Of ‘toxic micro cultures’


‘Culture is a hypothesis’, as a friend of mine would say.

Culture is a fuzzy concept (Credits: LPK 90901 / FlickR)

‘Culture’ is a fuzzy concept (Credits: LPK 90901 / FlickR)

And by that I mean national/regional/ethnic cultures. As for me, with that kind of culture it’s a case of ‘Mind your culture, and mind that I don’t mind it 😉 ‘

But in any human group, in addition to this overall layer of culture, there tend to be micro-cultures that are shaped by ongoing, recurring practices. Some of these micro cultures are really toxic, getting everyone further away from building and cultivating healthy human systems.

Here’s a gallery tour of some toxic ‘micro cultures’.

 

High flyers can be arrogant bastards (Credits: Jamie Thingelstad / FlickR)

High flyers can be arrogant bastards (Credits: Jamie Thingelstad / FlickR)

The empty-headed high flyers

This lot is made of people usually evolving in high circles – please note that it’s not the same as saying that all people in high circles are ‘high flyers’ – and now that they have made it to the elite, they are thinking that their end game is to renew their platinum card every year and -even better- achieve lifetime platinum status. And certainly fly as much as possible to prove to everyone that they are indeed very important (duh!).

Mind that it’s a great thing to have the frequent flyer gold and platinum cards. Nothing wrong with that – and travelling is not as glamorous as everyone might believe. What is not so great here is the tendency of these high flyers to find any excuse to travel around and pretend to be busy on ‘strategic matters’ only to find themselves bitching about the luxury hotels they might be frequenting.

But more importantly: they are missing the point of having an intentional (and incidentally ecological) approach to choosing the meetings and missions they attend. It costs money, time, sometimes even peoples’ jobs, and certainly ozone to travel nearly every week.

An idea to deal with them: Ask them when was the last time one of their trips or meetings really made a difference. Consider building a collective club to share/pool frequent flyer miles and have cheaper tickets for the rest of the company. Help them say Good bye acute meetingitis and plan their day-to-day meetings as true KMers.

 

Conference Goers, all melting in a blur (Credits: Dave Shear/FlickR)

Conference Goers, all melting in a blur (Credits: Dave Shea/FlickR)

The mindless ‘conference tourists’

A very similar group to the previous one is the ‘conference tourists’ – except here the traveling is the bonus and the conference is the purpose. These people are specialised in travelling to conferences and events ALL. THE. TIME. Just find any conference that’s remotely connected to their field of work and they will appear. I used to have a colleague like that, he was travelling 9 weeks out of 10. I mean how many conferences are really meaningful to what you do? How many times do you play an active role there?

This class of folks tend to be chronic name droppers and (useless) networking machines doubling as business cards collectors. They may even be ‘conference paper milkers’ ie. with one paper written they will try and present their paper to as many events as possible. No focus, no discernment. Shoot in the dark and hope for the best.

This wannabee culture is not only superfluous but it’s also costly and dangerous for the role model it offers to other people in the same organisation. Will someone tell them conference tourism just ISN’T ok?

An idea to deal with them: Pretty much the same strategy as the high flyers, but also ask them what role they are playing, make them get aware that they are more often than not only of peripheral interest to the events they’re attending. Work with them to make their participation meaningful.

The insipid ‘gossip broth’

Gossiper (Credits: Rui Fernandes / FlickR)

Gossiper (Credits: Rui Fernandes / FlickR)

This group sticks to the office, where they have the comfort of their little routine. So much so that whatever is not part of that routine becomes both suspicious and excitingly ‘gossip material’. They spend their time meeting each other at whatever coffee corner to just talk about all the stuff that really doesn’t matter (so much) in a workplace: who is possibly enamoured with whom? Who said what about who? How is this and that person dressed? What are the manners of the new person?

