Culture change? Try befriending a cat

The reaction of most employees to the words “culture” & “change”

Prepare yourself. I’m getting ready to make an excessive number of metaphors and analogies about a topic that many people find annoying: culture.

Here’s a choice analogy to start with. Culture is like a butt. They exist everywhere but it’s difficult to look at your own. It is extremely important to how our body functions, yet we don’t like to talk about it. Perhaps another go? Culture is like stagnant water that’s been sitting in a barrel for too long. It can cover every surface and still be hard to see. You hardly notice it when things are going well. But when things get funky it smells like shit and everyone complains. And again? Culture is like a sausage. It is filled with a dizzying array of different things. You don’t want to know what’s in there or how it’s made; you only care about the way it manifests (on your plate). Culture is like a lot things. But what IS it?

A former coach (thanks Ty!) gave me the best definition of culture I’ve heard: “Culture is the way things get done around here.” It’s perfect. Rather than using arcane nouns and terms to define some abstractive description of an equally fuzzy concept, this definition grounds culture in action. Because why else do we care about culture?

Perhaps some PhD candidates care about defining culture for the sake of fitting it into an epistemological framework (built on top of philosophical frameworks built on top of linguist frameworks built on top of…). For most of us, culture matters because it shapes how we act and communicate with each other. Culture is the way that things get done around here.

The invisible patterns of interaction and communication based on even more invisible value-sets? That’s culture. The varying priorities and emphases placed on different aspects of a problem? That’s culture. The different styles of communication (i.e. direct vs indirect, speaking vs. yelling, etc.)? That’s culture.

It’s all a part of “the way that things get done.” And things get done differently in different cultures, so the “here” is an important part of our definition. Culture can be described in countless ways, but it’s fundamentally important to human beings because it shapes how we act. Also, how we act constantly shapes it. NON-LINEAR RECURSIVE LOOPS! Wrap your heads around that…

In business, when people say things like “I love our culture!” or “OMG the culture suuuccccckkkkks here,” they’re usually implying that they like or dislike the way things get done. It means that the style with which the groups operate and interact with each other is pleasing / not pleasing to them.

Though it is shortsighted to say that one culture is wholly good or bad, it is obvious that the “way things get done around here” can be better or worse at certain things and can be improved over time. Like human actions and interactions, culture is constantly evolving. That’s because it is the convoluted and emergent sausage of our interactions.

Before we go any further down the road of abstract systems thinking and non-linear emergence, let’s get back to the reason we’re here. Culture is the way things get done, and sometimes we want to change that. What is our best analogy for culture change? What is it like to change “the way things get done around here?”

As an animal lover, a very specific metaphor comes to mind. Ever tried to make friends with a cat? Exactly. You do not MAKE friends with the cat. The cat makes friends with you. We, as the humans, have very little agency in the matter unless we involve heavy incentives (read: bribery). Culture change is similar to this. You, me, frantic middle-manager, big-dick CEO, Gandhi, whomever, cannot change the culture.

One can merely establish the right conditions and incentives where culture will change itself. We cannot force culture to change and expect it to last, just like we cannot coerce a cat to like us (again, heavy bribery could be your way around this). Culture change means changing the way things get done, which means changing behavior. Forced behavior change never lasts in a positive way (again, excessive bribery or coercion can help one get around this, but it is not advised).

I’m not saying that culture change should be entirely grassroots. Cats don’t often decide to walk up to you on their own in the middle of the street (obviously there are always exception). You need structure and a consistent message from the top and it needs to be visible. Don’t talk to the cat in a cute voice and then pet it in an aggressive way — it will bite you (employees don’t have the luxury of that response). You’ve got to back up your words with visible action.

Employees, like cats, can easily spot when leadership says one thing but does another. You need to set the right conditions and incentives so the cat (employees) feel like it’s the downhill path to change. But ultimately it’s up to them to decide and act on the change.

That is the fundamental challenge of culture change: it must grow on its own in the hearts/minds of the constituents in order for it to be sustainable and meaningful.

Everyone knows super friendly cats who are game to try anything instantly. I love those cats. Everyone also knows those demon terror cats who will run or attack you if you even glance at them. Fuck those cats. Most cats are somewhere in the middle. Same thing with people.

By setting the conditions for culture change and then providing consistent messages to reinforce it, we can hope to make cats / employees feel ready to change themselves. When enough feel that way, then we’ve got a culture change on our hands. But we cannot yell and scream at the cat and expect it to like us. Nor can we act erratic and expect it to buy in to what we’re selling.

Now THATS what the cat wanted/needed/demanded…

Perhaps our definition of culture was too complicated. Part of the magic of cats lies in their invisible complexity and unpredictable ways. Culture is quite similar. The phenomena of emergence and the non-linear interactions of many people make cultures defy easy categorization. Perhaps we are trying too hard to understand analyze culture, when we should really just try to listen to it. Ever try to analyze a cat? The joy with cats comes from playing with them and being surprised. Maybe culture is the same way.

A major difference between cats and culture is quality of the Google-search binge on either topic. I assure you that the “grumpy cat” search on Google images is about as good as life gets. “Culture change” as a Google image search needs to step up its game.

I have another coach who gave me a slightly simpler definition of culture. It goes like this: “culture is.” No time wasted trying to control it. Just accept it, pay attention to it, and maybe you’ll learn how to influence it.

Treat your culture change like befriending a new cat and maybe you’ll have some success. But you better put your patience cap on first…

A wanderer, a water-drinker, a wastrel, and [something pithy]