An organization's culture is contagious ... for better or worse

The Pacific Northwest is experiencing a measles outbreak. It's a highly contagious disease, and many people are now unnecessarily at risk because of decisions to opt out of vaccinations.

"When you have large numbers of unimmunized people and you introduce measles into that population, it's like putting a lighted match into a can of gasoline," Clark County (Washington) Public Health Director Alan Melnick said. "It will just spread pretty quickly."

In business, there exists a different kind of invisible and quick-to-spread contagion an organization's culture. It's up to each organization's leader to determine if the contagious influence is going to be positive and robust, or negative and detrimental.

Leaders can have a powerful impact. They shape their business cultures every day, in every conversation, every meeting, every email, every decision, every protocol, every piece of feedback shared and expectation defined, and even in the absence of those things. Every organization has patterns of behavior aka group norms, mostly unspoken and undocumented. These norms help define the accepted codes of conduct.

When I engage with a new client, I seek out the clues that define the cultural norms. Do people offer innovative solutions? How do they participate in meetings? How prepared are they to contribute to the conversation? How do they show respect, or lack thereof? Is the organizational tendency to be agile or resistant to change? I listen for levels of responsiveness and willingness to make decisions and make mistakes. These signs can indicate a culture of growth and resiliency or ailments that speak to a compromised system at risk of mediocrity.

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Energy givers vs. energy suckers

We all know people who energize us by their thinking and behaviors, and people who suck the life out of the room. Energy is fueled by highly contagious emotions. Consider negative attitudes, irritability, complaining, gossiping, naysaying. Now imagine confidence, enthusiasm, kindness, inspiration, teamwork. Both kinds of energy, the positive and the negative, are contagious.

Leaders have an increased responsibility for their "emotional wake" the energy they create as a result of their presence. This is not as straightforward as simply being an inspirational cheerleader for the team. It's also not about walking on eggshells or coddling people. It's about owning one's impact and creating an environment that fosters high regard, initiative-taking, accountability and creativity. It's being willing to own how effectively one communicates needs and expectations and how actively one engages in providing positive and constructive feedback. In short, how you show up sets the tone. How do people feel when they walk away from an interaction with you?

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Gravity never sleeps

Years ago, as a new and naive rock climber, I asked my climbing mentor how high I can safely climb without a rope. His Zen-like reply: "As high as you are willing to fall." Then he added, "Gravity never sleeps." As the protégé, I took his words to heart. Now I try to be diligent in accounting for this relentless and apathetic law of physics.

While the consequences certainly are different, organizational cultures have their own powerful gravitational pull. I've seen it in the way in which new hires are indoctrinated into the organization, in the way in which people manage initiatives, projects and teams, and in what is accepted and understood in how things get done (or don't). The patterns can become so ingrained that often an insider no longer notices them. Or, I hear tired refrains: "That's just how it is around here" or "that's par for the course" a resignation of how things are.

As a highly adaptive person, I've found myself unknowingly getting sucked into my client's cultural norms. The risk can be enabling unhealthy patterns and crafting work-arounds rather than naming the issues and addressing the root causes. To help organizations stuck in patterns that no longer serve them, I've discovered it takes clarity of intention, high levels of servant leadership, and the discipline and tenacity to change the tide.

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Vaccines for organizational health

Healthy organizations are better positioned to serve their clients, attract and retain quality team members, and operate with purpose and synergy. While there are several key performance indicators for organizational health (i.e., effective leadership, engaged employees, robust communications, accountability, alignment, camaraderie, etc.), there's no single "vaccine" to inoculate from the potential ailments. Organizations are dynamic and complex. Left unattended, cultures can become an invariable petri dish of toxicity. Properly tended to, cultures have a fighting chance for a resilient immune system and robust health.

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Karen Natzel is a business therapist who helps leaders create healthy, vibrant and high-performing organizations. Contact her at 503-806-4361 or karen@natzel.net.

Published: Fri, Mar 01, 2019