No remote sense of building anything meaningful here. Just pure waste. And toxic waste at that, as usually the gossip broth don’t really back their opinions with facts, but they are very keen on spreading rumours as quickly as possible. I mean, you know them right? It’s a soup of bad comments and bad intentions. BAD ATTITUDE. Difficult to redeem.

An idea to deal with them: Do not join in gossiping, bring back the conversation on constructive matters, or simply shun these people. They’re not worth that attention.

 

Not communicating, an ideal, really? (Credits: Evo Terra / FlickR)

Not communicating, an ideal, really? (Credits: Evo Terra / FlickR)

The annoying ‘communication agnostics’

Perhaps a bit of a pet peeve here as a communication specialist but I’m so so jaded about people that make it their pride to say “I just don’t like to communicate”. I mean: do you work in total isolation? Do you live in the Arctic? Or on Kerguelen Islands? Do you never need anyone? Are you trying to build something useful to no one else but yourself at all? Unless you say Yes to all these questions, how can you remain in your splendid isolation?

We are a system, you cannot I-solate yourself, so surf and co-create the wave of our collective grace

So rub it in and do your share on communication! Because ‘We need more / better communication! But not from me…‘ is no longer acceptable.

An idea to deal with them: Try and understand their lack of motivation for communication. Is it a question of not seeing the point, not knowing what to start with or what to communicate, not knowing how to communicate and use platforms, anything else? And also find out if they are any likely to move a notch in the direction of communication or not. Some people are desperate deep-divers…

 

Are you a whiner or winner? (Credits: tlm Milburn / FlickR)

Are you a whiner or winner? (Credits: tlm Milburn / FlickR)

The eternal whining victims

Ah, this is a difficult group. This group of folks are complacent with all the stuff that happens to them. They feel it’s all a plot from outside. Nothing that happens ‘to’ them is their fault. It’s others, the environment, it’s always outside. Poor victims you first think, until you realise this is an eternal spiral they are getting themselves caught into, and if you don’t pay attention they will swallow you into their depressive and deceptive reality.

Sometimes, these whiners are doubling up with natural born boasters who think that everything they do is great. That’s a dreadful combination because it means they live in delusion at both ends of the spectrum, in what good and what bad happens to them.

An idea to deal with them: I’m not particularly good at dealing with these so I can’t give you much advice, except that having other (non victim) people in the conversations with these folks helps objectify their dialogue.

 

SocioPath (Credits: OfficialGDC / FlickR)

SocioPath (Credits: OfficialGDC / FlickR)

The sharky ‘society capitalists’

A different breed. The terroristic sociopaths. All that matters to them is money, status – acquired in whichever way – and stamping on each other’s feet to establish their power. Did I hurt? Good, because I’m the boss and you’re a door mat meant to be stampeded by superior beings like me.

The capitalistic society inherited from Taylorism and Fordism has nurtured this type and though times are changing and it’s increasingly conspicuous to be a sharky society capitalist, they are still coming forward. And they don’t care even if they’re a dying breed because they know-it-all.

An idea to deal with them: Giving them some constructive feedback on how their behaviour impacted you or others might be very good to let them see the social picture that is their blind spot, though the feast of fools of feedback might be a step too far. And perhaps if all else fails motivate to change their behaviour out of their thirst to be more effective.

The destructive ‘serials cynics’

Skeptical cynics, cynical skeptics (Credits: Jonny Goldstein/FlickR)

Skeptical cynics, cynical skeptics (Credits: Jonny Goldstein/FlickR)

This is perhaps the worst group of this lot! They love to sit on the fence and make snarky comments. Want a selection of those?

“This is not how you do business here”

“This never works”

“It won’t work with our culture”

“Been there done that, proven wrong”

“Why bother?”

“Where’s the evidence in what you’re saying?” (this one can be a very helpful question btw).

