Imagine a work environment where people beg you not to give them any more work, because they are overloaded as it is. Imagine promising this group of people that by participating in a networking leadership course for three afternoons in a 3 month period, they will experience their work as being more fun and they will get more done with less effort.
This is the promise of a project designed to promote a culture of cooperation that NETSHEILA is presently undertaking in a school environment in the Netherlands.
Before looking at how this promise is working out, let me introduce you to the project. It takes place at a secondary school with thousands of students and many many staff. My client loves being an educator and wants his staff to have the best environment possible in which to do their work. The teachers in the project were hand picked by my client. From the moment we met I could tell they are passionate about teaching. They have a busy load, and one of their challenges is to carry the load and stay positive about their work. They are passionate about what they do. They are delighted to be teaching, proud to be the people who are educating the young people in our community. They work closely with the students to surmount problems and they celebrate wildly when the students are successful. They give themselves fully to their job. They really do work hard. And they are willing to test run a project that is designed to improve the quality of the work environment at the school.
Outside of school hours they are also passionate. I am working with teachers who live full lives outside school hours. One is a volunteer at a radio station and has been for years. Another loves to build things for people, and one business administration teacher with one little child and one on the way converted her attic into a kitchen where she makes delicious cakes and pastries. One person is secretary of a car-lovers society, another runs the local ice-skating club, a third trains kids to be Olympic champions in judo.
Defining the need
On the first afternoon, everyone was asked to think of a task or a plan or an issue that they have on their plate that is bigger than what they can deal with alone. They are assured that having something on your plate like that is a sign of strength. After all, if you can deal easily with all the challenges you face, your game is too small. If you are up to something big, you need other people. I defined this ‘something’ as a need.
Everyone could easily think of something. They then shared with the three other people at their table what their need was.
Ding that people are social assets
Putting their need aside, people then proceeded to map out their circles of friends and acquaintances. Some noted the categories of people, others the people themselves. Friends from college friends from school, friends from previous work situations, people they play sports with, family, colleagues, and on and on.
Matching needs to assets
Each table of four then took one for one the needs people had described, and looked at who in their community map could be useful for that person. Even if they felt they could help the person themselves, the purpose of the exercise was to see what other human resources they as an individual have that they can provide their colleagues.
Everyone left the first afternoon with a need that was concretely expressed, and with an understanding of conversations they could have in and outside school that could easily help them work further on this need.
Twenty days later the group came together for a second afternoon. The intention of the afternoon was to take the knowledge of connecting to people to the next step, creating a culture of cooperation at school. A lot had happened in 20 days. One teacher had been able to overcome management failings in her department by asking to be assigned the role of section head, and getting the role. The other section heads in our group freely offered to support her in developing herself in this new role. Others had found the space they needed to sit together with their team and plan. Another had started conversations with various people to find the money he needed to implement an innovative plan. When one teacher declared he hadn’t done anything relating to the need he had expressed, two other people let him know they had taken up his issue and big progress had been made.
After 20 days teachers were experiencing their work as being lighter and they were getting more done with less effort.
Moving toward a culture of cooperation
The challenge is to create that ease and lightness in a structural way, which is why we then proceeded to working on developing a culture of cooperation.
Tribal Leadership, the work done by the good folks at CultureSync, forms a basis for developing this culture.
The 5 stages of culture
Tribal Leadership distinguishes 5 stages of culture existing in the world of work.
Stage 1 is Life Sucks. Researchers Dave Logan an others found 2 percent of companies in their 10-year study to fall within this category. I see stage 1 as mainly the realm of criminal societies, where there is no empathy for others and it is an environment of shoot or get shot. Having said that, I can think of plenty of examples where people try to trip up their colleagues to avoid getting tripped up themselves.
Stage 2 is My Life Sucks. It seems to the individual that everyone else is doing fine, its just a pity that their own life isn’t where it should be. When asked if they will do something this people in this culture say “I’ll try”, but they won’t commit.
A stage 2 culture can advance into (and not step over) a stage 3 culture. “I’m Great!... and the Others Are Not.” Why did that project fail? The other people were not of a good enough quality. Why did you not get the job you wanted? Someone else had the boss’s ear. About 49 percent of organizations function within the culture.
A stage 4 culture says “We’re Great” and while there is rivalry in that (the implication is that the others, the competition, is not great) there is a sense that we can work together to get things done. This is a culture of cooperation, and 22 percent of organizations function at this level.
Then there is stage 5, which is a great place for saints like Bishop Tutu and the Dalai Lama to dwell but most of us can be pretty satisfied if we manage to operate consistently in a stage 4 culture. At stage 5 the dominant expression is “Life is Great”.
The structure of the environment in each stage is key to the capacity for organizations having cultures like these to be cultures of cooperation. Stage 5 cultures are an interlinkage of integral units. At Stage 4 the working units are integrated. At Stage 3 management operates the hub and spokes method: tell me everything an don’t disturb your colleagues by telling them what you are up to. At Stage 2 there is little adequate management and at Stage 1 the actor is outside the culture, looking in.
In other words, to have a culture of cooperation the best place to be is in Stage 4. Or stage 5 (Good luck on that).
Consistent at stage 4
At our school, we are working on developing a culture of cooperation where the participants are consistently operating at Stage 4. And to do that, the advisors at CultureSync say, people have to be able to operate in triads. Triangles are powerful structures. Each side of the triangle keeps the other side in place. In a triad, each person listens to the expressed intention of the other two people. The expressed intention is the thing that inspires the person to undertake something that is bigger than him or herself. The genuine desire to educate kids, for example. To not be stopped when there is not enough money for projects, or not enough other teachers wanting or willing to participate in a project, but to keep going, keep looking for that funding, keep enrolling those teachers to participate because educating kids takes courage and effort. Each player at Stage 4 regularly checks in with two other people to have the discussion: are you acting in a way that your intentions will be realized. These two people are not necessarily colleagues. They just have to be people who are committed to you being successful. They are your committed listeners.
The teachers have now formulated shared projects, taking some of the needs expressed in the first session to the level of projects. They have triads supporting them in focusing on their intention, helping them to not get bogged down in the rejections, the complaints, or the negativity that Stage 3 people around them will possibly place in their pathway. The coming 6 weeks is a time of practicing being consistently in Stage 4.
Lin McDevitt-Pugh MBA, owner of NETSHEILA, is a management consultant with a particular expertise in creating cultures of cooperation in the workplace. With a culture of cooperation, organizations can realize big goals through fun, ease and connectivity. Call +31 6 150 48468 to see how NETSHEILA can support your organization. We work in Dutch-language and English-language environments.