Defining culture is difficult. Creating a Healthy Corporate Culture is more difficult. Most change management consultants would say that a culture is defined by our language, behaviors, and interactions. Anthropologists go a step further by saying that culture is defined more by what is absent than what is present.
In a recent meeting I attended, a question was asked regarding culture and what exactly that meant. In response, a very senior person in the company addressed the inquirer by name and then answered the question. Then, people moved on. But not me.
I noticed something significant.
The most senior person in the company that knows the name of a person much less senior in the company is a subtle but very important aspect of the company culture. But, because instances like that are so common-place at this company, the subtlety of it all passed by all of us.
a place where everybody knows your name
But that’s the point.
The subtle things matter. And, when those things don’t happen, we notice it.
What if the most senior person int he company had said “blah, blah, blah – oh, and what was your name?” Most of us would have noticed that because that response wouldn’t have been indicative of the culture all of us had come to expect in the company.
- Your mom calls you by name; she has for 30 years. You wouldn’t think it was a big deal. But, what if she forgot your name?
- What if your culture was one where problems were surfaced and exposed and cooperatively worked-on together. But, what if you discovered that some problems were hidden and protected – you would notice that; it wouldn’t feel right to you.
- Imagine if your company regularly held daily stand-up meetings as a management ritual. Then, all of a sudden, you didn’t have them anymore. You notice it – it doesn’t feel quite right.
A Culture is defined by what is present, but by also what is absent. Those subtle but important rituals – when no longer practiced – leave a vacuum in a company. You notice it; it doesn’t quite feel right.
Using an idea from my friend Matt May, author of In Pursuit of Elegance,
Thirty spokes join together in the hub.
It is because of what is not there that the cart is useful.
Clay is formed into a vessel.
It is because of its emptiness that the vessel is useful.
Cut doors and windows to make a room.
It is because of its emptiness that the room is useful.
Therefore, what is present is used for profit.
But it is in absence that there is usefulness.
– Lao Tzu