“I don’t believe it”

“Prove your point, here and now”

… These people have made their life’s trademark to make smart comments that are basically preventing anyone from attempting anything. I’ve already blogged about ‘Radical ideals and fluffy bunnies‘ and this lot are the archenemies of fluffy bunnies and idealists. They are, on the other hand, the best friends of depression, fear, immobility, and they’re perhaps the open doorway to many of the other toxic cultures mentioned above.

An idea to deal with them: FIGHT OR FLEE THIS STUFF. Snarky cynicism has never built any civilisation. A healthy dose of criticism is a worthwhile approach, but get the balance wrong and you’ll end up swimming in a tank of acid that will corrode your heart, your soul, and even your body.

A general word about changing toxic micro cultures

In addition to the tips given here, there are a couple of things that work generally to fight toxic micro cultures: One is to lead by example (With KM, life, it’s all in the attitude, so ‘JUST DO IT’ (Nike does it)), i.e. incarnating the change you want to see in the culture around you. The other is to reveal the group norms that you observe and to consistently offer alternative group norms when the existing ones verge on the toxic side – which is what facilitators do in their groups when establishing ground rules and the likes. If you believe in healthy human systems, you can propose group norms for how to give feedback, for how to make decisions, for how to discuss things, for how to listen to each other etc. These participatory values really help.

In my case this is what I try to do by cultivating the process literacy of the people and groups I work with. It is part of my own ‘contribution statement’ (covered here).

What are the toxic micro cultures that evolve too close to you? How do you deal with them?

Related blog posts:

Mind your culture, and mind that I don’t mind it ;)


‘Culture’ is one of the very complex, variables to face in any knowledge management initiative. It is also one of the difficult variables in Mathieu Weggeman’s ‘knowledge value chain‘. With good reason, considering what it really is. Everything that is closely related to change is difficult, and complex.

The excellent infographic below  relates to organisational change and unravels some of that complexity surrounding the evanescent concept of ‘culture’.

The iceberg of organisational change – where culture and other subtle drivers are *really* deciding the name of the game (Credits: Torbenrick)

Personally I pay a lot of attention to culture, and yet I’m never really sure what to make of it. So here are a couple of thoughts about culture in a KM context.

  • Yes culture exists, and can be a really important enabler or barrier to any KM initiative;
  • So yes, paying attention to it is not only good, it’s essential. It can become a way to harness change around local preferences (e.g. asking people what they consider appropriate or not for their culture);
  • But culture is not necessarily what people think it is, and the scale of culture changes a lot (across industries, ages, even places large or small) – so best gather a variety of viewpoints about it from e.g. high-placed people, women, youths, people of diverse ethnic and/or socio-economic backgrounds etc.;
  • Because culture is often much less (if at all !) something codified than e.g. strategies, procedures etc.
  • But culture should not become a shield behind which no change is possible. Change happens everywhere, all the time, which means no culture is carved in stone, only the levers and buttons to trigger change may work very differently in places where the people have not been exposed to a lot of diverse experiences ;
  • Realising for yourself what you put as your own cultural background vis-à-vis other people or groups is also really helpful to keep your own biases in check, and engage in more meaningful intercultural learning conversations ;
  • Culture is a good conversation trigger to loosen tongues and get people to reflect on the deeper trends that affect their lives, beyond what is formally written, or said ;
  • Using the card of your own culture in a completely different environment can also be a powerful way to trigger change by playing a neutral role – or the role of the not culturally-savvy person who can come up with provoking statements…
Culture, it keeps moving on (Credits: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

Culture, it keeps moving on (Credits: Scott Beale / Laughing Squid)

So in brief, culture can be a useful trigger to spawn deep conversations, and is not something any KM initiative should take lightly, but it should also not be considered a factor to wave as an excuse for change – or at least good, serious, deep conversations – not to happen.

So even more briefly : mind your culture, and mind that I don’t mind it… so much…

Related blog posts:

The chemistry of magical facilitation (2b) – And play more with the BOSSY HERALD!


