There is a story in the Zen Buddhist tradition about a spiritual teacher, his disciples, and the monastery cat.
Every evening, when the teacher and his students started their meditation, the cat would walk across the room, meowing and distracting everyone as a result.
Eventually, the teacher got fed up with the cat’s antics. He came up with an idea for how to solve the problem – he ordered the cat to be tied up during every evening practice.
Years later, when the teacher died, the monks continued to tie up the cat during their meditation sessions.
When the cat eventually died, the monks got another cat and kept tying it up.
Centuries later, descendants of the spiritual teacher wrote scholarly treatises about the religious significance of tying up a cat for meditation practice.
This story is a perfect illustration of how culture is formed.
We adopt practices and behaviours because they make sense at the time. They solve a problem or help us adapt to our environment.
These practices and behaviours get passed down to others over time and eventually solidify to form unwritten rules, norms, rituals, and beliefs that we end up adopting.
What is your cat?
Our companies, our families and our communities operate on hundreds of unwritten cultural norms. While they have an important purpose and bring order and predictability to our lives, they often fail to stay relevant and useful.
In fact, they usually fail to serve us long before we start questioning their utility.
Most teams and companies do things that made sense in the past but are now unnecessary or even detrimental to their performance.
If you are a member of any social group, chances are that you’d bought into collective beliefs and formed habits that are now hindering your ability to grow and fulfil your potential.
You, too, have your own cat (or a herd of cats) and you probably don’t even realise it.
When you are part of a culture, it’s difficult to see things as clearly as an outsider would.
While most people would agree that it makes sense to continually check the relevance of our cultural norms, it proves to be more difficult than we’d imagine.
Cultural conditioning is a double-edged sword.
Yes, it keeps us in synch, tells us what to do, makes things easier.
But it also makes us complacent. And turns us blind.
When we are part of a culture, we start doing things on autopilot and stop questioning as much as we should.
As a result, we become completely unaware of our collective quirks and idiosyncrasies and how they impact our ability to survive – and thrive.
A new hire could easily point out what seems odd, unnecessary or just weird in the way you do things. But you will probably struggle to see it.
As James C. Coleman said in his book “Personality Dynamics and Effective Behaviour”:
“Curiously enough, the individual is usually so deeply immersed in his culture that he is scarcely aware of it as a shaping force in his life. As someone has remarked, “The fish will be the last to discover water.” People who know no other cultural patterns but their own tend to regard them as God-given and intrinsically right.”
If we want to have a culture that serves us, we need to get into the habit of detecting our cultural Blind Spots. (Yes, that’s the BS I was referring to!)
Culture goggles and “vuja de”
It would be unrealistic to aim to be completely free of cultural blind spots. But we can do a lot to minimise them.
Setting out on a journey of cultural discovery requires what Marcel Proust refers to as “new eyes” or what I like to call “culture goggles.”
Just like night vision goggles, the culture goggles enable us to see what is invisible… in plain sight.
The real voyage of discovery consists, not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes. – Marcel Proust
But how do you make these culture goggles, I hear you ask?
Well, the first ingredient is a healthy dose of vuja de.
We’ve all heard of déjà vu, the sensation you get when you’re in strange place or circumstance yet somehow feel as if you’ve “been there before.”
“Vuja de” is the opposite of that – it happens when you enter a very familiar environment, but with the sense of novelty – as if you were seeing and experiencing it for the first time.
In order to be able to evolve our culture, we first need to be capable of seeing it with clarity and objectivity.
We need to get ourselves in the “vuja de” state of mind.
Here’s how you can play with this idea:
Imagine that you are an anthropologist who visits your company (or joins your team) for the very first time. Watch your organisation as if you were observing an exotic tribe – with tons of curiosity and an open mind.
What do you notice about how people dress, socialise, go about achieving goals, how they communicate? How about the reward systems, conflict, problem-solving and decision making, leadership, stories and heroes, and rituals?
Here are some questions you can ask yourself in each of these areas:
How do people dress for work? What message does the dress code communicate? Are there any differences between how people dress in different parts of the organisation? If yes, what does it seem to signify?
How do people socialise – is it done in a structured and organised way or spontaneously and ad hoc? What is the frequency of people’s get-togethers? Who initiates them? Who seems to connect with whom? What seems to be the emotional energy when people meet?
What are the accepted performance expectations? How are goals set, measured and tracked? What does planning look like? Who is involved in goal setting and planning? What is the level of enthusiasm and engagement in pursuing goals? Where does it stem from?
How are information, guidelines, and directives shared between people? Is communication formal, informal or both? Is communication happening organically or is it strategic and well planned? How effective is it?
What gets people promoted here? How are people rewarded, acknowledged and incentivised? How were these reward systems created? How effective are they?
How does conflict express itself? How is it handled? How does it get resolved? What are people’s beliefs about conflict?
Problem-solving and decision making
How are problems identified? When? Who is usually involved in problem-solving? Who takes the lead? Are issues solved and decisions made through collective brainstorming and discussions or individual efforts? Does the approach to problem-solving work?
How does leadership work? What is the prevalent leadership style? Is leadership perceived to be a position or an action? Is leadership power concentrated at the top or evenly spread across the organisation? What are the accepted leadership role models?
Stories and heroes
What stories do people share when asked: “Tell me a story that illustrates what it’s like to work here?” What are the stories shared spontaneously in casual conversations at the water cooler? Who are the heroes in your organisation – people considered to be “legends” or outstanding in some way?
What rituals do people engage in? Why do they exist, what purpose do they serve? Do people participate willingly?
Take notes on the above for a couple of weeks, perhaps a month.
Ask yourself frequently:
- “Why do we do it this way?”
- “What purpose does it serve?”
- “Does it really work for what is intended?”
This exercise is best done as a team. You can then compare notes and start identifying themes that emerge.
I often use this approach with senior executive teams as pre-work before a culture evolution workshop. It’s incredible how many cultural blind spots teams discover through this process!
Try it out and let me know what cultural blind spots you have discovered in your organisation! You can reach me on Twitter at @coachaga or on LinkedIn.