Listening to Your Work Environment

Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

In 2016, I first discussed the notion of an organization’s culture core. Reader response to that post — and the numerous discussions which followed — have fueled my interest in both individual and organizational core stability. Of late, I’ve been exploring a set of key concepts and contributing psychological constructs (for example, psychological contracts and psychological safety) that either build or work against a culture’s potential to provide needed stability.

To orient you to that discussion, here is an excerpt from that post:

“In this ever-changing world of work, I’m going to go out on a proverbial limb and vote for stability. Not the type of stability that shoots you in the foot and has the potential to signal an organizational downfall (resting on laurels, complacency, lack of customer connection). I’m speaking of the kind of internal stability that allows your organization’s engines to really rev and take flight. The kind of security borne of trust and understanding.
This is your organization’s cultural core.”

Declared vs. Operating Culture
Interestingly, we often conflate the notion of declared culture and the real-time operating culture. The frustration that develops can affect not only the larger organization’s ability to meet its goals, but individual contributors and teams as well. In many cases we have the right intentions and do invest in a strong cultural core, but the foundation remains weak. In recent trainings we have been exploring “dark side” cultural elements that fight core stability — and how these obstruct an organization’s positive cultural intentions. When organizations seek excellence, these dark-side elements can work against progress and ultimately drive behavior. They live as destructive undercurrents within your culture and can destroy positive investment in that same culture.

Righting the course demands that we pay attention to the environment and expose its reality. If not, we function within cultures that exert silent, negative pressure, as we fail to acknowledge the operating “energy field”. This dynamic can manifest in in a variety of ways. We might invest in training — and nothing seems to change, or we reiterate the organization’s mission & values — but somehow behavior (and metrics) remain out of alignment. These are symptoms of this ongoing tension.

Paralyzing Undercurrents
Taking the time to identify and expose what is standing in the way of progress is a vital  conversation. This demands that we listen intently to the environment in which we work and to those immersed in it. I’ve found that in my work with high-performance teams, this has become an important diagnostic exercise. The process is rooted in my early exposure to the auto industry and later on, to the Toyota Production System. Tantamount to Toyota’s system is the philosophy of Jidoka — where production could be stopped at any moment, if an employee detected an issue that affects quality (More here.) Jidoka is built on a deep respect for human wisdom within manufacturing environments. It supports “listening” intently to that environment. (See my collaboration with Toyota here.)

We sometimes ignore or underestimate, an undercurrent working against excellence. In some cases, the issue has been detected — but not fully addressed. Here is a quick reference guide to help your team “stop the line” so to speak, when they detect a problem. (A slide from a current talk):

I’ll share more about this technique as time goes on. Meanwhile, share your experiences in this forum.

Have you ever found yourself in an environment where the operating culture overpowered the declared culture? How did you proceed?

Learn more about Core Stability through Dr. Gottschalk’s training series — The Core here.

Dr. Marla Gottschalk is an Industrial/Organizational Psychologist who explores challenge and change in work life. A charter member of the LinkedIn Influencer Program since 2012 — her thoughts on work life and core stability have appeared in various outlets including Harvard Business Review, Forbes, Quartz and The Huffington Post.

3 thoughts on “Listening to Your Work Environment

  1. Hello Marla,

    I read your posts with great interest whenever I see them in my inbox. I have been following your blog for over 2 years now.

    Just a question: I notice you refer to jikoda and jidoka in the same paragraph. Which one is it supposed to be? To my ear, they are both foreign anyway, and interesting to take note of.

    Regards, Nicolene Coertse


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