nonsense, I should mention that this unculture is one of reasons that Southwest is now widely regarded as the most successful and consistently profitable airlines out there right now. Even through the economic downturn they've managed to be innovative and progressive, attracting top talent from around the nation and world.

But isn't cultivating an unculture risky? Sure it is. It's messier. Things don't always fit into nice little boxes like you'd like. But organizations that understand that their culture can be a huge competitive advantage, both in the consumer and employee markets, will actively cultivate a healthy, unique culture. They'll cultivate an unculture.

Am I saying that every organization out there needs to be just like Southwest? No, of course not. That would kind of defeat the purpose. It's OK not to be like everyone else, or anyone else for that matter. It's OK to be different. It's OK not to be just like every other soda brand. It's OK not to be just like every other airline. It's OK not to be just like every other financial institution. It's OK not to be just like every other non-profit. It's OK not to be just like every other church. 

So figure out who you are as an organization, and who you want to be. Then take active steps to build that culture. Be bold. Be courageous. Be innnovative. Develop a distinct organizational and cultural identity. Then celebrate and cultivate that culture. The effects will be seen in your bottom line for sure, but as a byproduct of more passionate, engaged employees.
No, that's not a misspelling, and yes, I realize it's not an actual word. But it's exactly what a lot of organizations need.

Countless organizations out there right now, while perhaps even appearing healthy and stable to those on the outside looking in, are dying on the inside. Morale is down. Infighting and politics are on the rise. Trust is lacking. Inefficiency isn't. In short, it's a mess.

So what's to be done? Well, that would certainly depend on the group or organization, and what the specific symptoms are, but I think there's at least one common denominator. These organizations need leaders, whether they have the fancy title or not, to step into the fray and become initiators of change.

When those leaders--again, whether they have a title or not--begin to shift together, use their influence together, talk together, dream together, strategize together, and, well, you get the idea; when those things happen, a group or organization will start to see change. And it will be the best kind of change, because it's organic, felt-in-the-heart change, not some overwrought corporate mandate that comes down from above. 

So if you're a leader within a group or organization, whether officially recognized as one or not, start the shift. Lead. Encourage others to do the same. Get together with them. Talk about it. Recruit others to join you. Make a difference.

It's leadershift.
Very few individuals, if they're honest, enjoy going to work every day in an environment filled with distrust, political maneuvering, and so many of the other ugly things that characterize too many groups and organizations. And most folks, if you ask them, would say they wish things were different where they work. In fact, a recent Gallup poll suggests that up to 77% of individuals said they were miserable in their jobs. 

So people work places where they dislike the culture. And it's not just some people. It's a lot of people.

Those same people, unless they're gluttons for punishment, wish it were different.

(Do you see the opportunity yet?)

They need leaders. They need people to lead them where they already want to go. It's not like you'd be leading them toward some undesirable state of affairs. On the contrary, you'd be leading them toward a trusting, non-political, honest, healthy, passionate culture, which is exactly what most people want anyway. So if so many people want this, why don't must people find themselves in this type of atmosphere? What's missing?

Easy. Leaders. Unculturers. They need people with a certain angst about their environments, coupled with the desire and drive to do something to make a difference. They need you.
Ghandi. Martin Luther King, Jr. Jesus of Nazareth. Rosa Parks. Martin Luther. Socrates. 

Unculturers, all of them.