Stan Slap reveals that cultures are the saving grace of any organisation

HR Indaba Online attendees get a hard lesson on why their cultures don’t work – and how they can.

On 7 June, New York Times bestselling author and renowned cultural guru Stan Slap opened the HR Indaba Online with a live keynote all the way from California on how to achieve maximum commitment from employee culture.

He started with a provocation that even the smartest companies in the world subscribe to the most dangerous strategic myth: that a strategy has to be planned well to be successful. But in actuality, it has to be implemented well to be successful.

“Implementation starts with being able to enrol the ferocious support of your culture for that strategic or performance goal. If you can do that, you’re well on your way to achieving performance insurance,” Stan said. “You are building a base camp on Mount Delusional if you think that any strategy, performance goal or human capital plan will ever be successful without the hardcore support of this particular group.”

He explained that a company’s customers are most often employees themselves, making them part of the overall culture of the organisation. “They will decide to protect or reject your company based in large part on how they perceive you treat people just like them.”

Stan further provoked the audience to wake up, wipe the drool off their desks and to greet reality.

“In the real world, neither business logic or management authority, nor any compelling competitor urgency will ever convince an employee culture to adopt a corporate cause as if it were their own. In that killing field between company concept and cultural commitment lies many failed strategic plans.”

In order to create a committed culture, you have to understand how it really works, he said.

Talking rocket fuel
Your urgent human capital strategies may be rocket science if you don’t understand what your culture is, Stan said.

“A culture happens whenever a group of people share the same basic living circumstances. They naturally band together to share beliefs about the rules of survival and emotional prosperity. Your culture is a self-protected organism that is born from these circumstances. And that organism obsessively seeks information, attempts to validate it, and then shares it exclusively amongst itself,” he explained.

He pointed out that a culture is:

  • Powerful. It’s impossible to overestimate the power a culture has to serve and save you, including and especially during tough times.
  • Self-protective. It’s an independent organism, living right inside the enterprise, with its own purpose, and all the power to make or break any management plan. Its first purpose is to protect itself, not the company. And it will only protect the company if it perceives there’s a reliable link between what happens throughout the company and the culture.
  • Inclusive. Every employee is immediately and fully accredited as a member of your employee culture from day one.
  • Exclusive. A closed society that only shares information among itself.
  • Hereditary. At some point, your culture had to put a stake in the ground to say, “This is the way things are around here,” so it can agree how to navigate safely in its environment. As soon as that stake went in the ground, it formed some major components of its belief system. Because culture is a human organism, when we decide upon something we look for data to confirm our decision, not to contradict it. So even if your culture innocently misinterpreted the meaning of some management decision, it has subsequently looked through that filter seeking confirming proof points and has found them.
  • Neurotic. When faced with change, your culture attempts to confirm the known rules of survival and emotional prosperity in an environment that it can’t reliably control or anticipate. That would drive anyone nuts. So it’s prone to cynicism and drama and absolutes.
  • Rational. A culture is an information-gathering organism designed to ensure its own survival. Its motivations are pure, its commitment is predictable and, as you need it, correctable. It may be motivated or inspired by something coming from management, but it wants to know what’s real. It’s objective, agnostic and open.

Stan further stated that a company’s culture will give it whatever it wants, as long as the organisation gives the culture what it wants first. “Respecting what your culture wants from you is the difference between its defiance and its compliance. The key is to recognise that it’s not the responsibility of the culture to understand business logic, it’s the responsibility of the business to understand the culture’s logic. If you get that right, your human capital strategies will be successful.”

The three things your culture needs from you
Stan explained that, in order for your culture to give you the levels of accountability, resilience and unity you need to create a successful human capital strategy, you need to give them three things:

1. Certainty
“Culture does not hate change, it hates the loss of the known that change represents. And because the C-suite clock in your company starts before the culture clock starts, by the time it reaches your employee culture it’s already live and they are expected to understand it, embrace it and translate it into action. They didn’t see it coming, and naturally begin to suspect everything else, which drives it into a neurotic state and it loses perspective,” Stan said.

He explained that organisations need to restore their culture’s perspectives. “When you are explaining what is changing to your culture, you must also take the time to explain what isn’t changing. Your culture nervously looks at the uncertainty of the future. But what you can confirm for them, is what you can do about it. It reduces the threat of the unknown to the culture.”

2. Trust
Stan explained that, while management is focused on success, looking forward to what problem they can solve next, a culture is focused on survival, looking backwards to see what happened to the last thing that was solved. “The trust you really want from your culture is actually faith.”

In order to earn faith, you have to sanction the inevitable. “Ask them to trust you for small things, and when you deliver on those things, you can go back and negotiate for more trust. This is the way you build momentum with trust,” he said.

3. Energy
“The biggest possible threat to the commitment of your culture is their energy,” Stan explained. “Your culture is living in a time of unprecedented, unfathomable uncertainty. There’s going to be a time where these circumstances are all it can remember and all it can look forward to. When this happens, it creates a deep weariness that descends upon your culture. Then it begins to blame external circumstances for its internal performance, creating a culture of victimisation and apathy.”

Organisations need to recognise that a human being can’t maintain simultaneously opposing emotions. Your culture can’t simultaneously be hopeful and hopeless, energised and exhausted. “What you need to do is create a problem-loving culture. When it is presented with problems, your culture attacks those problems to confirm its intelligence, curiosity and unity,” he said.

Stan’s final piece of advice to the audience was that, even in these uncertain times, there are two things we know for sure: they won’t last forever, but the story of how you stood up to them will. “Your companies are going to be living with that story for a long time: it’s time you start writing it so it ends the way you want it to. It’s your humanity that your culture will respond to. And it’s your culture that will serve and save you.”