Understanding and Mitigating Culture Clash

Culture is an interesting outcome of people interacting in specific environments and can be difficult to influence. The Organisational Zoo metaphor provides a simple way to understand culture as an outcome of:
(i) What animals you have in the zoo
(ii) Where they are in the hierarchy and
(iii) How they interact with each other.

The Zoo represents the organisation and each animal an individual behaviour (not a person as a whole). People are far too complex to put into a “box”. They behave differently in different contexts, sometimes automated (instinctive) and at other times somewhat deliberately. All organisations have an overall stereotypical culture, which in reality is the combination of many smaller subcultures. As you drill down through specific contexts, different behaviours are displayed resulting in variation on how the collective accept some behaviours and not others depending on the situation.

We can come to understand this better as we analyse the types of behaviours and how those involved categorise them according to context. A useful exercise to understand your (sub)culture is to determine which animals you prefer in each of the following categories:
• Expected (this behaviour is considered absolutely required in this context)
• Desired (we would like to have this behaviour if possible)
• Tolerated (prefer this was not displayed)
• Not tolerated (this behaviour is disruptive in the context and likely to lead to conflict)

Participants are asked to include twenty of the Organizational Zoo animals (place five cards into each of the four categories). In doing so, they engage in a rich exchange of perspectives of the impact of each animal on outcomes and performance. They often disagree and with good facilitation, insights into why this diversity exists and impacts each animal has in each category can generate terrific understanding between the people involved. This exercise has been done in a range of cultures/countries using a range of groups and every time it generates positive outcomes: participants learn from each other and have fun whilst disagreeing!

One key learning that often comes out is why cultures have clashes (see photo). Where two cultures (or subcultures within one organisation) have similar animals in the expected and desired categories, they are very compatible and cross fertilisation of ideas seems easy. There is a strong sense of common identity and willingness to engage with each other as indicated by the green zones. Cross overs between desired and tolerated between the cultures are inconvenient at times and can create some tension, but these can be managed with competent leadership. However, if there are some animals that are expected in one culture and not tolerated in another (red zones), there is a lot of tension and if not managed well, ultimately leads to conflict and culture clashes.

The Zoo metaphor cards can be used to highlight such potential issues early in the formation of teams (such as acquisitions, mergers, new projects…). If such constructive dialogue is facilitated before tensions are allowed to escalate into issues, agreements on ways of interacting can be forged. However, if such conversations are not facilitated (or done badly), the underlying tensions build into an explosive crisis, after which resolution is extremely difficult. When this happens, trust and collaboration seldom develop causing derailment and destroying performance.

Often, it is not the conversations that DO happen that are most damaging. Its those that should have happened but didn’t (or did so too late and or with the wrong behaviours).

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Reflecting on behaviour for team success

We rarely afford ourselves with the luxury of engaging in sufficient time to do what Donald Schön called “reflection in action”. When we do so, we realise just how much more there is to life and we enhance our learning experiences. One of the biggest challenges in our lives is productively engaging with others. Group dynamics is a double edged sword! Groups enable us to share workload, enjoy learning from other’s perspectives and engage in a deeply rewarding relationship that creates something together. However, the other side of group work is that we perceive we “have to compromise” with others and listen to their views which may be quite different to your own. When a group of people get together their differences can be their greatest asset, as they get to learn how others see things. This can help them to make sense of why things are how they are. However, the unfortunate truth is that highly competent people have confidence in their own abilities and perspectives and try to influence others that their own way is the best way. What this really means is that it matches their CURRENT patterns of thinking and experiences, so they identify with it well. However, learning and relationship building are about creating new patterns of thinking and deeper levels of understanding. These happen best through listening and conversing about relative merits, not telling others why you are right (thereby implying they are wrong).

Ambitious successful people (those appropriately attracted to courses like MBA’s), often see a different opinion as a personal challenge to their leadership capabilities or professionalism. IT ISN’T (necessarily)! It is a terrific opportunity to open your mind and behave in some unfamiliar roles to increase your diversity and enable you to acknowledge the value in arguments you did not consider yourself. This is not a fault – it is how we learn and become better through the knowledge and thoughts of our extended networks. It allows us to be more than we can be as an individual.

So here is your personal development challenge over the next few weeks… put away your initial reaction to what you hear. Reject the urge to say “Yes, but…” Give a moment to reflect on whether that statement that you heard a colleague state. Assess what merit it may have that you did not previously see: If it does adopt it into your approach. If it does not, seek further information about it – ask an OPEN question to learn more. You never now, it may be the best idea you ever subconsciously rejected before it had time to grow on you. It is also possible that it is as sub-optimal you first thought! If is it, then professionally questioning it often leads to the person offering it to realise it is not sufficiently robust. Intelligent people usually come to understand that there are other ideas or options that may be better. This is how effective conversations that matter work to generate better outcomes for all (assuming everyone wants win/win and as long as there is a respectful manner when challenging ideas). I know this approach works and has on many occasions educated me to adopt new ideas I would have not have benefited from without listening and engaging in dialogue. What happens when you get this right is we all end up with richer understandings from the interactions. If we don’t engage in this way, it is almost certain we will end up just maintain the status quo (at best) or worse, lead to conflict and everyone losing.
As Theodore Zeldin stated: “The kind of conversation I’m interested in is one which you start with a willingness to emerge a slightly different person. It is always an experiment, whose results are never guaranteed. It involves risk. It’s an adventure in which we agree to cook the world together and make it taste less bitter.”

