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Is it Growth or Protectionism?

Updated: Oct 8, 2023

In his book entitled the Biology of Belief, author Bruce Lipton points out that when cells exist in a safe, nurturing environment they grow and evolve. Alternatively, when cells are in a perceivably dangerous environment, they shift into a protective mode where they either attack or withdraw.

Dr. Edgar Shein, a pioneer in the area of organizational culture, asserts organizational culture is created through observable and acceptable behaviours, group norms or standards, rules of the game (politics), habits of thinking and generally accepted symbols of status. The architects of organizational culture are not limited to the owners and executive team but the primary responsibility for developing a culture lies with them. In fact, Shein asserts that organizational culture doesn’t usually survive if the primary “culture carriers” separate from the organization.

There are four typical types of organizational cultures: ones that are predominantly controlling, competitive, collaborative or creative. Controlling, political or competitive environments can become so toxic that employees who would normally share their ideas in a constructive work environment, withhold their input because they are concerned their ideas will be rejected or attacked unceremoniously. An obvious result is these cultures typically stifle creativity, lower risk taking proclivities and perpetuate self protectionism.

Typically, collaborative and creative environments are nurturing and safe. Employees in these cultures are usually engaged, continuously growing and sometimes they even have fun. This type of workplace reduces the need for self protectionism and increases risk taking tendencies and creativity.

Are you in a protectionist mode now?

There are people I encounter in my daily interactions who spend time determining which career they want but they don’t put the same effort into evaluating work cultures that are compatible with their values and needs. These people sometimes end up doing something they love in an environment that stifles their growth.

Tom McCarthy once said, “A person who is in growth mode is focused on their goals, not sidetracked by the news of the day. Opportunities to advance your life to a whole new level are all around you every single day, but if you are in protective mode you will miss almost all of them. I don’t care what the skeptics are saying about the economy, there are tremendous opportunities for people who stay focused and in growth mode.”

In toxic organizations where counterproductive actions of some team members create the need for self protectionism, growth is difficult. So. if you are in a self protection mode and you would like to shift to an open, nurturing growth mode, here are some things you can do to transition yourself:

  • Determine if you are in the right job.

  • No work environment is perfect but it may not be the best for you. If this is the case, decide if you are in the right work environment and if you are not, create an exit plan designed to transition you to another department or company.

  • You can only change yourself and if you are not one of the primary drivers of the culture then decide if you are in the right work environment for your stability and progress.

  • Avoid becoming something you are not. Don’t allow an environment to influence who you are and how you interact with others. Always see yourself as empowered to exercise choice even though the pay may be great.

Transforming Your Culture

If you are a leader or business owner and you are one of the architects of the culture of your organization, here are six tips for transitioning your culture to one that supports a platform for safety, openness, and transformation:

  • Be aware of the behaviours you exhibit and reward. You should emulate the changes you would like to witness within your staff.

  • Understand that changes will sometimes be necessary within your leadership team. Key persons who are perpetuating the old culture may have to be replaced by persons who can hold the culture accountable to the new and desired standards.

  • Leaders will not only have to demonstrate new behaviours, they will need to be consistent. For instance, if a culture is one where team leaders humiliate employees for unwanted contributions, they will need to demonstrate consistent coaching behaviours that invite an open, safe developmental environment. Employees will not trust the change at first so consistence is non-negotiable.

  • When changes are introduced, the new values, beliefs and assumptions will have to be clearly defined and opportunities for accountability need to be sought. One way is to introduce accountability to the objectives listed on executive performance appraisal tools.

  • In addition to consistence and role modeling, leadership characteristics of confidence, action orientation and charisma can support the transformative process. These behaviours support buy-in, engagement and trust.

  • Edgar Schein suggests that during the cultural change process, leaders should be aware of what they pay attention to, how they react to critical incidents, how they achieve results, how they allocate scarce resources and the criteria they use to reward employees. Awareness of these behaviours can help them to embed the new, desired cultural norms.

In the midst of any cultural change process, your team needs to learn how to adopt the change, avoiding a superficial approach where the new behaviours are superimposed on the old paradigm, merely covering up the perpetuation of old behaviours. Clarity, transparence, accountability and effective communication plans are essential because as the change process takes place, chaos will happen before the dust settles and it becomes clear how power will be redistributed, what the new cultural boundaries are and which behaviours will be rewarded.

With knowledge gained from almost 40 years of Fortune 500 and international consulting experience, Yvette shares her rich experience and thought leadership models for transforming businesses from the inside out. She is a thought leader in the areas of trust, leadership and organizational ecosystems, an award winning author and cultural consultant.

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