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What I Learned About Workplace Culture in 2020

2020 put workplace culture to the test, amplifying both the good and bad within organizations.

By Gustavo Razzetti

January 27, 2021

Insights from facilitating 100 culture design workshops.

2020 put not just our resilience, but also workplace culture to the test. There are many lessons I learned by interacting with hundreds of consultants and corporate practitioners from across the globe.

“Empty your cup”  I encourage people at the start of a session. What we know gets in the way; we must all put our expertise aside to make room for new ideas.

Learning comes in different shapes of forms. Learning can be nuanced – small details add more depth to what we already know. People’s stories can bring our ideas to life in unique ways, or confirm what we know.

Last year, I had the pleasure to meet lots of smart, curious professionals who joined our Culture Design Masterclass or Fearless Culture Program. I learned a lot by being part of a community of people who are passionate about building powerful cultures, too.

Here are the key things that I observed – new, nuances, and personal stories.

1.Culture Design Is Outgrowing Human Resources

2020 is the decade of culture-first organizations, according to Glassdoor. CEOs and team leaders alike are realizing that workplace culture is not only a sustainable competitive advantage, but also that it precedes positive results.  

Culture has become a significant topic that matters to anyone driving change. The conversation about culture needs to involve the entire organization, not just Human Resources or senior leaders.

There’s a growing appetite among consultants and corporate professionals with diverse background – OKRs, leadership, digital transformation, M&A, agility, and branding, to name a few – who want to become more savvier about culture. Over one third of the participants who joined our Culture Design Masterclass had zero experience with culture design. However, they recognize the importance of ‘preparing’ the culture to effectively introduce their models, ideas, or behaviors.

“Reflecting about organizational culture is very important for everybody independently of the role. My biggest learning was that I became conscious about the power of team rituals when changing or reinforcing a culture.” – Alicia Medina, Sweden

Culture is outgrowing HR, but not just because other departments are becoming interested in the topic. Effectively designing a powerful company culture requires opening up the conversation and involving more people. The approach that I teach and apply when advising organizations is human-centered; the employees are the ‘users’ – we need their insights to understand what is or isn't working, as wells what’s desirable and motivational.

“I learned so much and reconnected with the passion that started my journey into change management. The one learning that stands out for me given my role in helping organizations succeed with change is to be intentional about culture mapping and hacking to drive change.” – Elke Sanz, UK

Some Human Resources professionals or CEOs can’t let go of culture and want to control the process. In my experience, the more we invite and involve people in the journey, the better the results.

It's not that HR folks don’t have a role; they simply need to shift from owning the process to being curators and facilitators of culture design.

2. Low Psychological Safety Is a Critical Barrier

Collaboration and participation are vital for the success of any high-performing team. However, you cannot force or motivate people to collaborate or be more active – they are byproducts of a psychological safe culture.

Promoting psychological safety is the foundation of a healthy culture. It’s about encouraging people to bring themselves to work, to speak up, and to share their thoughts and ideas without the fear of punishment – no one wants to be ignored, criticized, or lose their job.

“Being vulnerable isn't (always) unprofessional; and creating space for the personal is critical to successful professional endeavors and partnerships.” – Hillel Bierbrier, USA

The conversation around psychological safety has become mainstream. However, some think that it could be developed overnight or that, once it’s achieved, you're all set.

Creating a (perceived) safe space is critical to promote courageous conversations. Unfortunately, many teams fill their calendars with useless meetings to avoid the elephant in the room. Busyness is avoidance – when we're running from one fire to another, there’s never time to talk about what really matters.

Sometimes, all it takes is an unexpected event to create the conditions to invite people to release energy and tensions. As it happened to of our participants when working with a client.

“After 5 days of intense meetings and workshops, participants started to speak up and say what was unsaid for too long. Maybe the hidden purpose of those meetings was to fill the space in order to avoid what ended happening anyway.” – Delfino Corti, Italy

3. Rules Don’t Seem to Apply to Leaders

Leaders say one thing, then do another. The discrepancy between what senior executives promote and what they actually reward or do drives confusion and frustrates people. Clarity and consistency are crucial elements of workplace culture. It’s hard to build trust when words don’t match behavior.

Leadership immunity is the notion that powerful people believe that rules don’t apply to them – they feel immune to normal standards of behavior, ethics, or scientific scrutiny. Having high power makes people think of themselves as exceptional, as if their behavior is perfect. That’s why most ‘leaders’ expect others to change but don’t want to put in the effort themselves.

“Trust is still a key topic when it comes to working remotely. Leaders must abide by the same rules. If trust is truly established, embodied and lived, employee engagement is much easier to be maintained and increased.” – Susanne Heiss, Germany

Leadership entitlement is pervasive among most organizations, as I observed first-hand working with large and medium-size organizations as well as startups. The tension created between what leaders say and actually do was brought up in almost every session I facilitated last year.

Neutralizing leadership immunity requires addressing the root cause – check out this post I wrote on the topic.

4. Subcultures Are Powerful, but Usually Ignored or Silenced

People relate more to their own team culture than to the overall organization. Human nature is tribal; our sense of belonging decreases as the size of a group increases. We have deeper connections with friends, family, or coworkers that are closer to us.

Silos are subcultures, but not all subcultures are silos. That’s something that confuses many executives and why they want to silence small cultures within their organization. Fighting the power of subcultures is a waste of time. Silos occur when different areas or groups don’t talk to each other – or are actually at war with each other.

