A culture of ownership is like a neighborhood where people get together to celebrate block parties and come together to help when someone on the block has suffered serious adversity. A culture of accountability is more like an apartment complex where people only feel responsible for paying their own rent but wouldn’t think of helping out the renter in the next apartment.
In his dictionary-style book Leadership A-to-Z, James O’Toole includes “cheerleading” under the letter C. He asks why many managers so often feel compelled to appear serious and buttoned-down when letting their own enthusiasm shine through is far more likely to inspire people to optimal performance than exhibiting what the late C.W. Metcalf called “terminal professionalism” (in his bookLighten Up). To be a cheerleader doesn’t mean you have to run around waving pom-poms, but most of us could benefit from learning to be a more inspiring speaker and storyteller – and these are learnable skills.
I appreciate that work (and life) can be demanding and stressful and that it can be a personal challenge to maintain the “cheer” when you feel under so much pressure. The paradox is that these stressful times when the cheer is hardest to find are precisely the times where that cheer can have the greatest impact, and can actually help to reduce the negative stress in the environment.
Stories are an important instrument for fostering a culture of ownership. At least until recent years, the most celebrated corporate culture in the business world was The HP Way at Hewlett-Packard, which was largely shaped through the telling of “Bill and Dave” stories.
So is fun. Southwest Airlines and Zappos have been widely recognized for their amazingly positive corporate cultures, and one characteristic they both incorporate is fun. You can be very serious about the work of cultural transformation, and still make it fun.
There is a story from the early days of the Cray supercomputer company. During a particularly stressful time when the engineering staff could not resolve a difficult technical challenge, company founder Seymour Cray came into the lab and – instead of encouraging people to work harder – took them all to the river to go tubing. When they returned, the problem was quickly solved.
Sometimes celebrating good faith failures is just as important, and maybe more so, as celebrating wild successes. In their article “Increase Your Return on Failure” (May 2016 edition of Harvard Business Review) Julian Birkinshaw and Martine Haas write: “We’ve seen several firms create awards celebrating failure: New York agency Grey has a Heroic Failure award; NASA has a Lean Forward, Fail Smart award; and the Tata Group has a Dare to Try award, which had 240 submissions in 2013.”
Promote a Connection Culture and Protect People from Toxic Stress
One of my favorite books on organizational culture is Connection Culture by Michael Lee Stallard. Michael brilliantly address the single-most important element of a great culture – a spirit of connection. One thing I love about this book is the way that he weaves in his own personal stories, relevant real world examples, appropriate scientific research, and creative insights into what makes a great culture tick into a book that is not just easy to read – it’s hard to put down.
Michael recently published an article that describes three practices that can help you protect your people from toxic stress and burnout which you can read at this link.