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.
- By Robert Pater
- May 01, 2009
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
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
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"
Blind-Eye culture—ignores critical problems
while tearing into those far less essential.
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.