culture shock

“Most of what we call management consists of making it difficult for people to get their work done.” – Peter Drucker

“Culture is the process by which a person becomes all that they were created capable of being.” – Thomas Carlyle

“I always arrive late at the office, but I make up for it by leaving early.” – Charles Lamb

I was just having lunch with a friend, who halfway through her veggie burger got a panicked look on her face and started wrapping up her sandwich. “I’m scared of my boss,” she said frankly, “and I better get back to work.” This woman is a 30-something-year-old creative professional, extremely talented, with children, who works in an environment where she is as likely to get a verbal flogging as she is to get flowers from her boss. “It’s like an abusive marriage”, she said. One day her boss is hollering at her for a misstep she couldn’t have possibly avoided, and the next day he calls the full staff together to tell them all what a great job she is doing.

This makes me see red.

There are so many ways to be a great manager, and so many ways to be a terrible one. I strive every day to not be included in the latter category, and though I don’t always succeed with flying colors, there are some things about management I absolutely believe to be true: great management requires a certain skill set that can be learned, but it also requires some incredibly important assets, such as humility, respect, gratitude, willingness to take responsibility when things go poorly, and an ability to give credit to others when things are going wonderfully well.

The problem is, people with these skills aren’t always the ones in charge. Often it’s the people with the deepest pockets, or with the best political connections, or who have been there the longest, or who are best at working the system. This is true in organizations and companies small and large, and in my mind, explains why there is so much dysfunction and mismanagement in the workplace. If you polled all of your friends, how many of them would say they loved going to work? Felt absolutely valued? Felt inspired and supported?  Felt like they are making a visible contribution that was acknowledged and rewarded?

Even more than that, how often do people even consider that where they work could be a source of joy? That it could be different? That it could be shaped by all of the people involved? Obviously many people do love their workplaces, but the majority of folks I know describe their work lives to be somewhere in a range from “tolerable” to “soul-sucking”. I can’t see any reason for this.

But, of course, I’ve been there. I worked at the huge company where we signed in for the day using our thumbprint on a computer that rarely worked, with all of us squirming in line as we desperately tried to clock in during our allowed six-minute window. I worked in the department where I routinely got in trouble for coming in to work too early. I worked at the restaurant where a good Saturday night was when I didn’t come home crying after being berated by the owner. I worked for the manager who took credit for every great thing others accomplished. I worked for the CEO who, upon hearing about a fantastic new opportunity I had, so belittled and undermined me that I spent weeks wondering if I was indeed good enough to jump to the next level in my career.

I can look back now with a lot more sympathy and understanding for these managers than I had at the time. Many of them were insecure themselves, or frustrated, or in over their heads. Or simply didn’t have the skills they needed to manage people. Which begs the question: why they heck were they in charge?

CEOs, directors and mangers have the opportunity – in fact, the responsibility, to make work a place where people want to be. Office culture needs to be intentional, not happenstance, and like any important relationship, it takes work.

We talk about culture all the time here at the Arts Council. Indeed, it’s a major element of our strategic plan. This is still a work in progress, and the learning curve stretches ever upward, but we’ve found some practices that work for us. We celebrate each other’s accomplishments, we share the burden when we screw up, we take the time to acknowledge each other for great work or for being helpful, and we challenge each other to both stretch our goals and to take significant time away from work. For my part, I don’t care exactly what time people show up or when they leave: I just care about the quality of what they get done while they are here, and how they treat each other and every person with whom they interact while “on the clock”.

I’m 100% clear that every single one of our accomplishments has been a result of incredible team effort. And when I screw up, or when I’m feeling unsure about a choice, my staff is second only to my husband in my list of go-to people for advice or soul-searching. Because they are as smart and talented and trustworthy a group as I’ve ever known.

It’s not a perfect working situation, but we work very hard to make sure it’s damn close.

What is this to do with the arts, you might ask? And I say: everything. The arts are about connection, about self-expression, about humanity, beauty, rigor, questioning, inspiration, common dialogue, communication, heartbreak, joy. The arts are a major way we relate to ourselves, each other, and the world. Here at the Arts Council, we work to connect families with children, artists with resources, organizations with the community. And if we tried to do this work in an environment of fear, of clock-watching, of shame, then the work itself would be inauthentic and our impact would be minimal. If we believe in the power of the arts to connect community, and we don’t start that connection right here at the office, then our work will not ring true.

I’m confident that everyone who works here at the Arts Council loves their work (at least most of the time!), and enjoys how we work. I see them wrapped up in their passions, knee-deep in the thick of their chosen focus, and I hear them laughing and genuinely enjoying one another. The only credit I take or deserve for this is having the ability to attract truly wonderful and talented people to this organization, and to retain equally excellent long-timers who are still completely engaged and excited about their daily grind. And then engaging all of them in a process to co-create an atmosphere where we are all inspired by the work and excited to do it together.

None of this is by chance. All of this is intentional. I want to love my work, and love the people I get to do it with. And I do. But it takes focus, determination, and energy. And it takes the understanding that the culture at work is as important and deserves the same kind of attention as the work itself.

More on this in the weeks ahead. And I’m curious: what practices are in place at your organization that help you enjoy your work? And, if you can share, what practices are in place that don’t work for you? Of all of the conferences and workshops and professional development opportunities that filter through my inbox, I see so many focused on “leadership”, but so few, if any, dedicated to office culture. So perhaps we can start that conversation, and that learning, right here.

2 thoughts on “culture shock

  1. I’ve been at a loss to understand why most of the people I have worked for were in charge of anything. I remember working for one guy who had to have his General Manager sneak him out of the building in a car with a blanket over him so his psycho girlfriend, who was circling the lot, wouldn’t catch him. And he wasn’t the craziest one. My conclusion is that many people are in positions of authority because they started the company or their father started the company, or they’re golfing buddies with the guy at the top. The one thing they all have in common is that they don’t understand teamwork. They talk about it, but for them, teamwork is defined by all the employees going along with the boss. When you find a place where you can contribute, dissent, work, and play with your colleagues (and I’ve enjoyed a few), you may feel you have died and gone to corporate heaven.It is indeed past time for the office culture conversation. Leadership should focus on what you can do for others, not what others can do for you.

  2. After several decades of working, I discovered that ‘teamwork’ is defined by most CEOs as ‘a whole lot of people doing what I say.’ Leadership should be about what you can do for others, not what they can do for you.

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