In a 2021 YouTube video, Gerhard Papenfus, CEO of the National Employers Association of South Africa, urged employers not to make quick-fix or knee-jerk implementations in response to the Covid pandemic suggested regulations, and rather to look further down the line. He asked, “Where will your culture be a year from now?”.
It was a wise and predictive suggestion to make, considering that the one thing that undermines or supports EVERYTHING we do is…culture.
Now that we’re in a position to look back, we can see the effects of the last couple of years on the position of our businesses, the mental health and well-being of ourselves, our employees and team members, and the overall culture of those teams. We can see where deficits and distrust may have been the cost of decisions made when facing an unprecedented challenge, or where the strength of our culture has won through.
The culture that exists between two or more people is often the one thing that decides whether you find peace, synergy and forward movement within your family, your team at work, your community, and your country. It is what influences every decision you make and the actions you take. Culture is even responsible for what makes you feel good or what leaves you feeling challenged. It’s not something we wish to overlook or underestimate.
What do you understand culture to be? Asking this question in a group of people generally results in thinking faces as people seek to define a word we’ve seldom thought deeply about. A word we take for granted and gloss over. Culture is generally something each of us defines differently or assumes a surface-level understanding of.
So, what IS culture? What is it made up of? Is it something that just exists? Do we have any control over it? What does culture itself control or affect? And if you had one and it’s changed, how do you get back to it?
Culture controls and affects everything. Culture controls and affects you.
Culture is both an individual claim and a collective expression. It’s made up of our beliefs, our values, our upbringing and heritage, our traditions and habits, our perspectives, and our stories. We take the foundation of our culture from our heritage, often without questioning it, and we add to it the thoughts, beliefs and opinions that grow with us as we develop and mature. Some beliefs and traditions fall away, and new ones are born. Viewpoints are altered and advanced as the world around us changes and as we develop our perspective and understanding. Culture is, therefore, a living breathing expression of our deep human core. It is present in every thought we have, and it’s what we use to assign meaning to what we experience. It is what governs and moves us.
Culture is an indication of what we hold important and place value in. It’s what we believe to be significant, safe and appropriate. Consequently, anything that is different to our current culture feels challenging. Our ability to consider and weigh these challenges and decide whether to incorporate or discard them is in direct relationship to how we move forward and how our personal and collective culture progresses.
Any group of people will display a common culture – be they a family, a group of friends, a team of colleagues, an organisation, a community, or a country. This culture will be made up of the collective offerings of everyone in that group – as each individual adds their thoughts, opinions, points of view, responses and energy. Culture is therefore something that WILL be present – our choice is only whether we consciously give thought to what kind of culture we want, or allow it to default. When we make conscious choices about our culture, we normally choose the good bits we all agree on and energy builds. When we allow it to default, we often only see the challenges of people’s differences, and energy drains.
Peter Drucker, described as “an Austrian-American management consultant, educator, and author whose writings contributed to the philosophical and practical foundations of the modern business corporation” said simply, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” He was referring to the fact that no matter how well thought out a business strategy might be, the culture of the team implementing it will either support or undermine it every time – making culture the more important factor.
This is an important distinction. Not only for every team of people (families, friends, teams, organisations, communities, countries), but for each of us as individuals. We focus much of our energy on our decisions and actions (strategy), without giving much time to what supports or undermines that strategy (our ability to operate well together). Regardless of how meticulous our plan is, the energy to fuel and protect it most often comes from our culture.
If we choose never to unpack our own culture (our beliefs, our values, our thoughts and perceptions), then we have limited if any understanding of what influences every decision we make and every viewpoint we express. If we leave the roots of our own beliefs unexplored we cannot challenge or advance them, and we remain reactive puppets on a string rather than mature and considered individuals capable of rational progression.
Without necessarily realising it, we group together with people whose values and beliefs overlap with ours. When things run smoothly, it is because we remain on the same page with our overlapping values and beliefs. In a nutshell, we subconsciously agree on who we will be to each other, how we will treat each other and how we’ll go about our common business. When we disagree, it is because something has conflicted with our belief system and/or values. We have come up against a challenge to our individual culture.
At this point, without the willingness to unpack that belief or value system and share it in communication, we remain at odds. We make assumptions about why someone is different and that common ground cannot be found. Often, if we’re willing to discuss how we believe things should be and what we each intended (because of our values and beliefs) we can regain common ground and understanding. Assumed differences fade. Trust is maintained and we can move forward together with greater understanding. The alternative is division, distance and lack of forward movement. How often do we choose the latter because we’re unwilling or unaware of how controlled we each are by our own culture, or unwilling to give space to the culture of someone else without judging it to be challenging and unsafe? We assume these things are set in stone and that there can be no change or commonality.
When we have faced ongoing change over an extended period of time, we are wired to default to self-protection. As our energy lowers, we save our energy for ourselves and share less energy with our team. We start to become protective of our energy and our way of doing things, and we forget that we are always stronger together.
Our ability to unpack our own personal beliefs, values and viewpoints; to appreciate where our traditions and the things we hold dear come from and whether we choose to discard, carry and add to them; is directly responsible for our ability to recognise why we make the decisions we do. Our ability to discuss and share our personal culture with others we choose to be around (family, friends, team, community, country) and to appreciate the similarities and differences between us is directly responsible for whether we can grow as a team of people who understand and trust each other.
Similarities in culture form our common ground – that which we agree on and can operate collectively from. Our differences form the versatility and diversity that help us stay balanced and strong as a collective – able to see the world from various angles as opposed to having blind spots. Without discussion, we cannot know either our common ground or our diverse strength. Without discussion, we can’t share an understanding of intention and are limited to fear of challenge.
If you’re experiencing a lack of understanding, fear of challenge or suspicion of someone else’s intentions – the required discussion is around the underlying beliefs, values and viewpoints of those involved. Unpacking that conversation always allows us to see each other with new eyes and to understand our common ground (or lack thereof). Even in my limited life experience, I’ve seen more common ground than division if people are willing to make the effort to find it.
These conversations are not as hard as we assume. Often, they are as simple as just saying “I believe that……”, or “I intended that…..”, or even just asking “what do you think?”.
The culture that we share is ALWAYS worth re-discussion. Reminders of what we agree on can only strengthen our intentions. Questions about how our culture has gained, lost or changed over extended periods of time can only give us greater insight into where we’d like to head, what we’d like to protect, and how we’d prefer to work together.
Where’s your culture currently at? Is it still where you left it? I doubt it. It never is.
by Christen Killick
August 22nd, 2022