The journey is the reward*

I just turned 50 a few weeks ago and soon after my birthday, I started idly counting, as one does, how many jobs I’ve had since graduating from college in 1990. And by “jobs,” I mean, organizations that gave me a regular paycheck and benefits—being a parent is time-consuming like a job, but as far as I can tell, one does not get paid for being a parent except in VERY large units of happiness and/or worry.

Seven. Seven jobs was the grand total. I waffled a bit over including a nine-month stint at an environmental nonprofit, but I ended up including it because I learned so much while I was there from my very smart colleagues—and also, because I was there long enough to grasp what was going on with the organizational culture, and that, to me, means I had really belonged to that organization, even though I was there for such a short time.

Which brings me to my real topic of the day: organizational culture. There have obviously been boatloads of stuff written on this topic, I’m sure by many people smarter and more eloquent than me. Organizational culture seems to be the thing that everyone wants to do better at, but then everyone’s hopes and dreams keep on getting smashed by their employee surveys, the leaked stories or blog posts from former employees that go viral, the anonymous reviews on Glassdoor. So I was wondering, as I was reflecting on my seven jobs: if so much has been learned and studied about organizational culture, why do so many organizations keep on struggling with it?

And then I arrived at this thought: maybe the struggle IS the point. Maybe you are a citizen of your organization like you are a citizen of your country: you have aspirational goals for what you want it to be, and you always strive for the ideal, but you also recognize that the ideal, on a day-to-day basis, may not be achievable. So you focus on the progress you want to make day-by-day, year-by-year, instead of despairing about never reaching the perfect end state no one organization can achieve.

It just feels wrong to think about organizational culture in the way that most people talk about it: as if it’s a finite goal—like, “oh, our organizational culture sucks now, but if we just focus on X, Y, and Z, we’ll make it better and then we’ll ALL be happy and walk around bathed in soft-focus rainbow-tinted light.” If we accept the idea of organizational culture as a journey, a work in progress, and NOT as a finite goal, then this way of thinking makes no sense. Instead, it feels more practical – and achievable – to treat organizational culture as an ongoing process, contributed to by each and every person at the organization.

In other words, one is never “finished” with creating a better organizational culture—one has to live, breathe, and act a better culture on an ongoing basis. People are changeable creatures; we evolve and grow and different stresses are laid upon us at different times. Since organizations are made up of people, the same holds true for them. People at your organization, from the bottom-up to the top-down, need to accept and understand that better organizational culture is a never-finished body of work. And, people at your organization all need to have a stake in keeping the culture healthy, with intentional processes and practices in place for repairing the leaks, the cracks, and the outright disasters and crises that do crop up from time to time.

What are the attributes of a healthy organizational culture that is fed and nourished by all through necessary evolution? Here are some of the attributes I’ve witnessed in some of the better cultures I’ve seen:

  • Conversations and learning about diversity, equity, and inclusion are a regular occurrence in your work life. An organizational culture is made up of many ingredients, and the uniqueness and multiplicity of perspectives from the people who work there are some of the most essential ingredients of all. Conversations that explicitly reference our diversity of backgrounds and perspectives are not always easy, but are almost always necessary and worthwhile.
  • You should be able to find space for conflicts in the workplace and help and guidance for addressing and resolving them before these conflicts become toxic and ingrown and debilitating.
  • Employees are given multiple ways to connect to and collaborate with each other, not always on work projects, sometimes purely for the sake of knowing each other as individuals.
  • Internal communications is as highly valued as external communications.
  • People understand that they are a part of and contribute to the organization’s culture—they are not just there to “do a job” and “get a paycheck.”
  • The President/CEO and the senior leadership team don’t just talk about the culture they want to have; they live it, they act in ways that role-model the behaviors and contributions they want to see in others.

And finally, the biggest lesson I draw from all my seven jobs: no one organization has the perfect culture. I went through some hairy shit at each and every job I was at, and sometimes I was motivated to be a part of making it better, and sometimes, sadly, I gave up the struggle. But I cherish the moments when I felt as if we were making progress in the struggle for a better work life; moments when we were connecting to each other around our shared mission and goals and I felt joy in the camaraderie and satisfaction of a good result brought about by teamwork and connection.

*I am normally not one for corny inspirational sayings imprinted on jewelry or on posters with nature images, but I have to admit, I saw this on a pendant once and I think it rings true–for anyone who’s training for a marathon, or thinking about organizational culture, as in this instance.