Every organization is influenced by five foundational elements – 1) mission vision and values; 2) founding principles; 3) institutional story; 4) leadership and communication style; and 5) organizational culture. Of these five, organizational culture brings the greatest challenge because it eludes description.
Culture permeates everything. It influences basic decisions like where we buy our groceries (Safeway, Whole Foods, or the local co-op?), the people we hang out with, or which doctor we choose. Even where goods, services and circumstances are identical, cultural alignment through that “I can’t quite explain it, but this just feels right,” experience often determines our decision.
Articulating culture can be very rewarding, but it takes courage to engage in conversations about your core thoughts, feelings, behaviors and beliefs. Naming the un-named can stir up, for better or worse, old stories, ingrained habits and unquestioned rituals that can bring forward long stored emotion. Yet, as one client put it, “… knowing and naming our organizational culture allows us to determine due north. If we can’t clarify and articulate it for ourselves, we will remain adrift.”
A few weeks ago, I traveled to Biloxi, Mississippi to work with a coalition of community leaders who were helping local fisher folk rebuild their lives in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the oil spill. Those gathered couldn’t have been more diverse – Vietnamese refugees, African-American evangelical Christians, Muslims, Latinos and white folks whose families had been there for generations. They gathered for the purpose of strategizing around economic empowerment, but their work required digging up deeper truths and patterns.
As I considered how to support this group, I heeded the advice of my Hawaiian elders. I took my shoes off and walked on the ‘aina, the land, with my bare feet. Wisdom will always reveal itself when you are connected with the place you inhabit. After just a few minutes walking on the beach, I found something from the land itself that could help.
When the meeting began, I asked participants to hold out their hands. In them, I placed a piece of Spanish moss I had found near the shore. Spanish moss swaying in the trees is a true cultural indicator of the American South. I asked participants to reflect on the piece of culture they were holding, and share a word or two – beautiful, interconnected, deceiving (from a distance it looks prickly, but it’s actually quite soft to the touch), pervasive.
One man in his 50’s said with tears in his eyes, “I was born and raised here and I can’t remember the last time I noticed Spanish moss, let alone held and appreciated it.” Culture, often plain as the nose on your face may take an outsider to bring to the surface.
By drawing from the spirit of the place and the people, organizations of any size have the potential to articulate their culture. We are currently doing this with a statewide organization with thousands of employees as well as this small coalition of ten people in Biloxi. Despite the differences in size, scope and geography, the foresight and courage needed for leaders to engage in this process is considerable. As these organizations articulate and align their individual and collective thoughts, feelings, actions and beliefs toward their due north, they will be able to settle in for a smoother and more harmonious journey.