You Must Define Your Culture Because It Will Define You

Culture, Leadership

 Today I am once again a vagabond, traveling alone by bus to Sarajevo to get my car out of the shop where I left it several days ago. As I ride alone through the Bosnian countryside — alone with 40 other people I’ve never met — I am surrounded by and constantly reminded of something for which most people of my background have very little vocabulary: culture

Culture can be defined as a set of shared traditions, customs, and obligations that gives a group purpose and meaning. There is a song that is collectively sung by the people of this land, and it echoes from every red tile rooftop, every kafana, and every bombed out building. It unifies them, and it tells every member of this country where they are going and from whence they came. It is construed so that no one from here will ever forget the past, guaranteeing that the future will be reminiscent of what they already know. 

Culture is all around you. 
Perhaps you made the connection that I could have just been describing a family, a high school graduating class, or a group of coworkers. Though they don’t have an entire country at their disposal, every group of people has a culture. Sometimes the group culture is so weak that it is inconsequential to its members — each member may also be a member of several other, stronger groups that exercise more influence over them. But every kind of group you can name can be thought of in the framework of culture. 

Every family has a family culture — some of us run from it, some of us run to it. Family culture is especially influential; it governs when the members go to bed at night and when they get up in the morning. It sets our expectations for marriage and family life when we become adults. Just like all these people here in Bosnia, most of us will never forget. 

Every work group has a culture. It comes with an attitude toward authority, and a system of rewards for compliance. It clashes often with that family culture we go home to each night, and culture wars ensue. Anyone with a full-time job can imagine the problems that arise when a spouse fails to appreciate the work culture that demands so much from their husband or wife. Or, when the family culture is made subservient to the culture of work. 

I work with a team here in Mostar, and we are just beginning our existence together. We all moved here in February, and before then, there was no one in the city from our organization. I can’t remember when it occurred to me, but at some point I had the distinct realization that the most important thing about leading a group of coworkers is establishing a culture that works for the members of the group. Most of us read articles about companies that have a great culture on the job; few of us get to live it out at work. 

I had the opportunity to participate in leading my group of coworkers through an entire year, a few years ago. It is not an experience I would like to repeat. I was less enlightened then, and many of the experiences of that year gave me first-hand knowledge of how not to establish a good working culture. And I’ll never be allowed to forget that year. 

I was unaware of what I was doing, and though action and inaction, I helped establish a working culture. As many cultures are, it was full of unwritten rules and ambiguous expectations. There were unjust assumptions, unfixable problems, and scapegoats. There were no festivals, for sure — there was little to celebrate. Celebration and friendships felt contrived and filled with unvoiced frustration. 

It wasn’t all terrible. But it wasn’t at all what we wanted. In our failure to define a productive culture, one was defined for us, and we were all defined by it, unable to escape it, struggling to forget it. Because I failed to appreciate my incredibly influential role in that group, I was bound to things I didn’t realize existed, and our growth and influence was stunted. It wasn’t all bad — some parts were even good — but it wasn’t what it could have been. 

And I will not forget — I will not be defined in that way, never again. Not ever, never

So as we sat together the other day and began to talk about our hopes and dreams for the future, I brought up the idea of culture and explained it the best I knew how. I knew that this was no time for empty promises or pledges. I had been down that road before. That was a journey I would never forget and hoped to not repeat. 

Don’t make promises. 

Promises and covenants about working relationships rarely work in creating a life-giving culture because they do not describe anything that currently exists and therefore offer the parties involved nothing to defend. Promises and covenants usually say something like this:

I promise to always respect the boundaries of my coworkers, to strive to finish my assignments on time, to treat others in the way I would like to be treated, et cetera…

The problem isn’t that we are saying bad things, but that we are answering the wrong questions. Such promises fail to take into account the habits and customs and assumptions that already exist, and there is inequal value placed on them by the participants. A father of three might see his missed deadline as inconsequential, while a young single, driven staff member is up in arms. Assumptions are made. Conclusions are drawn. People are judged. 

It is better at the start to define those things that are already true and accepted by all the team members. Defining that which is true gives participants something to defend and appreciate. Documents that cannot be defended should not be made — they will only make people upset, and they will not define a culture that makes people want to come to work every day. They will be forgotten, and a culture will be defined by default. 

It may seem that I am overreacting to my past experience, but I believe this type of nonconformity is something I can’t emphasize enough. Do not check off the boxes in leading a group — any group. Don’t do it as a father, a project manager, a boss, or a team leader. Do not create documents that you don’t need to create, just because someone else tells you that they are good things to have. Do not say things you don’t need to say. 

As you lead, do the things you have to do. Do the things you must do. State that which is true, and then defend the truth with every ounce of energy you have in you. 

As a father, a leader, a boss, or whatever position you find yourself in, do not say, “I will always.” You won’t. And don’t say, “I will never,” because you will. Instead, say those things which you know that you do. Right now. 

And if those things you do now need to be changed somehow, then you must make the decision to change them. But don’t tell people you will change things that you have not decided you are ready to change. Though you’ve said good things, you are sowing a culture of ambiguity, stagnation, and unmet expectations. I will not judge you for it — we have all been told we need to say good things. But it is ultimately better to resist, than to succumb and give birth to disappointment and ill will that we cannot control. 

However, if there are any good things that you do now — and I know that there are — then you must defend those things with every ounce of vigilance in your soul. Go to war for these things and don’t let them be pried from your grasp. Live for these things — live and die for them. Let them define you. Let them be the words of the song that echoes from every corner of your life. 

And let those things be the things that define a culture that you will never want to forget. 

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