Take the Cult Out of Culture

The time I spent on the Board of Directors and as interim Executive Director of Literacy Volunteers Valley Shore taught me this abidingly valuable lesson: Every stereotype breaks down at the level of the individual.

I was reminded of that lesson recently while watching a video on LinkedIn in which a woman said, “I evaluate companies’ cultures.” That’s the rough equivalent of saying, “I evaluate the species of each tree by looking at the forest.”

Culture is not a cause. It’s an effect. It’s a symptom, a result. It’s the product of treating individuals with respect, of giving them senses of belonging, of encouraging their participation, of giving them responsibility and the commensurate decision-making authority. By the same token, it’s not a free-for-all.

When In Doubt, Follow Directions

Along with, “Make yourself useful,” the statement in the subhead above was one of my father’s most frequently used expressions. I thought of it when I saw a promotion for a a leadership webinar. It began with this question:

Does the idea of confronting an insubordinate worker make you nervous?

What? My first thought was, “No. The idea of being confronted should make the insubordinate worker nervous.” And I wanted to ask these questions of the person conducting the webinar; although, I didn’t because I would likely have been perceived to be offensive or antagonistic:

  • Does the organization have policies and procedures?
  • Were they given to the insubordinate worker?
  • Can the insubordinate worker read?
  • Is there one set of rules for everyone?

Does that make me a hard-ass? No. Does it mean I’m unwilling to consider extenuating circumstances or to treat every person as an individual? No. Does it mean I (or anyone else) should be afraid to approach a person who’s clearly failed to heed the established rules? No.

Draw the Line

Organizations that have leaders who make rules inclusively and enforce them judiciously have cultures of accountability. Organizations that have leaders who make rules arbitrarily and enforce them punitively are cults. Organizations that have leaders who make no rules at all are failures. The lines between them must be drawn with equal parts care and conscientiousness.

How about if we try communicating with people openly, drawing behavioral lines clearly, and:

  • Enabling and encouraging everyone to contribute ideas, systemically and systematically, regardless of position or title?
  • Evaluating and qualifying all of those ideas objectively by the same set of criteria?
  • Rewarding those whose ideas qualify to be brought to market, regardless of position or title?
  • Taking the cult out of culture and letting every individual exhibit what Henry Miller called the miracle of personality?

Now that would be innovative.

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