A plan for repaying Cultural Debt


In the last article, we explored ‘cultural debt’ which is when we borrow against the positive aspects of culture to meet short-term objectives. As a result, often, we see disengagement in our workplace, a breakdown of trust and reduced performance. We’ve eroded the social contract – people no longer want to contribute from a place of goodwill.

As with financial debt, cultural debt needs repayment. How can we reinforce and invest in the social contract to repay cultural debt? I’m going to outline a practical process to kick start your cultural debt repayment. 

Before that, a quick word on common sense. Much of what we need to do to repay cultural debt is common sense. For example, explain why we’re doing what we’re doing. Be transparent about the situation and decisions made. Don’t be a jerk. Show genuine appreciation. Involve the team in decisions that impact their work.

The problem is that workplaces are complex environments. We often focus on the parts of the system when we should be looking at the interaction between parts. Structures, processes and constraints (market, legal etc.) influence interactions between people. They shape patterns of behaviour in the workplace. The patterns are not always visible or easy to identify. Or worse, confused for something else. 

What looks at first glance like common sense soon becomes unclear and not that common. One manager’s effort to show appreciation involves taking the team out for lunch. It falls flat because a couple of individuals have a big deadline that afternoon and see time away as an annoyance.  

In fact, ‘sense’ is the word to focus on. Taking a step back to make sense of the situation is where we must start. 

In the last article, we looked at diagnosing cultural debt by looking at the language and behaviour in the workplace. The following will help us make sense of our observations and take meaningful action to repay cultural debt. 

We’ll use one of my favourite Liberating Structures – What? So what? What now?

In so many cases, I have found that cultural debt has come from people having had things done to them. They didn’t get a choice in what happened. Even when there seems to be forces outside of our control, I have found this exercise leaves people with choices they can move forward on.

Grab your team or a group of colleagues together. Invite those whose decisions have caused cultural debt. Allocate a couple of hours. You may want to make this a recurring meeting as culture always needs work. I’ve facilitated sessions like this when engagement surveys have reflected elements of cultural debt and seen great results. Answer the following questions. 

For each one, spend 2 minutes as individuals answering the question in silence. Then, 6 minutes as a small group collating answers. If you have more than one group (preferred), then spend 10 minutes discussing your findings as a whole group.

1. What? What are you observing in the workplace that is evidence of cultural debt? Also include positive things that help to build the social contract. Don’t jump to reasons yet, just what you’re seeing.  

2. So what? What do the observations you have uncovered mean? e.g. People don’t take part in workplace social events. So what? What is the impact of what you’ve observed? e.g. lack of informal cross-team problem-solving.

It will be tempting at this stage to jump into solution mode. Suspend that for now and focus on what observations mean. We are trying to identify some of the underlying patterns at play in the workplace and avoid our biases.

3. What now? It’s time to think about actions we can take. What could you do in the next two weeks to rebuild or invest in the social contract? The work we’ve done in sections ‘What?’ and ‘So what?’ should give us greater insight into what’s really going on. I’d usually recommend only one or two actions per group, so it feels achievable. 

Craft the action as an experiment. Due to the unseen patterns, our insights in ‘So what?’ are only hypotheses or assumptions. Our first action needs to be to test these. We state our assumption. Plan a way to test it. Agree on what measures we’ll use to evaluate the test. Then meet again in a couple of weeks to review. From there we try a new experiment to test our assumption or build on what’s worked. 

This may involve courageous actions to challenge the structures, processes and constraints. Framing it as an experiment helps people to feel safer in the process.

Using an approach like this will give people choices and a sense of contribution in repaying the cultural debt. I’d love to hear ways that you have tried to repay cultural debt. 

Doug Maarschalk is a facilitator and coach who guides people to sustained high performance through healthy continuous improvement. He’s worked with clients in the horticulture, banking, logistics and manufacture sectors along with local government. Read more about the Services Doug provides and the Clients he has worked with.