Listening to Your Work Environment


Photo by Joshua Earle on Unsplash

Warning. This post is a little heavier than usual. Yet, I feel this topic is worth the discussion. If you work within an organization or team, you’ll likely identify with the topic — or at least have an inkling that you’ve lived this.

In 2016, I first discussed the importance of internal stability — which might be described as an organization’s culture core. (See the post here.) Reader response to that post and the discussions which followed, fueled my interest in both individual and organizational core stability. Of late, I’ve been exploring a set of stability-enhancing constructs (for example, the psychological contract) that either build an organization’s cultural potential to help us excel.

Declared vs. Operating Culture
What became obvious is that these stability-enhancing constructs cannot help us, if declared culture — does not align with the behavior that we actually see & experience. Interestingly, we often conflate the notion of declared culture and the real-time operating culture. The frustration that develops can not only affect individual contributors and teams — but the ability of the larger organization to be effective.

In many cases, we have the right intention, but the foundation remains weak. The proof, so to speak, is not in the pudding.

In recent trainings, we have been exploring “dark side” elements that fight organizational 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.

The 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 are immersed within it. 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 often 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):

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

More about The Core Philosophy 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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