No one person really “creates” a culture. Individuals live their lives and their shared beliefs, desires, and ritualized “transactions” result in the culture established. Cultures are collective contributions. They are “crowd-sourced”.
However, there is great power in the individual contributions we choose to make to the cultures we’re in because we can be examples. We can even change the dynamic of these cultures as others imitate us, including our desires.
The cultural contributions I try to make are ones that I refer to as “cultures of care” contributions. By care I mean concern for others, loyalty, empathy, accountability, carefulness, and other behaviors and sentiments that indicate/project value for others as people who – by dint of the fact that they are people – are like me, and who share with me similar hopes, dreams, aspirations, and fears.
Corporate cultures could – in my opinion – greatly benefit from their members making contributions to a culture of care and it starts “at the top” so to speak. At least, that’s the easiest way to encourage such a culture, because people take their cues from leaders in organizations.
Many years ago I was in the unenviable position of having to work for two direct reports. Both, technically, had an equal and simultaneous claim on my time and work. However, this presented me with a very unique opportunity to experience how being treated in different ways affects employees, because I got to experience a range of emotions interacting with two different bosses throughout a day. How I was treated by each drastically affected how I felt about the organization.
Just two quick anecdotes.
On some Friday afternoons at 5PM, just as I’d be thinking about finishing for the day, Boss #1 would email me her unfinished tasks and ask that they be completed by Monday morning. This boss would set the email on a delayed/scheduled send, so that I’d see her leave for the weekend (without a goodbye), and then a few minutes later, the task assignments would hit my inbox. I resented this person very much, because I felt like she did not care for me, and really did such things in order to assert some sort of power over me, not because there was ever any real need for the tasks to be done. Most of them were menial. The Monday due date was arbitrary. After all, if the tasks were so vital, the boss would have taken the time to actually have a conversation about them and verify that they’d be done. A few times, just to test my hypothesis, I left some tasks undone. The boss never noticed. Never followed up (on hardly any of them, actually) and I soon learned that this was a CYA tactic the boss employed so that if work she was assigned was not completed, she’d have a “fall guy”.
I wasn’t the only one who experienced this behavior from this individual. It was a regular occurrence with all the “subordinates” who reported to her.
Boss #2 however, was different. Early on in my employment and work with her, she entrusted me with a task designed to raise my profile in organization (while she took a backseat), which I attempted to do to the best of my ability and felt grateful to have the chance to do. However, soon thereafter it became apparent that I had not done the task correctly. A senior person took issue with the work and asked “who was responsible”. Before I could answer, Boss #2 spoke quickly and said, “It’s my fault. I made that mistake.” The senior person muttered something and it was dropped. Afterward, I cornered her and said, “I was the one who screwed up, I should have taken the blame.” She said, “No, it’s my fault. I asked you to do something you’d never done before. Either I didn’t train you right, or I didn’t check the work to make sure that you had understood what needed to be done. That was entirely my fault. I didn’t set you up to succeed and I wasn’t going to let you take the fall for that. I’m sorry you were put in that position.” Well! Talk about loyalty! I was willing to run through a wall for her at the drop of a hat! For the remainder of my time with the company I did not mind coming in early, staying late, working a Saturday, changing my schedule, etc. to help Boss #2 out with any project she needed help with. I knew that she valued me, respected my time, hoped for my success, and would never abuse her position or use our relationship as a way to demean me in order to gratify her ego.
Why? Because I knew she cared about me and was sincerely trying to help me have a happy and successful experience, even to the extent that she was willing to put her neck on the line for me.
Let’s quickly tell another story about Boss #1 … Boss #1 eventually made a huge screw up on a project I was not involved with (nor asked to participate on) and blamed me for it. Because of that, I resolved never to volunteer to assist her with anything, even if it was apparent she needed help. If I was going to be blamed for things I didn’t work on that went bad, why make it even easier to blame my by getting involved at the last minute with something, try to fix it, and then take the fall for the whole thing when it went bad. Later on, I noticed another project she was involved with and was not going well (she thought it was). Rather than speak up and say something, and risk “volunteering” for the role of “fall guy” when it inevitably went bad, I kept quiet. It, of course, ended poorly (a different employee got the blame for that one). When boss #1 eventually left to take another job, it was one of the happiest days of my life. A huge cloud that hung over the office was gone.
So, cultures of care.
Treat people like they are people, with shared hopes, dreams, fears, and problems. Stick up for them. Set them up to succeed, and they’ll run through walls for you. Forgive them and help them when they mess up, and they’ll never forget it.
But treat them like dogs, and they’ll feel satisfaction when you fail.
On the wall of my office I have a picture of two triangular organization charts. One is inverted. They are labeled “Responsibility Flow” (inverted) and “Accountability Flow”.
They look like this (I’ve tried to approximate the structure using characters. The stars are “empty space”).
This indicates that I, as the CEO at the “bottom” of the pyramid, am responsible for the success and well being of the managers, employees, and customers “above” me in the chart. The customer is at the top – our highest responsibility is to her. I want the employees to be responsible (responsive) to the customer. I want the managers to be responsible (responsive) to the employees directly and also the customers. I want myself to be responsible (responsive) to the managers directly and also to the employees and the customers.
Usually org charts put a CEO at the top. I think that’s awful. It is intended to show accountability flow, but I think it fails for a couple of reasons. One, that implies that everyone “under” the CEO and that the CEO is not “under” anyone. Secondly, it is often used analogously for justification that CEOs aren’t accountable or responsible to others, but that all others are to the CEO. That’s wrong. If not for the customer and the privilege of serving her, none of us has a livelihood. If not for employees and managers who do a great job serving those customers, I as the CEO don’t have a livelihood.
I must CARE for those people and those relationships and help those people be successful. They don’t come to me, first. Rather, I go to them, just as I want them to go to each other and out customers.
Now, the other triangle org chart (again, the *stars* are empty space).
This chart reminds me that I’m accountable to the Customer, first. I report to them. The managers report to me, and are accountable to me for their performance. The employees are accountable to the managers.
So, we have two directions of flow. Responsibility for people who are traditionally “under” us in organization charts. Accountability from people who are traditionally “under” us in or charts.
And a constant reminder that the whole organization is ultimately responsible for, and accountable to, the people we serve, the customers.
CULTURES OF CARE are successful cultures. They are the cultures that win. They are made up of people who support one another, watch one another’s backs, fight for each other, and refuse to let each other fail.