Posts Tagged ‘organizational culture’

Three ways to a better culture & bottom line (Audio)

Unengaged employees cost time and money. So why do we have molasses-like reflexes when it comes to cultivating a positive culture in the organizations we lead?

Billions of dollars are lost every year by corporations through turnover as well as legitimate and non-legitimate sick days. Tens of thousands are lost in productivity and outcomes within a single position if it turns over or if the employee is unengaged in your nonprofit.

Michael Stallard, author of Fired Up or Burned Out, says there are many easy ways you can cultivate what he calls a “connection culture” in your workplace. CausePlanet hosted a live interview with Stallard last week and one of the questions from the attendees generated a response that centered on three steps toward a great culture (podcast).

CausePlanet members: You can play back the full interview with Stallard if you missed the live session last week. Don’t forget to register for our next interview with William Mott, author of The Board Game: A Story of Hope and Inspiration for CEOs and Governing Boards.

Not a member yet? Find out more about how you can download this book summary and other titles as well as attend or play back regular live author interviews.

by Denise McMahan

See also:

Links provided by Stallard during the interview:

Stallard mentioned in the interview:,, Indiana University Center of Philanthropy studies that assert donors stop giving due to a lack of connections: “Indiana Gives 2008” and “The Local Connection” in “Coming to the Table,” “Great Leaders Connect” (article about Admiral Clark), and the National Geographic video on stress entitled “Stress: Portrait of a Killer.”

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Weathering the economic storm: how to boost morale

I was an enthusiastic 21-year-old recent college graduate when I arrived for my first day of work at Texas Instruments in 1981. Ready to take on the business world, what I encountered was an office of stressed-out coworkers. The day before, the company had announced its largest layoff in history. The mood at the firm made me wonder if I had just bought myself a seat on the Titanic. Since then I’ve lived through many a recession, restructuring and downsizing and I’ve learned how to cope with the normal feelings that arise in times of uncertainty.
Emotional responses
When we face adversity and colleagues lose their jobs, it is natural for us to fear for our own. Triggered are a range of emotions, including anxiety, anger, sadness and even grief. These emotions are grounded in our needs for respect, recognition and a sense of belonging at work. Meeting these needs is critical to restoring normal emotions.
Focus on control
If office morale is sinking due to the fear of potential job cutbacks, I recommend people concentrate on two areas. First, focus on what you control, that is, your efforts in carrying out your own job responsibilities. When you do this, your colleagues will see you in a more favorable light. If you mope around and complain, however, it looks immature and selfish. Now is not the time to drop the ball. If the team has been weakened, everyone needs to step up during this time of adjustment.
Connect with others
The worst thing for people going through a time of uncertainty is to feel alone. When we feel alone, we tend to become more pessimistic and may overreact. The office mood will sink even further if everyone tries to “suck it up” on his/her own. When people worry about losing their jobs or get stuck in their grief over the loss of their former colleagues, the level of the stress-related hormones soars in their bodies. A whole host of negative physical and mental effects arise when stress hormones remain high. When people feel connected relationally, however, and receive encouragement from others, their stress hormone levels fall. The connection helps them feel better and the clouds of gloom begin to clear. The second response I recommend, then, is to intentionally reach out to “connect and encourage” your colleagues.
Connecting with coworkers may include taking them out for a meal or coffee or out for a walk. As important as the time and attention is the opportunity to get them to talk about how they’re feeling. Listen closely and try hard to empathize. Our brains are equipped with mirror neurons that allow us to feel what others are feeling. When you feel someone’s negative emotions, it diminishes the pain he or she feels. When you feel someone’s positive emotions, it enhances the joy he or she feels. Also, look for ways to encourage coworkers by complimenting them on their strengths and assuring them they will be fine. Because your coworkers will feel respected by you and recognized for what they do well, it will boost their sense of belonging to the group. And when you connect with and encourage others, you will find you feel better too.
Know and do
Let me forewarn you not to dismiss these recommendations because they sound simplistic. A problem in most organizations today is that people suffer from a knowing-doing gap. They know what needs to be done and yet fail to do it because it requires the expenditure of additional energy until that behavior becomes hardwired into the subconscious parts of their brains. Once they get used to the new behaviors and they are hardwired, they become natural and require less energy and intentional effort.
Create a checklist
To begin, over the next two weeks start every day by creating a checklist of what you have to get done that day to do your job well and include at least one action you are going to take to connect with and encourage a coworker. At the end of each day, review the checklist to see what you accomplished.
You can make a difference and lift the spirits of your coworkers by getting your work done well and taking the initiative to connect and encourage the people around you. If you do this, your team will weather this storm, and the support and encouragement you show one another will make you better equipped for a bright future.

