‘Essentialism’ is the technical terms for the idea that each us has a fixed nature: we are who we are and there’s not a lot we can do about it. Despite ample evidence to show that this is a seriously flawed way of thinking, it remains a very common (mis)understanding of human psychology. While it would be foolish not to recognise very strong and lasting patterns of behaviour, though and emotional response in each of us, it would be equally foolish not to recognise that people can and do change.
Such changes can be self-initiated – that is, as a result of an explicit decision made: ‘I will be more patient from now on’; ‘I must cut down on fatty foods as I am worried about my cholesterol levels’; and so on. However, they are often in response to the circumstances we find ourselves in and we may not even notice we have changed, so subtle can the differences be. This is often the case in an organisational setting where the influence of other individuals, of groups and of the organisational culture can be very strong.
I want to now focus on the organisational culture issues as these can be particularly significant. This is because cultures influence us in very powerful but very subtle ways – we slide into commonly accepted norms and patterns, generally without recognising that this process is happening.
This can be good or bad, depending on the circumstances. For example, some cultures are very negative and are characterised by a degree of defeatism and cynicism, manifestations of low morale. On the other hand, cultures can be very positive influences, encouraging a supportive set of relationships, promoting learning, creativity and innovation and generating a sense of security. This is the hallmark of good teamwork – the sense of shared endeavour that makes people feel that, however challenging the workplace may be, ‘we are in this together’.
This is where leadership comes in. A major challenge for any leader is to be able to influence the culture in a positive direction, to bring about positive changes and to block negative ones. ‘Challenge’ is exactly the right word, as influencing a culture is a very difficult and demanding undertaking. But it is also a challenge that is worth investing time and energy in, as the positive benefits can be immense, while the price we pay for allowing a negative culture to persist is very high indeed.
Managers therefore need to take these issues very seriously and be prepared to develop the knowledge, skills and confidence to be able to shape cultures positively. These can be developed, although not overnight. It involves building on our existing interpersonal skills to develop trust and credibility.
However, in my People Skills book, I make the point that it is not just managers who are leaders – professional staff can and should see themselves as leaders too. So, we all need to be thinking about what influence we can have on the culture around us and not just leave this to managers. For me this is part of self-leadership – the ability to be clear about where we are going with our work, career and life overall and helping to create the circumstances that will get us there plus the commitment to doing so.
Cultures are sets of habits, unwritten rules and taken-for-granted assumptions that develop into shared meanings. If we want to influence the culture in a positive direction, then we need to identify the negative elements and challenge them, while also recognising the positive elements and building on them.
How easy or otherwise it is to influence a culture will vary from circumstance to circumstance. Sometimes, it can be a long and difficult journey, but at other times, it can be relatively straightforward – for example, a culture characterised by a lack of communication can easily be changed by team members making a concerted effort to communicate with one another. Cultures are very powerful, but they are not all-powerful. We have a choice, we can either seek to influence our culture or we can resign ourselves to becoming passive victims of that culture, with all the detrimental effects that entails.
Neil Thompson’s latest book is People Management (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), which is a follow up to his highly successful People Skills (3rd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2009) and the highly acclaimed The People Solutions Sourcebook (2nd edn, Palgrave Macmillan, 2012). His books are available from http://astore.amazon.co.uk/neilthomp-21/.