Participants: Who are they? What are they coming for? (credits: ILRI)

Participants: Who are they? What are they coming for? (credits: ILRI)

In the second part of this second chapter on the chemistry of magical (event) facilitation, I will examine the attendance (the participants), the location and the dynamics of the event, the other three crucial elements to make the HERALD play for you, as well as the matter at hand: the content.

Attendance (the participants)

The people that participate to your event are perhaps the most important and delicate part behind the success (or failure) of your entire event because you can prepare and mould every other bit of the event, but not your participants.

So when looking at your attendance, think about: presence, profile and relation (both now and after the event).

Presence of participants
Presence relates both to their physical and to their emotional/intellectual presence.

First of all, you need the physical presence of your participants. How many are planning to come? How many are effectively coming? There are always last minute cancellations or problems… Knowing the approximate number at earliest will help you design the workshop and find most appropriate facilitation approaches, methods and tools – and a venue that can host them all.

Secondly, what really motivates them to attend the event? Did they come on their own volition or were they sent to ‘represent’ their organisation?  Were they sent ‘to be trained’ on something? You need participants that emotionally or intellectually connect with the agenda (or with other participants) so they are interested and willing to learn and do something during the event.

In addition, what might be their ‘secret agenda? Some consultants come to events to sell their services (which is fair enough but it helps knowing this upfront), others come just to find out who is in a network etc. Knowing what your participants are in it for is not easy but it makes your event easier to design and the dynamics you shape straightforward too.

Ideally you end up with active, motivated, curious, knowledgeable, keen on sharing, respectful, humble participants – the recipe for their learning and interaction. They have to play the game of the event and should be happy to do so.

The selection of participants – particularly for training courses – is crucial in this regard. The worst case scenario is if you end up with people sent to the event without any personal interest (n)or prior information about it: you then usually end up with a very difficult event (because participants are not motivated) or a rather ineffective event (because beyond the event, the persons are very likely not to bring anything back in their (net)work). If you can, help select the people that come over; if you can, include an exercise where the profile and the aspirations of your crowd becomes more obvious.

What is the profile of your participants?
Once you have participants, you need to understand who they really are:

  • What country do they come from? What country are they working in? Do you know about their cultural background and are there any specific things you need to keep in mind (in relation to ease or difficulty in public speaking, specific rituals, degree of formality etc.)?
  • Do they feel comfortable with the language(s) used in the event?
  • Are they self-employed? Do they represent an organisation – thus perhaps an organisational mandate?
  • Are they men or women (I recently ended up facilitating a workshop for 45 participants of which only 2 were women!!)?
  • Are they junior or senior? If the latter, can they actually move, see and hear well?
  • What decision-making power do they have? This might affect your potential to draw plans and assign responsibilities, if that is part of the plans.
  • How high are they in their hierarchy and how much should you pay attention to that hierarchy? I, for one, always try to bring down hierarchical barriers in the workshops I facilitate, but sometimes you cannot avoid the cultural sensitivities to prestige and seniority.
  • Crucially: how knowledgeable are they about the topic / focus of the event? How much do they know about it and how much do they have to say something about it because they are ‘experts’ (it always helps to find out who are the resource persons because they might take a lot of time to speak publicly)?
  • Are they introverts or extroverts? One doesn’t facilitate the same way for both groups – as suggested in this blog post.
  • Do they tend to agree or disagree? There are natural ‘devil’s advocates’ which can greatly help but can also disrupt the dynamics you set, recognise it upfront.
  • How big of an ego do they have – who might be the ‘difficult material’ to play with here?


Relations (before, during and after the event)

How much do participants know and engage with each other before, during and after the event?

