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Is your Culture a Body or a Machine? Part 2

Complex web

In the last article (Part 1), we looked at how we think about our culture in the workplace. I suggested the ‘body’ as a more useful metaphor than a ‘machine’. Machines can be stopped, pulled apart, fixed and put back together again. Cultures aren’t like that. They’re alive, changing and moving. 

I realised that the article was going to take much longer than the allocated 2-3min read time. So here is part 2. I’ll elaborate more on the ‘body’ metaphor and how we can use the concept of health in our body to understand how to approach our workplace cultures better. 

With our body, we usually think of health before performance.  To achieve health we focus on nutrition, exercise and sleep. Sometimes we may sacrifice health for performance (in competition, for example). But that is never a long-term strategy. Health is something that needs regular attention. We can’t set and forget. Our workplace culture needs to be monitored often to keep it healthy. We monitor performance. Are we monitoring the physical, mental and social wellbeing of our people?

Spotify have created a health check for some of their teams. The teams self-assess their own health across a few variables such as teamworklearning and delivery of value.

One team I work with has a quarterly engagement survey.  Factors surveyed include things like change communication, recognition, work life balance etc. We treat these as factors of health in the team and find ways to continuously work on them. For example, we don’t try to ‘fix’ communication so we get a better score next time. We try something small and monitor for progress. We ‘grow’ better communication over time.

What would be the key drivers of health in your culture and how are they tracking today?

In the right conditions, bodies can heal themselves. You could say that nutrition and medicine empower the body to heal itself*. Often, we don’t know what the root cause is or how exactly the healing occurs. In the same way, in a culture, we focus on the conditions necessary to enable people (ourselves included) to function at their best. Then let them figure it out.

*Sure, in some cases you may need to surgically remove something that shouldn’t be there! But usually you’ve tried a few things first.

So, how can we begin to enable these conditions? Let me provide a mindset shift and a helpful starting point to unlock the potential of people.

Mindset shift: Think of people as having resourcefulness rather than being resources to manage. People aren’t parts to utilise and fit where required. We have the potential for possibilities far exceeding our current performance objectives.

Helpful starting point: Find ways to meet people’s three primary motivational needs

1. Genuinely caring for them and enabling them to connect with others.

2. Showing their competence and visualising progress. 

3. Having autonomy over as much of their work as possible.

How could you make space to unlock the resourcefulness of people in your workplace? 

How could you meet your (and others) needs for relatedness, competence and autonomy in your workplace?

No metaphor is perfect. But maybe thinking of our workplace culture as a body will stop the ineffective, linear thinking that fails to acknowledge the dynamic nature of the group of people we work with. Remember that you are an active part of your workplace culture, not acting from outside of it.

What difference would it make to think of the culture in your workplace as a body rather than a machine?

If you’d like to discuss the health of your workplace and strategies to grow it in the right direction, feel free to reach out!


Doug Maarschalk guides workplace teams to become more ‘human’ by growing a culture of contribution, learning and empowerment. He is a facilitator, consultant and coach who helps teams get clear on their strategy and change their thinking to become high performing. 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. 

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