Healthy organizational culture highlights
In episode 62 of Mission: Impact, Carol Hamilton looks back with past guests to discuss:
Carol Hamilton: Welcome to Mission: Impact the podcast for progressive nonprofit leaders who want to build a better world without becoming a martyr to the cause. My name is Carol Hamilton, your podcast host and strategic planning consultant.
A big part of not being a martyr to the cause is building organizations with healthy cultures. To round out the year of podcasts, I am going back to a number of interviews I did this year to pull out some gems on what it really takes to build a healthy organizational culture. There was so much great material to pull from. I am actually going to do this as a two-parter. This is part 1 and part 2 will come out in early January. I am taking a break at the end of the year – and hope you have a break coming up soon as well so I am releasing one episode this month instead of my normal two.
In part one, we are going to talk about what organizational culture actually is and who is responsible for it, why values are so essential to culture, and how courageous conversations and feedback are so critical to healthy cultures.
You will hear from episode 36 with Anne Hilb, episode 40 with Terrill Thompson & Monique Meadows; Episode 53 with Reva Patwardhan, episode 56 with Danielle Marshall; and episode 58 with Deneisha Thompson.
Let’s begin by defining what we mean by organizational culture. Edgar Schein first described the concept and his definition is: “a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.” To me, the key in that definition is that culture is made up of shared basic assumptions – and over time these become invisible. But you definitely learn them when you are new and bump into them inadvertently and get schooled by those around you in the “way we do things around here.” Terrill describes their approach to culture.
Terrill Thompson: We define culture really broadly. ? The essence of it is what does it feel like to work there? . Every organization has a different call. The people who can most clearly see the culture are often the new folks, because once we're in it, it's like the fish in water that doesn't know they're in water. It's all around us all the time. Newer people who are coming into organizations can often tell you a little bit more about the culture. When we're looking at culture, we're really looking at it holistically, how are people behaving in the organization? How do they treat each other? What are the relationships like the level of trust? What do we do about birthdays or holidays, all of that? Even how we dress is part of culture. And so we're really taking a broad approach. It's really about the people. The people make up the culture.
Carol: As Terrill describes, culture is made up of things we can see and a lot we can’t – some of it may show up in your policies and procedures. Even more will be invisible. A lot of leaders have been wanting everyone back in the office saying that will create culture. But the truth is culture is there – whether you are in an office or fully remote or something in between. Culture is made up of all the small actions and behaviors of the group – whether you are meeting in the hallway or proverbial water cooler or on a Slack channel or Zoom room. How you care for and cultivate that culture is a different thing. There were plenty of unhealthy cultures in the before-times when working together in one space was the default – so the office does not create the culture, the people do. I appreciate How Deneisha calls out that culture is everyone’s job.
Deneisha Thompson: Culture is everyone's job, it's not just the HR person's job. It's not just the job of the supervisor. It's not just the DEI person's job. All of those things require all of us to be embodying the values as we have defined them. And to make sure that everyone is contributing to trying to have a more positive and healthy work culture.
Carol: So while leaders have an especially important part of creating and modeling the culture – whether they are doing so intentionally or not – everyone can contribute to making the culture healthier. Yet it may not be on people’s minds because as Monique points out, culture can be so invisible.
Monique Meadows: The other piece around talking about culture in general, because it's so invisible, folks can kind of dismiss its significance. Like how much it really impacts, how far you're getting along in your work and how you're able to really fulfill your mission. And so naming it and, and really identifying this is why it's so important.
Carol: Peter Drucker famously said culture eats strategy for lunch. So while I focus on strategy with organizations – I also assess their culture while I am working with them because the culture has to support and align to the strategy you are trying to enact. And it starts with looking at the good, bad and the ugly. Anne Hilb provides this warning about your organizational culture.
Anne Hilb: culture is dictated by the worst behavior we allow. The cultural component of that is as soon as something that's inappropriate happens, it's absolutely imperative to. Say we do not allow that here. There's not going to be tolerance for that. That being said, there's a very big component of how we handle harm in this culture?
Carol: This could be truly worst case scenario of sexual assault or harassment, racialized harassment or embezzlement. But it doesn't need to be so egregious. Do you have a team member who has followed through on responsibilities inconsistently? Have you been avoiding having a conversation with them about it? Do you excuse board members who do not show up at meetings? Do you allow one or two people to dominate the conversation? What is the worst behavior you are allowing? How might you address it?
