The Two Ultimate Culture Questions

Each of us becomes good at what we practice, no matter what that might be. This holds true for high-performance people and companies.

There's been lots of talk lately about safety culture. How setting your sights on cultural change may be the A-1 approach for engaging the clutch of safer and more productive performance, especially during these beleaguered times.

I've witnessed how elevating culture can step up safety. But when it comes time to move beyond mere concepts toward actual execution, have you seen leaders leaping toward solutions before they look? Assuming they already know what they evidently don't? Adhesive-taping on another company's answers that are unlikely to solve their own different problems? Only focusing on what's wrong, ignoring the need to solidify internal strengths?

In one of his last articles (perhaps summarizing the body of his work), Management expert Peter Drucker wrote that would-be leaders spend too much of their time trying to come up with the right solutions when they should instead endeavor to pinpoint the right questions. Drucker's consulting was notably based on his practicing what he wrote: asking Executives series of discerning questions toward helping to craft most-effective strategies for their unique culture. Many clients reported they were at first frustrated (they wanted the expert to tell them what to do) but ultimately satisfied they arrived at best methods for their specific needs.

I see this all too frequently: Some senior managers and professionals blithely assume they know what's needed to turn things around (usually, this revolves around others but not themselves embracing significant changes). Ready to do something they've heard or read about. But, proof of the pudding, if they really knew what was needed, why do many organizations seem stuck in the first place, trying many interventions but not able to surmount stubborn problems?

Each of us becomes good at what we practice, no matter what that might be. Ever met someone who's effectively developed into a "Black Belt" in the Angry Victim system of organizational arts? Continuously complaining about how the world—or others— block their excellent attempts at moving ahead, ready to shower you with data to support their case?

Similarly, there are adept Blocked Leaders, mourning that people just won't do what they're told or what's good for them, what's the matter with them in the first place? Or those that blame outside or governmental forces. Of course, there are many other kinds of less-than-functional patterns of accomplished Can't Do experts. But the flip side is high-performance people and companies also become expert at what they practice. From out of my experience with some adept internal culture leaders, and out of the tradition of Peter Drucker, the first question (of two) I offer is: "What is our pattern of actions—what do we consistently practice doing the most?"

While the most powerful leaders I've worked with can greatly vary in their styles, they all have at least one similarity: a willingness, a drive to dispassionately look at forces around them that both propel as well as potentially block their efforts, including their own strengths and limitations. Here are some cultural patterns I've seen in working with hundreds of companies worldwide:

Mixed-Up culture—talks about one thing while doing others.

Panacea culture—leaps aboard a trendy fix-all (can run the gamut from super cheap to extremely costly, from technology-only fixes to latest "behavioral" cures)

Blind-Eye culture—ignores critical problems while tearing into those far less essential.

It's-Important-But-Too-Expensive culture— complains about the high costs of safety problems but doesn't see that taking the rights actions, which does require expenditure, should return investment within a relatively short term. One such wood products firm's safety committee suggested their annual theme should be, "Let's talk Safety this year. It's a lot cheaper than trying to do anything about it."

Boy Are We Good! culture—risks sustaining upper-limb damage from continuously patting themselves on the back. Then wonders why, while they've made excellent strides in the past, they're stuck on a plateau. Or that workers get the clear message managers don't want to hear any feedback that's less than wonderful.

We're Going to Develop World-Class Culture culture—but still do the same old things; too often, more words than action, akin to "The diet starts tomorrow!"

Of course, the above types are overly simplified—and there are many more overall culture patterns that may reflect just a division or only one site in a company. But sometimes, boiling down a complex culture into a few words can help leaders and others see and then step out of ruts of disappointing performance. So, to put the first critical Culture question another way, given fewer than five words, how would you describe your own culture?

And remember that I promised two critical Culture questions? The second question I offer you is most crucial: "Are you/your company practicing what you really wish to become?"

This article originally appeared in the May 2009 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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