See also:

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work

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Create happiness in your organization through failure, change and culture

Meet with funders, manage staff, create strong, connected relationships with board members and now you want me to embrace happiness at work? Yes, because we have it backwards. According to Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology that Fuel Success and Performance at Work, happiness is the precursor to success and essential to productivity.

This is contrary to conventional thinking, but Achor’s extensive research has proven it to be true under no uncertain terms. It is too difficult for unhappy employees to find motivation within themselves that doesn’t exist. So, who has greater potential for the happiness advantage than the nonprofit sector? We are under-resourced and overextended yet have the constant presence of a higher calling from which we can draw happiness.

Developing happiness at work

The CausePlanet team invited me to weigh in on the Page to Practicebook summary of Achor’s book, which gives some compelling rationale and practices for developing the ability to be happy. The author provides data supporting ways individuals can acquire happiness at work. Individuals taking on these habits is part of the equation, while the other part involves workplaces creating happiness practices. As Shawn Achor suggests, organizations have a role to play, especially human resource departments and managers.

Since the early 1990s research and writing on positive psychology has emerged. The idea behind this theory is that like leadership, happiness can be developed. Nonprofit organizations, even as overtaxed as the industry is, can implement approaches that help develop organizational happiness.

Learning from failures and risk taking

One of the practices suggested by Achor is to learn from failures. Human resource practices that encourage risk taking are key to not only endorsing failures, but also reinforcing good things can come from them. In one nonprofit organization, clients served were also those who received government funding. One day a compassionate receptionist suggested maybe some clients could afford to pay some amount, and the organization should strive to increase the client base. There was hesitation among the board and senior leadership that perhaps there weren’t enough staff and other resources to accommodate this idea, but a pilot plan was implemented and now the organization is funded with private pay clients who contribute 30% of the revenue generated. See an excellent related article featuring Jason Saul on tapping often undiscovered donors called “Point of Impact” by Paul Lagasse in Advancing Philanthropy. Also see the Page to Practicebook summary of Saul’s book The End of Fundraising: Raise More Money by Selling your Impact. Organizations that have some methods to encourage ideas and processes for implementing those ideas support the movement toward happiness by giving employees the chance to create and strive.

Change management

Change management is another area human resources can tap to create an environment of happiness. Change management involves creating communication systems that explain the reasons for change as well as recognizing change affects employees in very different ways. Employee sessions to discuss the change and the expected benefits of change can help staff feel more in control of their tasks. Achor suggests creative recognition approaches are part of the happiness culture. One nonprofit organization built in milestones on a large technology conversion. Those milestones meant taking the time to stop and communicate where in the conversion process they were and to give recognition to the staff member who had adapted the new technology in the most creative way.


Human resources is usually the gatekeeper of culture. Creating culture that encourages happiness practices can be found in the many nonprofits that are actively supporting wellness programs. One nonprofit committed to a Wednesday walk that invited everyone to walk, rain or shine, a couple of miles at lunch. Over the last several years, the walk has become a tradition among staff and a casual forum for bouncing ideas off colleagues or talking about issues outside the confines of the work walls. Another organization has a certified yoga teacher on staff. That staff member leads her coworkers in twice-weekly yoga classes.

Shawn Achor suggests we don’t become happy when we are successful, but happiness is the step toward success. Likewise, none of these suggested human resource activities are end goals: they’re just stops along the way to celebrate our work and the contributions those in the sector make each day.

See also:

Fired Up or Burned Out

Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide

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Why leaders need to create connected cultures

Connection is “a bond among a group of people based on shared identity, empathy and understanding that moves self-centered people toward group-centered membership.” Nothing boosts the engagement of a social sector organization’s beneficiaries, employees, donors and volunteers like connection.

Connection is a universal phenomenon, though different cultures refer to connection using different words and phrases. The French phrase “esprit de corps,” which literally means “the spirit of the body,” describes a connection among people. The Japanese call connection “Ittaikan,” which means “to feel as one body of people.” In Kanji, it is  “一体感” (一 = one, 体  = body, 感 = sense or feeling of). Cohesion, unity, social capital and attachment are also ways to describe connection. It’s interesting to note the word “corporation” is based on the Latin root word “corpus,” which means “body.” The definition of corporation is “a group of people combined into one body.”

Our leadership training and coaching firm, E Pluribus Partners, has spoken, taught and consulted with all sorts of organizations, including Greenwich (Connecticut) High School, Texas Christian University (TCU), the NASA Johnson Space Center, the M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, Google, Scotiabank (Canada) and ITV (London). Each of these organizations benefits from developing a “connection culture,” where people feel connected to their organization’s mission, values, reputation, supervisors, colleagues and day-to-day work responsibilities. When people feel connected to their organization, they give their best efforts, align their behavior with organizational goals, share information and insights with decision makers even when it may dangerous to do so, and participate in the organization’s marketplace of ideas that feeds innovation and creativity.

There are three elements in a “connection culture”: vision, value and voice.


Vision exists when everyone in the organization is motivated by the mission, united by the values and proud of the reputation. Social sector organizations can boost the element of vision in their cultures by having people who benefit from their organization’s work tell their stories to remind everyone he/she serves a cause greater than self. Also, I recommend people get together and share stories about how they live out their values, such as excellence, integrity, love of people, kindness, etc.


Value exists when all in the organization understand the needs of people, appreciate their unique positive contributions and help them achieve their potential. Value is the heart of a “connection culture.” I recommend organizations give employees permission to take breaks and go to lunch together so they can get to know one another as human beings. This develops intimacy, an essential element of trust. Not tolerating condescending, patronizing or passive aggressive behavior is also important to respect the dignity of all people. Supervisors can boost the element of value in a culture by getting to know the people they are responsible for leading, including their personal and career hopes and dreams, and helping them achieve those aspirations.


Voice exists when everyone in an organization seeks the ideas and opinions of others, shares his/her opinions honestly and safeguards relational connections. Keeping people in the loop and then seeking and considering their ideas and opinions on matters that are important to them help engage people. Leaders who have humility do this. Wise leaders like Ed Catmull, CEO of Pixar, are intentional about it. Pixar’s directors get together regularly to help each other produce the best films possible. Pixar director Brad Bird and his producer John Walker set up a meeting once a week with their team of 200 plus people working on a film to keep them in the loop. Brad and John wander the halls of Pixar, connecting with the people they lead, and they are much beloved for their caring personalities and commitment to producing films the team and Pixar family will be proud to have created. Brad and John’s first film at Pixar was The Incredibles, a massive hit worldwide.

Just connect

Research shows people who experience an abundance of connection in their lives are more energetic, more creative and better at solving problems. They also live longer, according to a recent 20-year study of workplaces. The bottom line is that connection = productivity and life, whereas disconnection = dysfunction and death.

If leaders will be intentional about developing work cultures with vision, value and voice, they will see their colleagues and the organization as a whole flourish. Connected people are happy people. That’s why it’s wise to just connect.

See also:

Fired Up or Burned Out

Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide

Winning with a Culture of Recognition

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A culture of giving

Dylan Taylor showed up at my office on the Friday before Christmas with a nicely wrapped gift that, frankly, blew me away–all the baseball cards for the 1977 New York Yankees, matted and framed with a personalized plaque that said, “To the greatest Yankee fan. Love, your friend, Dylan.”

Dylan and I met about a year ago when he hired me to speak at the national sales conference for Colliers International.  We soon learned that our children attended the same school in Denver, and we’ve since become close friends on our way to the Fifth Floor.

Dylan, the CEO for Colliers’ U.S. division, had read my book and particularly liked what I wrote about building “Fifth Floor All-Star Teams.” That’s where he learned of my love for the Yankees and, in particular, the 1977 world championship team.

In the time I’ve known Dylan, he’s been nothing but a “giver–the type of person you want in your business, on your team, in your life. And that makes him a perfect fit at Colliers, a leader in the global real estate services industry.

Colliers considers “community” a core value, but it’s not just a word they frame somewhere in the corporate offices. They live it out. In fact, they’re living it out in a way that can involve me, you and tens of thousands of other people.

On Feb. 22, Colliers is launching “Everyone Gives”–an eight-day, online giving campaign that, frankly, will change the world. Doug Frye, the international CEO, came up with the idea while thinking about how Colliers could live out its commitment to community in an innovative way that could multiply beyond what any one person or office could do. The plan he came up with is simple but powerful: You give $5 to the charity of your choice and ask at least two friends to give $5 to the charity of their choice. Each person who gives asks at least two more people to give and they, in turn, ask two more people.

