News reporters and cultural accountability

Photo of Empty Chair

I’ve had meaningful conversations about how we articulate the culture of a particular organisation. At times it can become a ‘talkfest’ and arguments over the finer details of wording. Other times we come away invigorated by having a shared understanding of the practices and values we hold dear. The kind of culture we want to be part of.

While values may reflect the current state of your organisation, they are always aspirational in nature. You want to keep and grow the good stuff as you move in your desired direction.

Living the values (and having the culture you want) becomes an ongoing challenge. Not a ‘set and forget’ exercise. Think: ‘how do we grow and keep the culture alive?’ rather than ‘what part of this culture do we need to fix?’

With that in mind, I recently found a provoking quote. I was reading Richard Sheridan’s book ‘Joy, Inc.: How We Built a Workplace People Love’:

“Think of your own company. Would you let an outside visitor – let alone a reporter – sit in on your most confidential meetings? Would you be open to letting them hear you discuss budget concerns, staffing issues, personnel disagreements? If not, this points to the existence of certain practices and values you wish to hide from others, since they don’t align with how you want the world to think about your culture. Instead of hiding your culture, change it.” 

Big questions. The underlying issue for me is… accountability.

Asking the uncomfortable question, “how accountable are we to living the culture we profess to have?” When we put those values and purpose statement on our office wall or website, do we commit to living them? 

Given we’re not always going to get it right, I’ve thought of a small exercise that may be able to keep you on track. I’m going to borrow from Jeff Bezos, Amazon CEO. He is reported to have included an empty chair to represent the customer at the table during meetings. 

Here goes:

1. Run a team chartering exercise to agree on how you want to work together. This will include your purpose and values. Check out the ‘Operating Principles’ exercise, the Team Canvas or the Rocket Model if you don’t know where to start.

2. Then for a month (or a period in which you’re likely to have more than 5 meetings), have an empty chair at all your meetings to represent a news reporter. Feel free to substitute the chair for something more creative (blow up doll anyone?). 

3. Then at the end of each meeting say something like the following: 

 “Suppose the news reporter published an article tomorrow for the public to see. The report includes how our behaviours today have lined up with what we say our culture is. How would we feel?”

“Is there anything in our environment or interactions we want to celebrate or change?”

Of course there are going to be subjects that are confidential that need to stay that way to protect clients or employees. The reporter’s article is less about the content of the meeting and more to do with how we behaved. It’s more about being true to the practices and values, the culture, we profess and aspire to. Let’s make those invigorating conversations worthwhile in the long run.

I’d love to hear from anyone who gives this a go and I’m available to discuss team chartering for those needing to (re)focus their team.

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.