When culture repeats on you.

by May 14, 2019

  • We have an unhealthy obsession with psychological safety.
  • The obsession is the result of an unhealthy obsession with “best culture”.
  • The antidote is emphasising diversity in organisations.


Thanks to management guru Peter Drucker we all know that “Culture eats strategy for breakfast”.

But have we given enough consideration to the ensuing indigestion of psychological safety?

I had a lightbulb moment recently, thanks to a conversation with Chief Transformation Officer Helen Bevan of the NHS.

I was becoming increasingly bemused and, to be honest, appalled with the increase in focus on psychological safety.

How have we got to a point of modern-day industry where psychological safety is in such depleted state that there are coaches, consultants, and viral talks on the concept? Head to Google and punch in “psychological safety” and you’ll find 243 MILLION hits on the phrase.  

I raised this with Helen, in our podcast interview. And she spoke to the power of diversity, and without diversity in organisations, there is not psychological safety.

It’s our obsession with magical cultures and cultural fit.

And the penny dropped. 15 years ago I was teaching in a Department of Management in the area of Organisational Studies. Our centre had a bias towards critical management thinking. This meant when we talked about companies who relied on the ultimate culture as the secret to success, we raised the question is it culture or cult? What happens to those who don’t conform?

I think we see now. Those that don’t conform feel profoundly unsafe. Our cautionary teachings of “It may not be wise to build these monolithic cultures” went unheeded. So, an industry was spawned to fix problems of the lack of psychological safety caused by chasing the best cultural fit.

We were right, dammit!

For, you see, recruiting for cultural fit really does create a cult-like environment where it is fundamentally unsafe to voice counter views. Despite many companies having “innovation” as one of their values, the practice of only hiring people who value innovation has a counter-productive outcome. Irony, right?

The good news is that we are starting to see examples of companies seeking to counter the exclusionary damage of monolithic cultures through the newer practice of recruiting and rewarding cultural contribution. Not surprisingly, these early adopter companies all draw upon innovation as a strategic capability and competitive advantage.

IDEO, Netflix, Zappos are all on record as rejecting cultural fit and hiring for cultural contribution.

Global engineering company, Aurecon, has had great success with developing a set of attributes and embedding the idea that you don’t have to have all of them but, within a team, there should be a mix of these attributes.

Atlassian also recognises the power of balanced teams as a driver of success and have recast their diversity and inclusion program to Balance and Belonging. There is a large emphasis on intersectionality – in that recognising each person brings to work with them multiple aspects of self and they should be free to express, or as Aubrey Blanche, Atlassian’s Global Head of Diversity says, “people have layers and not just one identity”. 

I’m not sure how this plays out with regards to psychological safety in these companies, but it’s food for thought that stretches beyond breakfast.

Stay tuned for the podcast.


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