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Encountering The Personality of Your Organization

I once met with a group of managers and we had what turned out to be a spirited conversation about why it makes sense for them to show members of their teams they care about and value them. One manager blurted, “I don’t have time to spoon-feed adults.” Another explained she was always told to get the work done, not care about people. She went on to say it sounds like she has to spend too much time caring about how people feel. The conversation was really a reflection of what the culture accepts as normal and what it rejects. Caring about people, even though it can build collaboration and enhance team results was being blatantly and vigorously rejected because the managers present were conditioned to think this way. Some authors describe organizational culture as the personality of the institution. In psychology, a personality is the combination of individual characteristics embodied in the patterns of feeling, thinking and behaving. When you encounter the personality of an organization you will notice patterns of collective feeling, thinking and behaving. These patterns become norms, and when the patterns are dysfunctional, if you attempt to remove or expose the cultural mask you can face pure, unadulterated emotions. Ones that were safely hidden behind the mask. Sometimes a dysfunctional organizational culture can influence members of a team into banding together in close formation, to do whatever it takes to protect and preserve a perverted value system that idolizes features like control, power, status, and high salaries. These values become the standard for what is right and acceptable and what isn’t. What is interesting is that coworkers may comply with the prevailing value and behavioural systems at work and demonstrate completely different behaviors in the home environment, indicating some cultures are so powerful they can cause persons to change to fit in. Cultural patterns can become blind spots. The blind spot of an eye is an optical disk within the retina that does not house photoreceptors. Even with one eye closed, the occluded spot in a person’s field of vision is difficult to detect. Similarly, the blind spot within a culture can conceal facets of culture that may or may not prefer to remain undetected. As a leader, you need to be able to perceive the cultural blind spots. Like the eye analogy, what is not being seen is right in front of you. You need to be able to perceive the personality of your culture so you can identify dysfunction that directly or indirectly affects team engagement, and by extension, your bottom line. Here are three questions you can use to understand your culture and its effect on your business: What are the characteristics of your culture? What is the value system behind it? What can you do to harness the strengths of your culture and minimize or eradicate the weaknesses? Your culture is not only linked to your past and present, it drives your future ability to attain team goals. Therefore, if your culture is not changing in a way that is synchronized with your external environment, it can become an obstacle to progress and sustainability, preventing plans for growth or expansion. Keeping abreast of external changes means decision-makers should learn to perceive the forest and trees simultaneously, despite how difficult it may be to get out of the trees. In this way, leaders can make the connections to as many versions of causality and effect as possible with the ultimate goal of making better informed decisions. Some cultures exhibit groupthink which is sometimes a narrow, controlled perspective of an organization. In fact, there are circumstances where the groupthink norms are so deeply ingrained within the psyche of the team that coworkers who perceive things differently are viewed as wrong, or worse, as troublemakers. Confronting the personality of a culture can be difficult no matter how skillfully it is challenged. Reactions can range from frustration, to righteousness, hurt feelings, denial, or disbelief. In some organizations leaders are aware of their cultures and work toward keeping them healthy. In others, leaders have a distorted view of their cultures because coworkers are in survival mode and therefore reluctant to admit what is really going on. This is a slow road to demise or mediocrity if the culture of a team is not confronted. Unless your culture is deliberately designed to adapt in tandem with your ever morphing external environment, it will resist change, even if the challenge is as simple as scheduling persons to attend a seminar. Statements like, “we are too busy” or “we are short-staffed” may seem to be viable reasons for the short-term, but in the long-term, departments can lose their best performers to organizations that will develop them. Confronting the personality of your culture should be a constructive and collaborative exercise, not a combative one. However, your approach, no matter how gentle, may cause the face of your culture to conceal itself. To the untrained eye, team members may attempt to hide the truth, giving the impression that everything is fine. To this I recommend to all leaders, ask multiple questions to understand your current state, observe emotion, get the facts, and try to detect if persons are covering up or telling you what you want to hear. In other words, take time to attune to your team so you can see past the mask and address hidden dysfunction before it is too late. Yvette Bethel is CEO of Organizational Soul, an Organizational Effectiveness Consulting and Leadership Development company. She is a Consultant, Trainer, Speaker, Facilitator, Executive Coach, Author, and Emotional Intelligence Practitioner. If you are interested Yvette's ideas on other leadership topics you can sign up for her newsletter at or you can listen to her podcast at Evolve Podcast.

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