Dorothy Leonard-Barton highlighted back in 1995 in Wellsprings of Knowledge that “creative abrasion” is a positive source of innovation and learning and something to be consciously acknowledged and leveraged. She went on to propose teams should be designed to include diversity and systems of thought that encourage different views and/or ontology to be expressed, argued and reconciled. This is why people SHOULD pay good money for high quality education that help them to think and constructively challenge! They get to interact with other string intellects and learn how to learn from each other. With the right focus and facilitation they become more capable. Another outcome of quality education is the participants are more effective, they can utilise more behavioural styles when engaging with others (and leverage groups for mutual benefits). After all, isn’t a “problem” just an opportunity to make something better? Well lead creative abrasion through professional conversation enables you to keep your eye on the outcomes and adapt your behaviour such that you can achieve this. This is one way the Zoo animal characters can be used effectively – reflecting on who you should be in that context, not allowing the context to drive how you react.

You deserve to enjoy your group interactions rather than endure them, so do the free online behavioural profile and assess how adaptable is your style to suit all the contexts you engage in…. (please be sure to challenge yourself and reflect on what you need to do to become who you want to be not just believe you are already there).

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Getting started with a new client or opportunity

In the beginning of any new relationship the key is to show you can create benefits they value and build interactions you each enjoy.  Often the best way to find things they care about and value is to ask a series of questions. A perceived problem can often be a symptom of something else such as poor management generally or too focused on tactical solutions.  To find the best opportunities to tackle FIRST, you need to explore a little in creative ways.  It is important to start with divergent conversations including a range of perspectives to help with identify potential outcomes.  Divergent conversations help to open minds, if the appropriate creative behavioural environment is generated.  This provides many options to consider, but do not be fooled by many options- this can be worse than no options.  Attempts to do everything that MIGHT be possible are rarely optimal.  Cull the list of options to a subset of the highest priorities through convergent conversation (with appropriate analytical behaviours) to get the best actions to address first.

Start with some conversations triggered by questions about them in their contexts. Consider the impacts (or lack thereof) of combining aspects of people, process, tools and desired business outcomes.   These interactions will inform the next level of questions required to advance the cause and performance of the client.

Some useful generic starting questions are:

Questions open gates not premade answers

What are we trying to achieve in the business? (divergent)

What keeps you awake at night? (convergent)

What are the three biggest issues or lost opportunities? (convergent)

How is this aspect causing us issues in achieving our desired outcomes? (divergent)

What actions can resolve any barriers caused by these? (or even better, leverage them to create an advantage?). This one is potentially divergent or convergent- depending on how you lead the behavioural environment.

Who do I need to involve to realise the desired outcomes from these actions? (convergent)

When you have reflected on these and feel you have plausible answers, bounce the resulting plan in some more conversations with others.  Actively seek to get insights (pros and cons) from a range of people to leverage different perspectives. Then DO IT (implement the actions!).  Reflect on how it is going as you do it as well as reflecting how it could have been improved afterwards (more conversations that matter to gather a range of perspectives- not just your own thoughts).  One of the reasons we learn more from errors than from getting things right, is we reflect much more deeply when we feel the pain of a mistake, especially an expensive one.  When something works, we don’t tend to reflect as much, perhaps assuming the adequacy of our effort was optimal.  Without reflection, this is a BIG assumption!

Go ahead – start a new emergent conversation triggered by reflective questions today!

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Do (some) people truly want to learn?

I was recently discussing the intent and impact of learning (building the capability of people to think and act more productively) with a prospective client.  They were reluctant to move away from traditional learning approaches for fear of “failure”.  My experience is that failure to learn is far more prevalent in traditional teaching practice than in alternative creative approaches.  I then challenged myself and the client with  these reflections…

Creativity is too often underestimated by (left brain dominated) detailed/logical business people (I was there too myself in my distant past, before evolving through learning).  My recent research (very applied not theoretical) and that of others shows creativity, conversations and humour were significant stimulators of learning outcomes. People who want to learn “facts”, actually don’t learn (and often don’t remember facts later, or worse, they facts become obsolete).  A key to true learning is to being exposed to content in creative, left field ways and then applying the concepts in out of pattern approaches.  This ensures their right brain is engaged in a creative way which allows the new patterns to enter rather than be rejected (because logically they “don’t fit the known pattern”).

