How Do We Create Culture?

We often talk about a few “bad apples” in teams, groups, or even society as a whole. We use the term “bad apples” because that metaphor helps us see that one bad apple can poison an entire container. Should we tolerate one bad apple? Are there other options to help us create a culture that works for everyone?

Seth Godin likes to talk about culture as, “People like us do things like this.”

That’s a good shorthand. However, that definition isn’t enough for me—it doesn’t account for the reward system. I prefer Schein’s approach to culture in Organizational Culture and Leadership. (He talks about artifacts, etc.) I boiled it down to:

  • What we can discuss.
  • How we treat each other.
  • What we reward.

In organizations, have you worked with people who didn’t discuss their bad apple? That’s the person who made the work more difficult for everyone.

In organizations, if you don’t like your team or group, you often have options. You choose with your feet—you can find a new team or find a new company. (I’m assuming you tried feedback, etc.)

What if you have a bad apple in your family? Assuming the person is not part of your immediate family, you might ignore that person as much as possible. You might not go to family events. If that person is part of your immediate family, you might have other options, such as moving out.

I’m not suggesting any of these options are easy. There are plenty of other family dynamics with family-based bad apples.

At work and in our families, we might not like what we see, but we can see the culture.

See and Influence the Culture

What about when the bad apples are part of services we, as a society, pay for? How can we see the culture when we’re not part of the work?

I’ll be honest—I don’t have a definitive answer. We often don’t see what people can discuss or how people treat each other in those services. We only have an indirect influence on what we reward.

What we can do:

  • We can choose what and how to discuss the issues we care about. We can create demonstrations, parades, and attend town meetings (or whatever that is for you.) In my experience, the more one-on-one conversations we can have, the more effective our discussions might be.
  • We can treat the people we encounter the way we want to be treated. Even though I am not known for my patience and tact, I try hard to use as much patience and tact as possible with the people I want to influence. I don’t always succeed.
  • As members of society, we have limited access to direct rewards. However, we have the ballot box. We can use our votes to reinforce the culture we want. By extension, we can discourage the culture we don’t want.

Gruenert and Whitaker, in School Culture Rewired, said this:

“The Culture of any organization is shaped by the worst behavior the leader is willing to tolerate.”

As a society, we decide what we will tolerate. I hope we can choose for the common good, but we don’t always. We are imperfect—we are works in progress.

Where Do You See Bad Apples?

In my experience, a culture does not root out its bad apples until we change enough parts of the culture:

  • We have to articulate the reality, that we have bad apples.
  • We have to make it safe for everyone, to discuss the bad apples. It’s possible that people don’t realize they are the bad apples.
  • We have to change the rewards to make being a bad apple less rewarding.

We have to be honest with ourselves about our culture.

In the US, as we move to the big election in November, let’s remember, we can decide what we want to discuss, how we treat each other, and what we reward.

That’s the question this week: How do we create culture?

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