Is Your Culture Going Down The Toilet?

What do your
kitchens and bathrooms
say about your culture?
I have a confession to make.  I’m fascinated by toilets and sinks in organisations. Well, not with the actual equipment, but by the cultural symbolism that can be found in the bathroom and kitchen environment. Sometimes I take photos of the signs on the walls because they are intriguing insights into the workplace culture.  Am I standing in an organisation that is micro-managed down to within a toilet brush or dishcloth of its life?
Don’t forget to scrub! Wipe down the sink after use!
Is it a culture where you had better do what you are told or look out!
If this sink is not kept clean, all crockery will be removed! Your mother is not here to clean up after you! Other people use this space – make sure you flush!  These mugs are for the finance team only!
Is the sink always full of dishes that‘someoneelse’ will do?
It doesn’t matter whether it’s the bathroom, or the kitchen area, the language that is conveyed in these sort of signs and visual cues conveys a simple message – we have an‘I’culture going on. We are pitted against each other in a mess of‘don’tcare; wasn’t me and not my problem’. What symbols do these places signify about our culture?
Carolyn Taylor, author of‘Walkingthe Talk’ and global cultural transformation expert poses that culture can be ascertained by the BEHAVIOURS of those with influence, the SYSTEMS that underpin the culture, and the SYMBOLS that are in evidence. The symbols are the rituals, traditions, and where time, money and effort goes.
When people tell stories about your workplace around the barbeque with friends, what do they share? These stories often highlight the symbols of your workplace. What are the symbols that stand out in your workplace? Where do you spend a lot of time and effort?
For many kitchens and staff lunch areas, time and effort goes into telling people off about how bad they are at keeping it tidy. People can’t be bothered, or feel like they are being treated like children and so disengage. To me, it is a tangible sign of a culture in trouble when the only signs that anyone uses the collective space are ones that speak only about the RULES!  Or that the people in the space seem totally disconnected from each other.  Some shared meal spaces feel like a cold and lifeless place. There is no laughter or camaraderie. In some extreme places there is no cutlery or crockery unless you bring your own – another sign of dysfunction. It screams –‘wedon’t trust you enough to give you implements to eat with – you’ll just make a mess!’
These rules often come from management putting in a quick fix strategy to deal with the frustration of the people who do clean up.  They get on with the task of clearing the sink full of cutlery and bowls, or fridges full of decomposing food. Others leave a mess, leave the cleaning up to other people. Some don’t even come in, let alone contribute to creating an atmosphere of team.
What is it REALLY all about?
Perhaps our use or abuse of shared spaces is a good barometer of our willingness to collaborate in the broader sense within our teams. If we can’t even commit to each other on how we might use our shared spaces, how can we do the hard work?  Do we have a‘We’culture or an‘I’culture? Do we co-exist or are we a team?  If we share our space with a number of teams, do we interact and create a warm environment where we are ripe for cross team collaboration? Is it always the same people left with the dishcloth in their hands?
There are a few major things playing a part here that are of course way bigger than a sign on a wall, or mugs in a sink. Bigger issues are going on here, manifested in collective spaces where tumbleweeds blow and coffee cups mount.  But its the little things that make the big things, whether they created a positive or negative culture.
Are these three indicators in evidence in your team? In work time and in break times?
There is little excitement about coming together as a team – whether it’s for work or over cake.  There is no compelling reason to enter a collective space in the first place. People really can’t be bothered.
There is a low level of commitment to each other.  Lots of‘I’not‘We’.Interaction is superficial. People work in silos and collaboration is close to non-existent.
People feel micromanaged and are over being treated like children in general. Lack of input into the strategy and direction of an organisation from people on the ground can manifest itself into‘defiance’when it comes to relatively minor things like what shelf they should put their food into the fridge on.
What does your collective space culture say about how people are feeling about the workplace?
Culture impacts on our ability to do the work that matters and have the conversations that matter.
Implement the three C’s of a high trust collaborative culture instead:
Connect people to purpose and to each other. Create interactions that celebrate the‘we’of our work rather than the‘I’.Connect the work through authentic collaborations on projects that matter.  Connect people to the strategy that is guiding your organisation, embed ways of having them have input to the future direction. Give people time to discuss where their work fits together and what they could do differently.
Be conscious about really SEEING each other – acknowledge and value skills and strengths, and most important attribute the work to the people who actually did it.  Disconnection and discontent flares when leaders take all the credit for hard work done by the team. Too many sad tales abound in companies with strong hierarchical structures where the real work gets done on the ground, but the credit is taking further up the chain. Create a‘we’culture that celebrates and sees every individual and their contribution.
Without conversation, discontent festers. Assumptions run rampant and the only communication ends up being about what people are doing wrong.  Trust is built in teams when we have the important conversations.  One of the biggest themes out of the work I do with teams when looking at how they can work together better is the lack of knowledge about what people actually do.  How can we work together more effectively if we don’t even make the time to understand that?
A footnote and some learning to all things kitchens and bathrooms from the education world:
At a New Zealand junior high school, where community and building wellbeing through whanau or family groupings is a critical approach to the learning, a group of girls had decided that rather than having the toilets a scary place to go to(rememberback to your high school days?) they would make it somewhere they loved and were happy to be in. This is a great symbol of the school’s guiding philosophies of student agency and strong community and connectedness. I know there would be many bigger symbols in evidence as well – but it is thelittle things that make the big things when it comes to culture.
One of the most welcoming shared spaces I’ve been in was in another school staff room in NZ.  Attractive table and chair furniture and a warm colour scheme, a nice sofa and cushions against the wall.  On the wall, a living Gratitude whiteboard that had current comments(i.e.not a dead Gratitude board has a couple of ancient comments put up by the person who had put it up in the forlorn hope people would add to it) from not only colleagues but from parents that used the space as well. And most telling – in the centre at the bench was the leader – with her hands covered in marinade, as she was preparing a leg of lamb to put in the oven for a late night meeting that was happening later that day.
Is the place a high performing school – yes. Connected, compassionate and great at having conversations that had impact. Is there a‘We’culture in evidence? Most definitely. Is SYMBOLIC leadership of culture in action? Absolutely!
What are the symbols of your culture?

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