That is, we hear what we want to hear and reject the rest when “thinking”. However, we are susceptible to new ideas when having fun (like being involved in a creative activity that is unpredictable and emergent).  Such activities engage both sides of the brain simultaneously and have us both thinking and feeling, whilst out of our comfort zone.  When introduced to new clients, I find people who “know exactly what they want” are unlikely to get the value without considering why they want it and what way it is likely be be achieved (see conversations that matter).  If they are not prepared to have a divergent conversation first before converging on an approach, they limit in their thinking  as they do not know what else is out there.  Unknowingly (unless they are just “ticking the box” to pay lip service to appease), they limit their own performance and potential achievements because of a closed mind to alternative ideas (although this is often subconscious).  If one truly wants to change and build capability, one must be open to trying new ideas (absolutes are rarely true, but this one comes very close!).  Whilst some experiments may not work, they still lead to cultivating an open mind and learning outcomes.  There is plenty of research that shows we learn more from errors than we do from getting things right (mainly because when things go right, we don’t reflect on whether it could have been so much better – something intelligent people do when they make have a “learning experience” stimulated by mistakes).

One assumes potential clients seek expertise to help them learn what they don’t already know, otherwise why bother to pay for something you already have?  Putting tight constraints (time, formats and areas of content) around what they want is very limiting for (and by) them and also limits what we can achieve for/with them.  You can’t truly learn if you control the limits so you remain within your comfort zone!  This will just reinforce what you already “know”.

Life is not a formula (or at least an enjoyable and fulfilling one isn’t).  Giving away a little control allows you get greater ROI and learn so much more.
Let go! You may even have some fun in the process whilst you build greater relationships, confidence and trust among your team members.

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Metaphor for Mentoring

Although I have actively engaged in mentoring throughout my career, I have proactively increased my mentoring efforts since leaving the “big corporate” world.  This increased interest and activity has resulted from a number of emergent opportunities:

"The Eternal Mentor"

Mentoring is experienced guidance, not teaching

Firstly, my association with many young people from a range of cultures through coordinating courses for RMIT University’s MBA, which led me to revamp and lead the student mentoring program in which volunteer business leaders offer their time to invest in conversation with MBA students.
Secondly, my interest in the influence of behavioural awareness through my PhD research leading to the concept of behavioural environment optimisation to enhance trust and team dynamics and
Thirdly, my personal desire to “give back” something to the professional and social communities though which I have enjoyed being part of, such the Melbourne Knowledge Management leadership Forum and Organizational Zoo Ambassadors Network and some other on-line communities that share knowledge and expertise.

Talking to a number of the mentors and mentees over time about what they do, why and the outcomes they achieve has been very rewarding and revealing.  The importance of conversation and metaphors as tools to engage and share complex concepts so that the mentee can gain a richer understanding of what is being said within their own experiences has become a common theme.  Conversations that Matter form a useful framework for mentees to elevate their awareness to a new level and gain deep insights into how the experiences of their mature mentors can help then in their own contexts and situations.  It is not about “finding a solution” to their problem, it is more a process to discover a range of options. Reflection with others helps to “bounce ideas” and adapt the mentors insights into something that will work for them and their own situations.

When metaphor is added to the conversation a new dimension of understanding can be shared and lead to more creative generation of options. The process of reflecting on your your thoughts with others provides greater perspectives and triggers ideas and emergent opportunities that you may not have considered without this process.  My recent research highlights that there are synergies gained by combining metaphor and conversation in that the two together, combined with reflection are creative provide a more creative environment for insightful exchange (and is more fun).

Business students involved in the mentoring process often write highly reflective articles of their personal and professional development expressing their gratitude towards their mentor. A few examples of such statements follows:

“I found out that speaking about me and listening to peers were an incredible and mind opening experience. It was enriching to learn what fellow classmates were thinking in terms of job perspectives as well as gain global industry insights from my mentor.”

“I gained a lot more than these expectations and realized an extension of skills and work choices that I was not aware of.” 

“Without mentor guidance, it would have taken me a much longer time to answer the career questions of moving vertical or horizontal in my career.  In future, I do anticipate looking for life coaches as well as mentors to routinely keep my work and personal goals in direction.”

“I became comfortable and confident to discuss my professional developments with my mentor towards the later sessions. I learnt that an active mentoring relationship with regular communications and a two-way exchange of ideas was much more effective than a formal lecture student relationship.”

Both personally and professionally, seeing/hearing such statements is the ultimate reward, especially when they contact you several years later and describe how they attribute elements of their success to application of their learning from the mentoring.  Knowing that one’s efforts and guidance have made an ongoing difference for the mentee is satisfying far beyond “just teaching” (although the value and responsibility of this too is not to be understated).  I can only encourage everyone to invest a little time in being involved in mentoring at some stage (as either mentor or mentee or through group peer mentoring) to experience the exhilaration of making a difference for someone else and watching them prosper as a result.

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