The power of subcultures lies in the idea that groups or teams have their peculiar ways of doing things. Those specific practices should not only avoid conflicting with the main culture, but should actually help it grow.

“The word ‘silo’ is still one that keeps on ringing in our ears. Interestingly, I learned that often the managers are getting in the way. They’ve become an obstacle to reconnecting silos, while the people doing the work are courageously and enthusiastically trying to improve the organization by working cross-functionally.” – Sam Yankelevich, USA

Effectively managing subcultures requires balancing alignment and autonomy. As a rule of thumb you want specific teams to be aligned on – and inspired by – the company purpose, core values, priorities, and goals. However, they should also have the freedom to create team rituals, feedback practices, or norms.

Alignment vs Autonomy | by Patricio Del Boca | Medium

Align people on the mission (to cross the river) but let them choose how to achieve the goal (build a bridge or tunnel, swim, fly, etc.).

5. Culture Has Accelerated Both the Good and Bad Within an Organization

2020 was the year that put workplace culture to the test. Remote work widened the generation gap in the workplace. Controlling managers became more controlling. Dysfunctional workplaces became more stressful and toxic. Passive-aggressiveness escalated turning watercooler conversations into disrespectful and tense.

While some organizations uncovered the agility and innovation that had been locked for years, many were confronted with toxic behaviors that already existed but were not visible to everyone.

“The importance of culture has been inflamed by the global crisis. 2020 exposed many vulnerabilities and forced the creation of change. There has never been a better ‘opportunity’ for leaders to have to adapt and focus on creating strong, healthy cultures!” – Danielle Heath, UK

The phrase of the year has been "adapt or die."

Culture is not stagnant and must evolve and adapt to the environment. The problem is that most companies thought that adapting to a remote working environment was simply about simplifying processes, moving online, or delegating decision-making rights. However, they forgot about other aspects of culture.

“I learned a thorough and authentic analysis of workplace culture is a continuous process. It can’t be rushed and you can’t tick a box. My role as a coach is to help guide leaders and teams through this journey with empathy, patience, and the right learning tools.” – EJ Encalarde, USA

Building a strong culture isn't a one-off process; it requires continuous attention and nurturing.

6. Culture Still Feels Vague for Many Leaders

Many people use the terms climate and culture interchangeably, but the difference matters.

Climate is the atmosphere people get in the organization on a daily basis – it’s how you feel when you walk into a place. Culture, on the other hand, is “the way we think, feel, and do things here” – it involves values, norms, rituals, and what’s rewarded or punished, to name a few.

“Culture isn’t happy hours and birthday cakes. If people can’t show up to work as their whole self, what you have is window dressing, not culture. Thanks for the amazing insights into how to build the foundations for a brave culture.” – Emily Carter, USA

For many companies, their culture is limited to having a vision or purpose and defining their core values. However, the culture of an organization is actually more complex and includes how people give feedback to each other, manage meetings, make decisions, and communicate information, among other building blocks.

There’s a huge appetite for actionable tools that can help facilitate more frequent and simpler conversations about culture, demystifying workplace culture. Corporate practitioners and consultants alike agree that many CEOs are frustrated – they get that culture matters, but fail to find a practical way to build a workplace culture that drives results.

After years of experimenting and testing different “formats,” I finally arrived at the current version of the Culture Design Canvas. Not only was I looking for a visual tool that would make it easier to engage employees, but also include the right elements. The ten building blocks comprise three sections: the core or foundation (how people think), the emotional culture (how people feel), and the functional culture (what people do).

“I learned new ways to talk about culture and new dimensions to consider when working with teams. I’ve learned a streamlined process that takes a whole lot of information and puts it into very usable and actionable steps.” – Christina Monson, Nepal

7. Remote Culture Feels the Same but It’s Not

One of the most frequent requests I got in 2020 was, “How can we keep our culture alive in a remote work environment?”

The pandemic didn't just put workplace culture to the test –– organizations had to rethink how to nurture it virtually.

Though many principles of a ‘regular’ culture apply, building an effective remote culture requires more than simply replicating existing practices online.

Keeping the magic flowing and nurturing strong interpersonal relationships are vital, especially when casual interactions are lost. Psychological Safety has suffered during the pandemic; introverts and other quiet people have suffered the shift to online meetings. To make things worse, most companies don’t design their virtual sessions for equal participation.

“Some management behavior that happened over the COVID period has traumatized people. The feeling braver over the screen has the power to be helpful and hurtful.” – Jina Hardy, Australia

Letting go of the paradigm of working synchronously has been challenging for most leaders. Traditionally, most teams members worked face-to-face for the same work hours and in the same space. Remote works requires default to asynchronous work – to give people the freedom to work at their own time and rhythm.

Remote work shapes meetings and communication methods, among other practices. Documenting everything is also a prerequisite to make sure people are up to date or can find what they need when there’s no one around to help.

Prioritizing outcome over face time has not been easy for controlling managers. Redesigning a ‘regular’ culture into a remote one requires making norms and rules more flexible, revisiting team rituals to keep the culture away, and crafting impromptu ‘virtual’ encounters, among other things.

“Never has kindness been more important than now in designing a great culture. Despite us not being face to face, remote teams can engage with tools like the Culture Design Canvas and produce results.” – Anish Hindocha, UK

2020 put every organization's culture to the test. What have you learned about yours?

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