Sunday, April 21, 2013

The Emergent Culture: Be the Change You Wish to See

Have you ever watched a flock of birds, and wonder how they move together in such perfect unison?  I'm always amazed at how quickly and precisely they're able to maneuver as a cohesive unit.  I use to wonder if they were following the cue of a "lead" bird or set birds - but that isn't the case.  

Instead, each and every bird is simply reacting in some small way to the actions and decisions of every other bird.  As a result, the flock emerges as a collective system based on the individual behaviors of all the birds.  This biological phenomenon is known as "emergent behavior".  For a more detailed explanation, here is a great article on flocking birds.

I see an interesting parallel with human behavior - specifically, the way a corporate "culture" is developed and sustained.  So often, we rely on a single leader or set of leaders to create the company culture, with the false belief that it's outside of our control.  After all, each of us is just one person - how possibly could a single individual affect the behavior of hundreds or thousands in the organization?  But just like a flock emerges from the behavior of individual birds - a culture emerges from all the small and simple interactions between members.

Today, you will make many decisions, both consciously and unconsciously, about how you interact with co-workers, subordinates, executives, customers, vendors, etc.  In turn, all these people will have their own interactions throughout the day, all influenced in some small way by their encounter with you.  And thus, the culture emerges as a self-sustaining collective system. 

Corporate culture is a powerful force.  It can be positive, collaborative, and productive when working well - or it can be negative, demoralizing, and destructive when it's not.  As leaders, we can help shape the culture by embodying all the values, beliefs, and behaviors we want to see in the culture:

How well do we encourage open communication and collaboration?
Do we recognize those that go the extra mile to serve the customer?
Are we honest and direct?
Do we reward those that share information and expertise with colleagues?
How is risk-taking and experimentation perceived?
How do we respond to mistakes? 
Are team accomplishments valued and celebrated?

These values are reinforced by our actions and the actions of others - so we have to be very clear on the type of culture we want. It's a long road - let's start by taking equal responsibility for the culture we're helping to create.  As Gandhi famously said, "be the change you wish to see in the world".

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