Pay Attention to Invisible Forces in Your Company Culture

By Dawna Jones

Over time, business cultures become second nature. So does business decision-making. After you have the workplace culture or the decision-making dynamics firmly established, the business virtually steers itself. As helpful as this phenomenon is most of the time (it lets your brain concentrate on things that need your attention), there is a downside: Your busy mind stops paying attention to whether the habits you’ve formed are good ones or not.

A business has two minds, just as a human does. Think about it. When you are a new driver, you consciously pay attention to everything:

You look ahead, look in the rearview and side mirrors, check your speed, pay attention to your distance from the curb, count the number of seconds between you and the car ahead, consciously decide when to activate the turn signal, place your hands on the wheel just so, and so on. All your attention is focused on how to drive.

After you’ve been driving for a while, however, most of those actions are second nature. Think of the times you’ve driven to a destination but, because you were engrossed in conversation or thinking deep thoughts, didn’t actually remember the trip there. This happens because the human mind stores details in your subconscious so that you can do certain things without consciously thinking about them. It’s energy efficient!

It takes a crisis to get your attention. In a car, it may be an accident or a near miss; in business, it may be that you’re overwhelmed and stressed out. You’re under pressure but can’t see what to change.

The point and purpose is to observe how the business culture creates the character of the company, which in turn influences the character of its leaders and, subsequently, its decision-making. Here are some ways you can target your observations:

  • Look closely at how you reward effort or inspire contribution, and include metrics. Doing so lets you see whether the processes and procedures are helping or hindering what you hope to achieve. Do you reward inside targets over customer-centered actions? Are you measuring time spent on a project or actual results? Ask staff and your customers. They’ll know.

  • Observe how mistakes are handled. Doing so gives you insight on your company’s relationship with risk: Is it something to be avoided or viewed as an opportunity to learn? Is the company asking for innovation but then punishing mistakes?

  • Watch for patterns in decision-making. When you notice definite patterns, find out why your company does things the way it does. If the answer is, “That is the way things are done around here,” you know that the invisible beliefs are running the show unchallenged.

    Asking “Why?” also lets you explore how effectively the relevant assumptions fit the current conditions. Then, after you see the consequences of those assumptions, you can update the underlying belief.

Many companies don’t take the time to learn how they are creating issues that result in the loss of talent or impaired decision-making. To avoid joining their ranks, step back to observe your company from a higher vantage point.

Look at your company with fresh eyes, as though you knew nothing about it. Or observe it through your customer’s perception: How would a customer describe your company’s character? When you try to observe your company from a different perspective, think of the company’s culture as its personality and then ask yourself whether you would enter into a relationship with this company and or trust this company when dealing with it.