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Interview: Claudette Rowley, Author of ‘Cultural Brilliance’

For nearly 20 years, Claudette Rowley has helped leaders and organizations resolve complex organizational problems in ways that honor the intelligence of their systems and the brilliance of their people. In her new book, Cultural Brilliance: The DNA of Organizational Excellence, Rowley lays out a clear and compelling road map for creating a people-powered culture that reclaims lost business potential.

We sat down recently to chat about brilliant cultures, how to spot if your culture is in trouble, and why psychological safety in the workplace benefits everyone. Here is some of our conversation:

What’s the definition of a brilliant culture? How does it redefine what we typically see in a business environment?

Brilliant cultures bring out the untapped potential—the invention, productivity, and positivity—in your business. They are organizational systems that proactively respond to change in ways that decrease stress, inspire learning, and promote a company’s health and growth.

Companies with brilliant cultures use adaptability as a competitive advantage, and their successes are iterative, with each success creating the next. Rather than viewing change as a disruptive force that causes increased stress or dysfunction, in brilliant cultures, change is recast as an opportunity to evolve.

How can you tell if your culture is in trouble? Are there warning signs?

There are five signs that indicate your culture is in trouble:

  • People are punished for telling the truth
  • Your culture makes people leave
  • Leaders ask for more data and don’t act in response
  • Working in an open space is the only option
  • Your culture tolerates bullying behavior

When people are punished for telling the truth about their experiences, their trust is violated and innovation, expression, and strategic problem-solving start to exit an organization. If you have a steady stream of people leaving your company, it’s time to take a close look at how your company treats people.

When leaders ask for information and don’t do anything with it, they disengage their workforce. It’s frustrating and demoralizing to hope that something will improve—and to expend effort and provide feedback—only to discover that nothing is going to change. In fact, this pattern only increases disengagement and ignites mistrust.

When open workspaces are the only option, it usually means a company isn’t tuned into the energy and needs of its workforce. If a company isn’t aligned with these needs, it’s usually not aligned with other needs. Just because space is open doesn’t mean collaboration increases. In open-space environments, people often work with headphones because they don’t want to disturb others or be disturbed.

And last on the list is bullying. Tolerating bullying behavior means that your culture doesn’t stand behind human dignity, fairness, and respect.

Early warning signs for all of the above include a loss of productivity, operational issues, a sudden spike in conflict, ineffective problem-solving and decision-making, and silent meetings.

A theme you come back to often is “we can’t change what we can’t safely talk about.” What’s the solution?

The solution is to create an environment in which it’s psychologically safe to raise and discuss challenging topics. According to Harvard Business School professor Amy Edmondson, psychological safety is the shared belief that a culture is safe for interpersonal risk-taking. Ideas can be shared, mistakes can be discussed, and disputes can be resolved without fear of negative consequences.

In my book, I also discuss a concept called the Cultural Safety Zone, which is a safe environment for challenging conversations. Without an intention­ally safe environment, how can we ask people to tell the good, the bad, and the ugly about their culture?

To set up this zone, you’ll want to generate a list of ground rules or “guardrails” for your discus­sions. This list often includes phrases like respect, honesty, open participation, a willingness to hear different viewpoints, confidentiality, no judg­ment, one person talks at a time, and it’s okay to not know. Of course, there may be items on your list that are specific to your organization.

The act of creating this list often evokes a higher level of emotional safety for many people. Be sure to bring the list to all cultural discussions and hang it on the wall. If you’re having a digital conversation, reference these ground rules. It’s also important to include people from all areas and levels of your company in cultural discussions. Inclusion increases safety and increases your likelihood of a successful cultural transition.

In your book, you explain that cultural success lies in prototyping—not in executing a perfect plan. Could you expand on that?

The success of implementing a new design for your culture lies in prototyping. Because culture operates as a system of mindsets, behaviors, and structures that collectively drive communication, decision-making, and results, your culture is in a consistent state of evolution.

A plan that looks good on paper may not work in the real world. To develop a large-scale plan without trying out your cultural design opens the door for wasted time, resources, and energy. And positive energy and enthusiasm are the currencies that will keep people going through the ebbs and flows of change.

Prototyping allows a team, for example, to try out a new way of collaborating for a month, get feedback on what worked and what didn’t, and then adjust accordingly. I prototype cultural designs with one team or department first to get that valuable feedback before introducing an organization-wide implementation. Because giving and receiving feedback is an integral aspect of prototyping, this process helps people embrace change.

What’s the best way for leaders to participate in creating a brilliant culture?

Creating a brilliant culture requires full participation from all areas and levels of an organization, including senior leaders who need to be fully on board with the process. It’s critically important that leaders listen to what they hear (instead of what they want to hear). When leaders seek to understand and learn why others have the views they do, it’s easier to value all voices in culture, especially the ones no one wants to hear.

Leaders also need to get feedback on how their leadership impacts and shapes the culture and ask for specific input on the parts of the culture to which they are blind.

Finally, when leaders avoid taking feedback personally, they build trust and psychological safety. Just because a leader created a department, a policy, or a product doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t evolve or change. When a leader personalizes feedback, it typically erodes trust, slows down the wheels of change, and injects a barrier. Raising self-awareness throughout the organization is key to cultural evolution. It’s up to leaders to contextualize and role model the behavioral changes they’d like to see.

To learn more about Claudette Rowley and her new book, Cultural Brilliance, visit her website.

About Patricia Gale

Patricia Gale has written and ghostwritten hundreds of blogs and articles that have appeared on sites such as Psychology Today, Forbes, and Huffington Post, and in countless national newspapers and magazines. Her "beat" is health, business, career, self-help, parenting, and relationships.

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