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Cuts Both Ways

“The cultural shift is here, man.” I was greeted with this as I started the week. And my first thought was, “What the heck does that mean?” (Sorry for any rough language).

If you can think back to last year’s Super Bowl, there was a “We Believe” commercial run by Gillette. The gist of the ad was that men needed to own up to the impact of toxic masculinity accepted for centuries and to make a change. It was bold, expensive and timely. And when Gillette touted its entry as the best commercial of the Super Bowl, they were met with criticism. Was this about what Gillette believed or was it purely marketing capitalizing on the #MeToo movement? Gillette offered a “cause marketing” duality in explanation; however, they could not confirm within its own walls that toxic masculinity was a focus of cultural change.

Some years further back (they all blend together at this point), Aetna desired to change its culture by mandate. The organization made a deliberate plan to upend what their long history of “Mother Aetna” (as referred to by its own employees) had been. Leadership decided that it was time for something new and they acted upon what they wanted. Of course, the problem was no one asked the majority of cultural stakeholders. No one asked all levels of staffing what was needed in the company and how the company could better support a healthier, interactive approach to work and to community. The silliness of the exercise became apparent as quickly as it had begun.

Culture shifts regularly. In vibrantly productive organizations, culture is galvanized around mission, innovation and equity, whether right or wrong. There is an intention behind how the collective works together as well as how each participant works. The sum of the parts makes the whole culture.

So why is the verbiage around “shifting” still making the rounds?

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In part, it’s popular. And popular does not mean effective; understand that clearly. There is hardly a business that isn’t leaning on a cultural initiative, however ineffective or disconnected it may be. Things like town halls and engagement surveys are good things, but they are a tool rather than a solution for culture. Doing popular things that can be shared on social media or on a company website is not shifting culture. It’s likely stifling culture by being more about process shifting or product development.

We’re working remotely more than ever. Happenstance relational moments that can be cultural shifters or cultural affirmers cannot be as random as they were. Culture is influenced by personal connections just as much, if not more so, as the organizational structure. Without a large portion of this happening in the manner it used to, it’s up to the company leadership to devise opportunities for collaboration and communication to happen in new ways. Culture is still alive and needs tending.

Treating culture with care and concern, feeding it and encouraging its growth is necessary. And for many organizations, this is the shift. The shift is not merely idealistic, as in a “look, we tried” scenario; rather, it’s a movement to change that requires constant attention and consistent reinforcement. It’s not to be event-oriented; it’s supposed to be intentional. An ad on television does not make your culture shift. Your culture evolves into health through a series of intentional, small, daily influences. So, when you look to shift culture, look more into what real culture requires. Is your leadership truly ready to do all that needs to be done to build this? Is it only about behavioral change rather than organizational change? Defining culture takes work but look first at where you are today. Don’t sugarcoat. Own it, warts and all. Then work with all teams to know what’s next to do, to think. Imagine watching the Gillette ad as an employee of Gillette knowing that there was a chasm between the impression management being offered and the reality being lived each day. That’s a company failure tough to slice through. (See what I did there?)

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