Anne: Condemning the deed and not the person separating those things out. . The way that you handle a bad act versus a bad actor is also going to be something that's important and says a lot about your culture.
Carol: It is easy to get caught up in blame and blaming the person instead of addressing the behavior that is problematic. I certainly know that I have fallen into this trap too many times. I have also seen leaders want to avoid dealing 1 on 1 with an individual and having that tough conversation. Sometimes when a leader calls wanting team development or board development, once we get into the conversation what is really needed first is for the leader to have a brave conversation with an individual – whether on staff or board member. Team building will not address individual issues and may actually be detrimental to your overall morale. There is a place for team building and board development – but think about whether the issue you want to address is at the individual level or the group level. Deneisha describes the thing that got me interested in organization development in the first place – the cognitive dissonance that too often occurs between the organization’s mission and vision and how it treats the people involved in the organization. She also makes the good point that each organization is not operating in a vacuum – they are operating in the larger sector and the broader culture and systems.
Deneisha: The whole nonprofit system is broken and nonprofit organizations often find themselves perpetuating the same systems that they're trying to dismantle. One of the things I think is like the through line in that is culture. And if you have a nonprofit with this great mission, I usually work with direct service nonprofits and they wanna do these great things in communities, change indicators that are plaguing communities and really tackle long standing problems. You can't have a love for a community, but then internally. Don't treat each other well, internally have a toxic culture, internally have an oppressive culture or one where communication and diversity and having tough conversations isn't valued.
Carol: As Deneisha points out, you can’t have a healthy organizational culture that doesn’t value inclusion, diversity and belonging. By definition, if you are not working on intentionally building a culture where those from historically marginalized communities feel a sense of belonging your culture is not healthy. You do not have a healthy organizational culture if it only works well for some people. What you value and how you embody those values is a key component of this. Danielle describes an exact conversation I have had with groups.
Danielle Marshall: What does respect mean at the organizational level? And what does respect mean for you Carol, versus how I view respect? Because that's where I think things get a little tricky. We use words, just assuming that everyone is behind the definition, they're seeing it in the same context, because again, we're minimizing right differences without digging into.
Carol: Beyond just naming what your values are as a group – spending time talking through what behaviors demonstrate those values is so important to know whether you are talking about the same thing when you say “respect” or “integrity” or “equity” How will I be able to see it and really know we are walking our talk? As Anne describes, this ‘walking the talk’ comes out in whether our values are just listed on the website but not lived – thus they are espoused values but not really alive in the organization.
Anne: If there's misunderstanding or miscommunication, we know that something in the organization has gone amiss. And that means that we're saying that we have these values, we have these espoused values and we're not practicing those values in action. And that's going to lead to conflict when that happens in a place where there's harm created with sexual violence, let's say a leader. Creates an instance of sexual harassment and they're covered by the firm's lawyer. And now the leader leaves or gets pushed out. But the firm's lawyer is still there, which is why I've had this incident happen many times. Then there's all this animosity towards the lawyer because he's doing his job folks feel like, well, why are they still here once that all comes to light? So then you have this schism in what the firm says they stand for, especially if they're an organization that says it supports a women's issue. How do you then look at smoothing over the lack of alignment in a way that you haven't technically broken policy, but you have broken the values or the espoused values of the organization. That's an instance where you're going to have to work with folks in a way that gives them voice. And those back to the foundation of what do we stand for? What's our mission and how do our policies, our processes and what we say we want to do line up.
Carol: The degree of lack of alignment that Anne describes can lead to more extreme staff revolts and disillusionment. But it can also be in the little things as Terrill describes.
Terrill: The other thing is that oftentimes our practices and policies are written down that should define a culture, often contradict the culture. For example, we'll see policies that say everybody takes an hour for lunch, but then when we look around the office, everyone's sitting at their desks, cramming food in their face while they're typing emails. Culture often trumps everything else.
Carol: There is a lot of conversation about self care and setting boundaries at work these days, quiet quitting and the great resignation. But self care and setting boundaries – while important – put the onus on the individual to set these up for themselves. Culture writer Anne Helen Petersen describes what she calls ‘guardrails’ as a structured alternative to boundaries. She says, quote, “ I came up with a concept of boundaries vs. guardrails when I was trying to describe something new to protect against the runaway train of working all the time, that isn’t boundaries which has become so worn out as to effectively be meaningless.” So in the example Terrill offered, the organization has at least in policy created a guardrail of a lunch break. But if the leaders do not actively encourage this behavior or even more so – model taking a lunch break themselves – then those are just words on a page. What guardrails do you need to establish for your organization to promote everyone’s well being? And then as Deneisha points out – how you are going to hold yourself and other accountable?
Deneisha: When accountability doesn't happen, it hurts trust. But it's also a really hard thing to have that conversation. People are saying, this is my job and I can be responsible for this, but when things go wrong, Owning up to it and, and being able to recognize how, whatever you didn't do impacted your team is a really scary thing. As humans, we are defensive beings. We are not bred to be public about accountability. You may feel bad internally, but to actually come out and say, you know what? I screwed this up. I'm sorry. Or I had a bad day and I didn't show up. Those things are not valued. We actually have a very punitive approach to how we deal with people not doing what we need them to do. And that's very present in the nonprofit sector. While we talk about things like restorative justice, and we talk about things like healing and bringing people together, and building bridges. These are all terms we hear around the sector a lot. We don't really create mechanisms internally for people to feel safe to do that. And so what ends up happening is that we have lots of teams who are individuals. Just try to escape accountability, because I don't wanna be written on, I don't wanna a bad performance review. I don't want to be othered or, or to be rejected and feel like I don't belong. It is a. Difficult difficult thing to be accountable to your team. And so part of that is like, I tie that in with communication because what we wanna do is to normalize like imperfection. No, one's perfect. We all make mistakes. We can be transparent and it's not gonna happen overnight. But how do we build trust with each other? How do we start putting systems in place and taking baby steps towards normalizing the things that people are often running from really being able to declare when you're not ready for something or when you've hurt someone's feelings, being able to go beyond ‘I'm sorry.’ Because ‘I’m sorry’ doesn't solve everything. These are really important skills that need to be taught. You're not born with that. And if you don't practice it it's like anything, you lose the muscle for it. It's about consistently building in opportunities for teams to be vulnerable with each other.
Carol: How are you making it ok for people to be honest about it when they screw up? None of us are perfect. We all make mistakes. Do you have a CYA culture? Or one where mistakes are shared as learning opportunities? As Terrill says, trust is key to start being able to make shifts that build towards a more healthy culture. And as Monique points out there may also be past harm that needs to be addressed and worked through.
Terrill: We've got to have the trust to hold what comes up so that when the group is ready to actually hold the experience, then we can bring that in and start to make those shifts.
Monique: We really do see it in a lot of ways as healing work and, and really creating a space for folks where they are willing to take the risks with each other. But first it means acknowledging that there's been injury. And whether that injury. Intentional or unintentional it's there. . We've worked with some groups where they're ready to acknowledge that and release it. Like we even sometimes have done work activities that are like released rituals here's what we're seeing. We're constantly reflecting back to them so that they first don't feel like they're crazy, ? Like this is actually happening.
Carol: So in the best case scenario, you address an issue immediately as Anne described earlier. But sometimes it gets swept under the rug or ignored. It doesn’t mean the issue is no longer active in the system. You can address it and acknowledge it and work through it. And as we talked about boundaries being an individual solution to an organizational – and even wider cultural problem, It is easy to think when something isn't working, it is your fault – again with the driver to cover it up as Reva describes.
Reva Patwardhan: I've noticed that there are certain very prevalent, toxic dynamics in the nonprofit sector that when you are in the middle of that dynamic, when you're really a part of it, it can feel like a personal problem. . Something's going wrong. and in the organization, but because it feels like a personal problem, I treat it like a personal problem. If you imagine you're an ED and things aren't going right. Really feels like the thing that's not going right is me. My efforts to address it have failed. So what do I do? What you do in that situation is you hide it, you hide the problem. If you blame yourself for the problem and you haven't been able to adequately address it, you hide the problem. You're then unable to do anything about it. Some examples I've seen of this are Executives, who've gotten really good at hiding their overwhelm. It's just become this really normalized thing that their funders don't fund overhead. It's been like that for so long. A culture where overwhelmed and burnout are just normal. If you are overwhelmed or if you have a problem with being overwhelmed, that's a problem with you. And so let's hide that rather than actually trying to figure out how to do it.
Carol: Addressing issues openly instead of covering them up or trying to hide them is so important to a healthy culture. Deneisha describes the importance of having those brave conversations. She also gives a masterclass in the importance of feedback and how to provide effective feedback.
Deneisha: How do we create the environment to have really tough conversations, important conversations, brave conversations, so that we are respecting each other and sharing and allowing the brilliance of our diversity rise to the top. And then finally strategy. What does our strategic planning look like? Do we have a north star? Do we have a clear set of goals and targets that we're all working towards? You often have people who are really passionate about the mission, which then makes it hard. You can't say, leave your personal self at home. , just come to work that doesn't work in the nonprofit sector, whether you are working on issues related to poverty or education or homelessness, or, you know, especially with service orgs, their passions drive how they show up. Feedback should be happening constantly. We should not just be waiting until something goes wrong to have conversations around how we can do better. To supervisors, if someone is seeing something for the first time on the performance review, you have failed. You have plenty of opportunities between annual evaluations to share your feedback. It should not be in the form of criticism. You don't wanna be criticized; that does not feel good. What this should be is, how can we grow? How can we do better? There is an opportunity every single day to provide feedback. And you should be also saying as a supervisor, how can I support you? What do you need from me to be able to do these things? So feedback doesn't just go from the top down. It should also be able to go from the bottom up for a staffer to say, okay, I hear you. These are the things you'd like me to do, but here's the support that I need or the resources I need to get that done. So number one, feedback should be in a 360. Feedback isn't also just an outward thing. Sometimes feedback is listening, a key component of being able to give good feedback is to also listen and to hear and to synthesize that information and then to provide something back to the person that is actually actionable, that's meaningful.
Carol: And as Deneisha says earlier, just saying you are sorry is likely not enough to address harm. Anne describes all the parts of a good apology.
Anne: A good apology says, I'm sorry. I take responsibility for that and here's what I'm going to do going forward. And here's what I learned from it and how I'm gonna use this as a learning example.
Carol: Several years ago, Elizabeth Scott of Brighter Strategies did research on what organizations that have a healthy culture (based on an organizational assessment by Cooke and Lafferty of Human Synergistics International did differently from those with a less healthy culture. Today’s experts – Deneisha, Danielle, Terrill, Monique, Reva and Anne – highlighted several that came up in her research findings. The first is a feedback rich culture – and that is sharing specific positive feedback – celebrating the wins – and addressing the growing edges and having brave conversations. And another is the importance of valuing balancing self care and work-life balance – through those guardrails that Anne Helen Petersen describes.
What feedback do you need to provide team members? Board members? How are you asking for regular feedback? How are you modeling what you expect from your team members? Saying do as I say not as I do, does not cut it. Are you modeling healthy habits around self care? What conversations do you need to have as a team if how you work is driving you all to burn out? Do you admit to mistakes you make? Do you share those with your team and what you learned from them? Do they feel safe admitting to not being perfect? Is there a past harm that you need to make amends for? And use Anne’s model of a full apology. Is there a brave conversation you have been putting off? What support can you get to make it possible to have that conversation? Again – none of us are perfect. Values are always aspirational and we will inevitably fall short. But it is not a life sentence. You can pick yourself back up, dust yourself off, admit to the challenge, talk it through and set intentions for more fully living into your values moving forward.
Thank you for listening to this episode. You can find the links and resources mentioned during the show in the show notes at missionimpactpodcast.com/shownotes. If you enjoyed it, please share it with a colleague or friend. We appreciate you helping us get the word out.
I want to thank Isabelle Strauss-Riggs for her support in editing and production as well as April Koester of 100 Ninjas for her production support.
And until next time, thank you for everything you do to contribute and make an impact.
I am Carol Hamilton, nonprofit consultant and podcast host. My passion is helping organizations cultivate healthy, inclusive cultures that live their values, fostering learning, creativity and results. Find me at Grace Social Sector Consulting and download free resources.
Grace Social Sector Consulting, LLC, owns the copyright in and to all content in and transcripts of the Mission: Impact podcast, with all rights reserved, including right of publicity.