One of the most fascinating aspects of working with Helen has been how focused she is on creating a healthy, positive culture within and around Wellbeing Teams. It’s been a great opportunity for me to challenge my own assumptions about how organisational culture works and what it takes to create a great one*.
For example, if you had asked me 2 years ago, I’d have told you that culture is read-only and that attempts to directly influence it don’t succeed. I would have cited the routine failure of team building events to have lasting impact as evidence and I would have noted that going on an away day to work on relationships (while nice) does nothing to change the workplace pressures that shape behaviour and thus relationships. “If you want better relationships or you want a better culture”, I’d have said, “Work on the work, not on each other”.
Working with Helen though, has caused me to question the extent to which this is true or sufficient. At the very least, it has caused me to reframe the possibilities.
With that context then, here are what I now see as two common myths of culture change - an attempt to capture and clarify my own emerging thoughts on the subject.
Myth 1: You can’t change culture directly; you have to change “the system”.
This is essentially my old view. Culture exists in the norms of how people think, interact and behave. In organisations, we know that these norms are heavily shaped by environmental factors such as the roles people are given, what they are held accountable for and so on. These things add up to what is often referred to as “the system” - the network of structures, processes and patterns that dictate how work works.
When we look through this lens, we see that organisational culture is a symptom of “the system”, not something that can be changed directly but something that may change as a consequence of changing “the system” - and not usually in ways that are wholly predictable or within anyone's control.
According to Myth 1, you can’t therefore change culture, you can only change “the system” and hope (perhaps expect) that in doing so, culture change will come for free.
Myth 2: You can change culture directly; you don’t have to change “the system”.
Myth 1 is (for me at least) quite compelling except that it risks leaving everyone stuck. If “the system” dictates focus and behaviour but it takes a change in those things to change “the system” then how do we get started? Further, when we start to contemplate what it could mean to change “the system”, how do we avoid being trapped by a sense that we can’t usefully start changing anything without having to change everything? That sounds hard.
Since no-one exists outside “the system”, change has to come from within it. Someone, some few or some many have to show agency and resist what “the system” de facto directs them to do. It’s here that my own view has been educated by seeing how Helen and Wellbeing Teams work and it all comes down to agency.
In Wellbeing Teams, Helen’s systematic focus has been on leading improvement on the basis of power-with (not power-over) her colleagues. This has unlocked their ownership and energy; their agency.
Contrary to the hierarchical environments of the status quo, where culture exists as much in opposition to an organisation’s impositions as it does merely in response to them, in Wellbeing Teams culture exists as a deliberate, conscious creation of what people choose to stand for, not against. Team members share love notes, take the time to provide feedback and support to each other, practice mindfulness, provide coaching, focus on values and do a whole host of things that are directly attending to their culture and relationships not because they must but because they choose to.
I’ve noticed how enormously powerful, positive and liberating this is. Far from being “fluff”, it is demonstrably a source of energy for the Wellbeing Teams. A cursory glance at the Twitter feeds of Helen, Wellbeing Teams and Wellbeing Team members gives testimony to this. They are relentless in their positivity but also in their productivity and innovation**.
Contrary to Myth 1, Myth 2 therefore suggests that it is possible to directly influence culture and that by doing so - by making culture a conscious creation of what we stand for - we can create a vitality and commitment that a (possibly more sterile) focus on changing “the system” could miss.
For me, the example of Wellbeing Teams has been illuminating because it serves to dissolve the paralysis that can arise when everything is attributed to being caused by “the system”. In choosing to work on the basis of power-with her colleagues, Helen has unlocked agency, ownership and momentum within Wellbeing Teams. She has also created an environment in which people are able to experience the joy of a workplace that is a direct and deliberate creation of what they want to stand for.
It’s for this reason that I now (or at least currently!) regard Myths 1 and 2 as being myths, even though that seems contradictory.
- Wellbeing Teams demonstrate that it is possible to act on culture directly, consciously, deliberately; defeating Myth 1. It may not be an exact science, but in attending to relationships and supporting people to become ever better versions of themselves, Wellbeing Teams are creating a positive, effective culture despite “the system” around them, which remains more-or-less as it always was. Commissioners still commission, inspectors still inspect, budgets are still tight and so on.
- The essential foundation for Wellbeing Team’s work, however, has been a shift to the use of power-with; giving people within the teams responsibility and control, as well as time and support. This defeats Myth 2. Affording teams the ownership and authorship of their culture in spite of external pressures from the bigger system outside their door is itself a change to “the system”. Although culture is being acted on directly within Wellbeing Teams, this is only possible because Helen has created a micro-climate through the sharing of her formal power. Changing “the system” therefore doesn’t have to mean changing all of “the system”.
These are emerging thoughts but my sense is increasingly that holding to distinctions such as “system vs people” or “structure vs agency” is to hold to false dichotomies. While drawing these distinctions can be heuristically useful - providing perspectives that help us to ask useful questions of the world and find useful answers - being dogmatically aligned to one side or other is to leave ourselves trapped or using a diminished tool set that is only able to do part of the job we need.
People with agency will change the structures of "the system" and can infuse them with humanity, compassion, joy, trust, love and more. Without these whatever structures and system we end up with may be beautifully designed but soulless and, I think, living on borrowed time as a result.
On the flip-side, the structures of "the system" can usefully change to liberate more people to have more agency more easily. Crucially then, agency can be unlocked through the decision of those with formal power to share that power, however broad or narrow its reach and wherever in hierarchy or more modern forms of networked power they find themselves.
In this regard, all of us have the power to change “the system” - perhaps not all of it and certainly not all at once but enough to start to make a difference. We can each have agency for sharing agency and so in summary, I can only think to conclude with a question; what are any of us waiting for?
*The idea that there is a single culture in any organisation is worth examining. I think it’s reasonable to say that multiple micro-cultures exist within any organisation and that these operate at different levels in different ways. For this blog though, I’ve focused on organisational culture at the macro-level; the culture of cultures or the climate that all the many weather systems of micro-culture exist within.
Prior to publishing I shared this with Helen. It didn’t feel fair to write about her work with Wellbeing Teams and not offer her sight of what was being said first. Whilst grateful, she asked me to note that the work I’ve described is developing, has a way to go yet and has issues still to work through.
She’s right, of course. Nothing and no-one is perfect and the same is true of Wellbeing Teams. At this stage they are early in their formation - an emerging model, full of promise and with clear signs that they could represent a better way of working. Until they are operating sustainably and at greater scale though, it’s appropriate to resist drawing easy conclusions too quickly.
For me, none of this changes the reflections I’ve shared in this blog; those remain material points of learning that I’ve taken from my experience with Helen and her colleagues. However, let’s recognise that, whatever is working in Wellbeing Teams and how they are being approached, created and run, time will be the test.
I for one, will be watching that space.