  • How much do they already know each other?
  • Do they come from the same institutions or different ones? If from the same institution, do they come from the same (e.g. country) office?
  • Are they all working on the same initiative?
  • Do they have similar or different professional functions? In other words is this an audience of peers, which allows you to assume they share some jargon and approaches?
  • Do they all speak the same language?
  • How much of a common culture do they share?
  • Is there a hierarchy among them and should it matter in this workshop?
  • Are there tensions among them?
  • Do they need to develop strong relationships during the event because they will work together afterwards?
  • Can you build engagement before the event e.g. by means of online discussions, a phone conference, reactions to a blog, sharing their personal online profile etc.?
  • What follow-up activities might bring (some of) these people together again?
Once you know who you’re dealing with, it becomes much easier to know which approaches to use or to avoid.
Location (the venue)
Pick your venue carefully (credits: Dave Murr/FlickR)

Pick your venue carefully (credits: Dave Murr/FlickR)

This is an often overlooked aspect and yet it can have so much impact on an event positively (usually without participants noticing) or negatively (usually with participants noticeably complaining about it) .

From the participants’ perspective, it helps a lot when the venue is: quiet; open, with a lot of space (not confined, which drives claustrophobic participants crazy) and can anyway easily host the amount of attending participants; located in a beautiful area, particularly for a retreat where people need to find peace of mind and inspiration; possesses an outdoor space, even a forest or a beach, where you might want to organise some activities too; has enough natural light – or a great artificial lighting system – to not tire them too quickly.

From the facilitator’s perspective, all the above applies, but it’s also important that the venue: is modular, with tables and chairs that can be rearranged at will (unlike conference venues with translation facilities and fixed desks chained to one another – as we know that the administration of chairs matters a lot!), doesn’t have pillars blocking the sight; has walls that can easily be used to pin sheets and cards etc.; has extra space, possibly other rooms for break-out groups or spectrum exercises or energisers thtat require space – outside facilities are even better if the venue (and weather!) allows; has great acoustics (do you need a microphone?); has a good internet connection and all other facilities required: video projector and screen, laser pointer, flipchart and sheets, markers, colour cards, post-it notes, translating equipment if required, conference audio system or mini speakers, microphones etc.

Once that is checked, you can think about the final bit before – and influencing your choice of – facilitation approaches: the dynamics.

Dynamics (the conversation style)

You can decide to stimulate a certain conversation dynamics for your entire workshop (and for each session, related to a facilitation method) so what kind of conversation dynamics do you really want to encourage for your event?

  • Is it an exploratory event, where you want everyone to question openly, blue-sky, brainstorm and unearth new possibilities?
  • Is it an informational event, where you want participants to learn more about a given issue?
  • Is it a vocational event, where you want participants to learn new know-how for their work – i.e. is it a training event?
  • Is it a reactive event, where you want them all to give their opinions about, criticise or question a specific event, a document, a proposal, a law, an idea, a movement etc.?


In addition: Is it a meant to be a productive (co-creating) event, where you hope that participants will come up with a specific output at the end or does the conversation matter more than anything? Do you want participants to argue or to agree with each other? Arguing can really push boundaries further but can also cringe relationships, while agreeing builds relationships but might lead to stagnant thinking. Improvisation theatre’s ‘Yes and approach’ might be a good ‘in-between’ perhaps (see more about ‘Yes And’ in the video at the bottom of part 1 of this blog series)?

Of course, in practice an event tends to borrow to many or all of these dynamics, but overall your event itself probably has a major inclination towards one of these dynamics. Be aware of and perhaps even take control of it as it informs your flow (read more about the flow in part 2 of this blog series). And if you are not sure, just give it a try, go with the flow, let it be. You might fail but no great person in history ever just had successes and it is totally liberating to try out new approaches…

Now on to the matter of the event…

What are we talking about? The content!

What's your content then? Not all of it can be planned like this (Credits: ByronNewMedia/FlickR)

What's your content then? Not all of it can be planned like this (Credits: ByronNewMedia/FlickR)

Finally, assuming you have an overall focus for the event, how are you going to source content matter to chew on. Remember: process and content are the two wings of your event bird. Too much content and not enough process means potentially a terribly ineffective and boring event; but too much process and no content means everyone’s really wasting their time.

