If you look up the meaning of culture, you’ll find a definition resembling this:
a: the customary beliefs, social norms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group, e.g., Southern culture.
b: the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization, e.g., a corporate culture focused on the bottom line.
Relationship, connection, and communication are foundational to these definitions. More specifically, culture arises in the context of our conversations and the way we make meaning together. Conversation is the invisible glue that either reinforces the current culture or challenges it to evolve (or devolve).
Conversations Need to Reflect and Reinforce the Desired New Culture
If you want to transform culture, start having conversations that align with the kind of culture you want. Not conversations about the kind of culture you want, rather conversations that reflect the desired culture. In other words, begin working and talking together as if the new culture was already present and have conversations about transforming important systems and structures to reinforce the desired culture. For example, say you want a culture of collaboration. One way to learn about conversations that reflect collaboration is to find out what kind of conversations people have when they are collaborating. You might invite people to share stories of successful collaboration and then ask, “What kind of conversations did you have? What were the factors that contributed to collaboration?”
You might continue by inviting people to “Imagine we have a culture of collaboration. What does it look like, sound like, feel like? What kinds of conversations are we having and who’s involved in them?” Then begin talking and working in that way.
Secondly, have conversations that lead to systems change, policy reformation, and new structures that will align with and reinforce collaboration. This is likely to include hiring, on boarding, evaluations, reward systems, planning processes, and more. It’s that simple, but not easy.
Culture Change is All About “We”
A cultural conversation worth having is one that invites everyone to transform the culture from the inside out by talking and working in ways that reflect the desired culture. It is a whole system, team effort. It’s important to be patient with such change. We maintain culture through habits of being, doing, and talking. Culture change means new habits. Even the best of us working hard to be mindful slip up and return to old habits. Celebrating and reinforcing success, while finding compassionate ways to remind one another when old habits show up will support a sense of “we”. Avoid being critical or expressing exasperation, which drives people to protect “me.”
Let Your Words Support a “We” Attitude
Creating intentional culture transformation requires a “we” attitude. Our capacity for “we” comes alive in conversations worth having, but quickly disintegrates to “me” in the face of critical or destructive interactions. The reason: biology. Neuroscience shows that any threat to belonging or safety triggers the release of biochemicals designed to stimulate “protect” systems. The more threatened we feel, the more cortisol, norepinephrine, and testosterone. These hormones actually inhibit our ability to connect, think critically, and be creative. A single sentence or question can start a downward spiral into “me-thinking”: Why do you keep doing it the old way? Nope, that’s not the way we do it now, remember. Body language can be the worst: rolling eyes, deep sighs of dismay or disgust, a shaking of the head.
The key is to have interactions that support the release of hormones designed to foster connection, memory, learning, and creativity. Oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins completely shift the brain’s chemistry, opening us to “we-thinking.” When we feel safe and included, we engage to our fullest capacity. Memory and learning improve. New habits are easier to practice. This is important. If we want to transform culture, it begins with such conversations.
Culture = Conversations
Everything we do is mediated through conversation. We create shared meaning through dialogue. We develop visions of the future by imagining together. We design pathways and systems to help us achieve that future. Conversation is the way we build and reinforce a culture – the current one or a new one.
We live in times when new ways of working together are being called for. We need conversations that inspire us to build cultures of purpose, collaboration, and inclusivity. Conversations that help us create pathways, structures and social systems that allow all people to flourish. It’s possible. It simply takes different conversations.
Become a conversational catalyst in your organization!
Cheri Torres is a Lead Catalyst for positive change, speaker, author, and consultant with Collaborative by Design . She works with leaders in organizations and communities enhancing their ability to fuel productivity and meaningful engagement. firstname.lastname@example.org