When I first heard Peter Block* make the statement "you create the culture of the room you are in" (probably 30 years ago), I was skeptical. I had studied cultures, how they form, how they evolve, how to change them, why you can't change them, read all the books. This culture change thing was a long term process! Requiring top-down agreement. Lots of educational sessions. Communication campaigns. Posters. Reminder cards... blah blah blah. It can't happen that easily!
But the optimistic, humanistic part of me wanted to believe it was true. Plus I really liked most everything else Peter had to say. So I started paying more attention. Did the culture in one meeting or room look, sound, or feel different from others? What made it that way? I've had lots of opportunities to observe over the years. Been in hundreds of meetings or conversations, small and large, in maybe a hundred different organizations, or parts of organizations. Some of those meetings I was facilitating, but many I was not, or was facilitating just some portion. And sure enough, each one did have - in some way or other, a unique "culture."
I guess I should say more about what I mean by culture. A common definition that I like is "the way we do things around here." And those "things" include how we talk to each other, make decisions, introduce change, plan work, develop people... all the things that companies do day to day. To me, it also includes some sense of how it feels here. Are people generally trusting? Open to new ideas? Genuinely laughing? Listening in a supportive way? Interested in learning?
I've been in many many conversations about culture, with experts, executives, middle managers, front line workers, both on and off the record. Most people would like to work in a culture that is collaborative, open to learning and change, focused on achieving something that matters, where decisions are made fairly, people respect each other, and are encouraged to be accountable and make things better. Most leaders want to create that kind of culture. Most business would get better results if they operated with that kind of culture. Yet lots of us walk around our workplaces blaming someone else for the culture, or acting as if we are helpless in changing it.
Culture is formed through a amalgam of conversations. Everyone in a conversation has some effect on everyone else in the conversation. We've all seen the entire tone or direction of a meeting change quickly - for better or worse - based on what one person says and how they say it. And that person is often NOT the top leader in the room. Yes, of course, what higher level leaders say or do, or how they run the meeting often has the biggest impact. And based on your own position, level of thinking, courage, how open your boss is, and other factors only you can know... well, you may or may not want to try what I'm about to suggest.
But anyone, regardless of their rank or title can contribute to creating the kind of culture they want to see - by how they show up, participate, and engage with others. Positive presence and behavior has a contagious effect. So here are a few thoughts on what we can all do. And those of us who lead or facilitate can create our meetings with these in mind:
Get yourself into a calm, positive, and open state of mind. Pay attention to how you feel as you transition from one activity or meeting to the next. Take a few deep breaths, think about what state of mind would be most productive and helpful for the next activity. Think about the result you'd like to see from the next meeting, and how you hope others will feel about it. Bring your best self to the conversation. Your calm, positive presence not only allows you to think more clearly and creatively, but also helps to create a constructive vibe for others.
Warmly greet or introduce yourself to everyone there individually before the meeting starts. I'm always shocked at how often this does not just happen. Anyone can make sure it does by starting the process. It's easy to then allow this to lead to some amount of easy small talk, asking others something about their work history, how their day is going, how they feel about the meeting topic. Or share how you feel and then ask others. A friendly, relaxed tone sets the stage for a collaborative conversation. If there's tension because the topic is difficult, just allowing someone to say that out loud ("I'm a little anxious about this") eases the atmosphere. Acknowledging any emotional elephant in the room opens things up.
Balance what experts call "advocacy and inquiry." That requires an open, curious mindset - a willingness to be influenced or change your mind, to hear other perspectives. Ask curious, clarifying questions as much or more often than stating your opinion or perspective. Ask open-ended questions to better understand what others are saying, and dig into what lies beneath what they are saying to get at why it matters to them. Ask those who have been quiet what they think. When stating your perspective, do so in a way that shows you are also open to other's. Be genuinely curious about everyone's perspective - that's the true essence of leveraging diversity, BTW.
Look for and note common ground. Too often our tendency in business meetings is to focus on things we don't like or we disagree with, even if those are minor aspects of a plan or decision. Conversations then get stuck or go way down a rabbit hole about something that isn't really that important. Listen for areas of agreement, or where you are thinking alike, and share those observations. Especially where that common ground is about desired outcomes, results, or direction. "It sounds like we all want to learn from what went wrong..." See if others see the same common ground. Often that will redirect the conversation to what matters most, and settling any difference will be easier when you know you are thinking alike in many ways.
Notice what others do that is productive and helpful. Even better, tell them what you observed them doing, and how it made a difference. Reinforce the behaviors that contribute to a positive, collaborative culture. Or maybe giving compliments is not your thing. Even if all you do is notice, you are multiplying the positive effects and will more likely do something similar yourself in the future. (hmm...when Susan restated what Juan was saying after he was so strongly disagreeing, he calmed down and was better able to listen to others.)
Many more things I could list, but I'll stop here for now. Yes, it's become quite clear to me over the years that Peter Block was right. Each of us, regardless of our role or tenure or expertise, creates some part of the culture of the room we are in. If we're conscious about it, together we can make a difference, one meeting, or one room, at a time.
*Peter Block is an American author, consultant, and speaker in the areas of organization development, community building, and civic engagement. Two of his early books forever shaped my thinking about my work: Flawless Consulting and The Empowered Manager.
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