Where does content come from?
It can come from previous work (publications, reports, films, previous workshop) and ideally should include different formats (written, video, audio) to cater for different learning styles (see more on this in learning cycles basics and on ‘what is learning’). This is usually a key source for technical events – although again overloading too much content into your event usually means less time and space for interaction and leads to this

But a much more powerful source of content comes from event interactions themselves:

  • From questions that are raised by participants. Questions are particularly powerful as they do not close conversations but open them up to other areas. The art of powerful questions can be a great guide in this.
  • From conversations that take place inside the event – as part of the sessions – and outside (it can be useful to ask participants what their reflections are after a coffee break or at the beginning of the day). One of the key objectives of an interactive event is to precisely elicit that content from on-site conversations;
  • From the process documentation and social reporting taking place and unfolding conversations with the outside world: social reporters tweet or blog about their reflections or observations about the event, intriguing statements or strong quotes etc. They put the word from the event out to a wider arena. Both this content created on the side of the event and their interactions with outsiders can feed the event with interesting questions and comments that provide more, interesting content.


Your content will keep on morphing throughout the event. And it’s probably for the better. So long as you keep your objectives/outcomes in mind. With all these elements in mind, you are now ready to think about which facilitation methods will be useful – which is the object of the next post in this series.

The presentation below, ‘Organizing effective events and conversations‘ summarises a number of the aspects touched upon here.

Related blog posts:

Stop judging and move on, because we all do (follow the seeds of change)


Have you ever found it unfair that people put you in a straitjacket and failed to recognise your complex personality? Have you ever truly tried to change one part of yourself and managed to do so? Do you perhaps value intent more than actual results?

What we see and judge is often just a reflection of someone's changing self (Credits: Steve Patterson)

What we see and judge is often just a reflection of someone's changing self (Credits: Steve Patterson)

This post is about all that. About the fact that everything ‘human’ or social is dynamic. We know it for ourselves, yet, we tend not to acknowledge it for others. We tend to see things in static ways. We tend to judge, to put people in boxes and state that they act and that they are ALWAYS like this or that – as they act or are at the time we are observing. Making dangerous universal rules out of singular events.

Nothing could be more wrong. If we fail to recognise that every human develops actions and engages in social interactions in a non-static way, we do not give ourselves the credit of learning, of intent, of drive and inspiration. We are not robots, we are living, changing beings, following the multi-faceted and not-so-straightforward pathway of our life. We are all in perpetual transition – the ‘life in perpetual beta’ dear to Harold Jarche.

Even our cultures keep changing, so does our language; they reflect new conventions, adapt to novel situations and newly felt needs. That is the beauty of it. And this is also why I personally really don’t feel comfortable with the concept of civilisations when talking about current human groupings (though I have no problem talking about it for past phases of human history in a given context) and why I will never accept racism – we all come from a common cell too and like that cell we keep on changing and recombining ourselves.

Back on our individual behaviours: we may do things wrong, we might make mistakes, we perhaps miss the subtle and smart ways to perform a task or behave in a certain way. But we are trying. We are learning. We are adapting and changing. Even when we are deeply convinced that what we do is right and everyone else is wrong, we are not immune to external stimuli of change – ideas, questions, criticisms, intuitions, emotions… It might even be the moment when we are about to change our state, somewhat following the behaviour rules of a complex adaptive system. So, even in the thickest of our convictions, when we appear as rocks and blocks to others, we are changing. Our intent might guide us from inside, or those stimuli might pull us towards change from outside but, unless we follow a strictly codified dogma that prevents us from questioning parts of our path, we are moving ahead.

We are all following, sowing and reaping the seeds of change, and so are others around us. So let’s stop judging people and putting them in straitjackets on the basis of who they (always) are – because who they are is much influenced by what they do and what they do keeps changing, dynamically.

Related blog posts: