Culture by Design, or by Default

May 16, 2023

Culture by Design, or by Default

The same way that fish have water, humans have culture. You can’t just step out of culture and dry yourself off with a towel. You’re in it, and it’s in you. Culture is a complicated blend of values, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and customs. But at the end of the day, it all comes out in the way we interact.

We, as humans, crave interaction. We’re biologically driven to connect with each other because we have an innate need to belong. The need for connection and belonging, much like the need for food, shelter, and water, governs the quality of our interactions, and consequently our relationships. These are needs that exist regardless of status, beliefs, race, gender, or religion. 

At the heart of all of this: culture, human experience, and interaction, we find psychological safety. No, it’s not a concept that stays locked in your office supply closet and pulled out during damage control. And it’s definitely not just a theoretical concept meant for academic debate. It’s an integral part of your everyday life.

Default Culture

We said it in the introduction: culture is a complicated blend of values, assumptions, perceptions, attitudes, beliefs, behaviors, and customs. But essentially, it’s just interaction. Each seemingly discrete interaction both shapes you and is shaped by you. As those interactions build up (assuming you interact with the same people in the same settings) over time, a culture forms. 

Now you have expectations. Fears. Assumptions born from previous experiences, both positive and negative, that influence how you show up every, single day. These expectations are unspoken. They’re hidden rules that (in most organizational cultures) you’re expected to figure out in a painful process of trial-and-error. And if you don’t figure it out? Your unexpected, out-of-line behavior is punished, and you’re left feeling vulnerable.

When you do figure it out, you learn that there are people you speak freely with and other people you tiptoe around. There are things that can be said, and things that can’t. There are groups you know you’re welcome to join, and cliques that seem to require some sort of secret password before they’ll even consider letting you in.

You contribute to and participate in all of it. Always. Because, whether you like it or not, you’re a cultural architect in your organization.

So, if you haven’t made an intentional effort to shape your company culture, you’re probably embracing your default culture. Default cultures aren’t actively inclusive or innovative, they have hidden problems, and they detract from your bottom line. If you have a default culture, you won’t compete in highly dynamic markets. You’ll have contagious toxicity, and you won’t know why. Your employees will remain unengaged until they’re so unhappy that they walk out the door. Yikes.

Culture by Design

What happens when you approach culture with intentionality? Well, first, your expectations are out in the open. You’ll refer to them when team members are onboarded and trained, when succession planning, and when any major decisions are being made. No one will have to guess how they should interact with others. Because they’ll know what’s expected.

Second, your behavior changes. In order to truly be intentional about your culture as a whole, you have to be intentional about the little things. How do you greet your team members? Do you greet them at all? Who do you interact with during your work day? What’s your knee-jerk response to feedback, disagreement, and concern? What is said when a team member makes a mistake? Is brainstorming productive? 

Once you see it you can’t unsee it. You make a difference.

Culture by Design Starts With Psychological Safety

If you want to approach your organizational culture by design, instead of by default, you should start with a foundation of psychological safety. It’s psychological safety that will allow all other culture changes and initiatives to stick, spread, and stay on any team, in any organization. But how do you build a culture of rewarded vulnerability in complex, dynamic organizations with thousands of employees? How do you increase psychological safety in cross-functional teams? What about intact ones?

Psychological safety is the key to mending broken interactions and creating cultures of rewarded vulnerability in every social setting. Yes, we use the workplace as our primary example, but that’s because the primary benefits of psychological safety have unique workplace dividends. Psychological safety creates sanctuaries of inclusion and incubators of innovation where people feel safe to be their authentic selves and create value exponentially.

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Download 120+ Behaviors to Practice Psychological Safety

If psychological safety is the #1 variable in team performance, how do you improve it? This is a good place to start. With 120+ practical, specific behaviors, the Behavioral Guide will help you know what to start, what to stop, and how to infuse healthy interaction into your work life. It's the companion to The 4 Stages of Psychological Safety Book. Download it today.

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