Colliers has 15,000 employees in 61 countries, so the potential of this fundraiser is off the charts. Plus, you and I can join in by going to and by promoting the event on our blogs and through our social networks. We all can give. We all can ask others to give. And we all can watch the “giving tree” online as it expands its branches to include thousands and thousands of givers who will impact millions of people in need.

This is a way Colliers’ employees can think differently about what it means to participate in community. It also opens the doors for discussions with their clients and partners that go well beyond the transactional. It helps them build relationships that, in turn, help both their communities and their business.

I knew Colliers was a great company that valued relationships, but Dylan and Doug showed me how that value has become so deeply ingrained in the corporate culture. With Dylan, it’s been through our personal relationship. I’ve seen him live the value in dozens of ways. With Doug, it was by watching him give his presentation to his company’s top 1,200 performers last September in Chicago. He was on stage just before I delivered the closing keynote, and he didn’t talk about mergers or corporate goals or strategies for growing the business. He spent his entire time talking about Everyone Gives. He talked with tremendous passion about how Colliers was going to change the world–$5 at a time.

That doesn’t mean he doesn’t care about business strategies and tactics. It means he knows they don’t operate in a vacuum. He showed his commitment to helping others isn’t lip service, and that’s why others follow his lead. I know I am. I hope you will, too.

See also:

It’s Not Just Who You Know: Transform Your Life (and Your Organization) by Turning Colleagues and Contacts into Lasting, Genuine Relationships

The Connection Culture: A New Source of Competitive Advantage

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

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Overcome employee discontent to gain competitive advantage


For the second year in a row, 84 percent of American workers intend to actively look for a new job, according to new research by Right Management. Workplace incivility is also on the rise.  According to research presented at the 2011 American Psychological Association annual meeting, up to 80 percent of workers have experienced incivility.   Workers are struggling and have been for some time.  In 2009, The Conference Board published a report with the subtitle “America’s Unhappy Workers.”   The report concluded that employee satisfaction was at its lowest point since The Conference Board began surveying it more than 20 years ago.

The good news is that is doesn’t have to be this way. Leaders can develop workplace cultures that engage people. There are three types of workplace cultures: Dog-Eat-Dog Cultures, Indifferent Cultures (cultures that are indifferent to people and treat them as human doings), and “Connection Cultures” where people feel connected to their organization’s identity (i.e. mission, values and reputation), where they feel connected to their colleagues and supervisor, and where they feel connected to their role in the organization (because it fits their strengths and provides the right degree of challenge).

Connection is the force that transforms a dog-eat-dog culture into a sled dog team that pulls together. Without going too far into the psychology of connection, let me just summarize by saying simply that we are humans, not machines. We have emotions. We have hopes and dreams. We have a conscience. We have deeply felt human needs to be respected, to be recognized for our talents, to belong, to have autonomy or control over our work, to experience personal growth, and to do work that we feel is worthwhile in a way that we feel is ethical. When we work in an environment that recognizes these realities of our human nature, we thrive. We feel more energetic, more optimistic, and more fully alive. When we work in an environment that fails to recognize this, it is damaging to our mental and physical health.

And when you think about it, that makes sense. Let’s consider how this plays out in the workplace. When we first meet people, we expect them to respect us. If they look down on us, if they are uncivil or condescending, we get upset. In time, as our colleagues get to know us, we expect them to appreciate or recognize us for our talents and contributions. That really makes us feel good. Later on, we begin to expect that we will be treated and thought of as an integral part of the community.

Our connection to the group is further strengthened when we feel we have control over our work. Connection is diminished when we feel we are being micro-managed or over-controlled by others. If we are over-controlled, it sends the message that we are being treated like children or incompetents, and it’s a sign that we are not trusted or respected.

Connection is also enhanced when we experience personal growth. In other words: when our role, our work in the group, is a good fit with our skills, providing enough challenge to make us feel good when we rise to meet that challenge (but not so much challenge that we become totally stressed out). Finally, it motivates us to know our work is worthwhile in some way and to be around other people who share our belief that our work is important. To the extent that these human needs of respect, recognition, belonging, autonomy, personal growth and meaning are met, we feel connected to the group. When they are not met, we feel less connected, or even disconnected.

The bottom line is that connection plays a critical part in improving individual performance. People who are more connected with others fare better in life than those who are less connected. Connection, because it meets our human needs, makes people more trusting, more cooperative, more empathetic, more enthusiastic, more optimistic, more energetic, more creative and better problem solvers. It creates the type of environment in which people want to help their colleagues. They are more open to share information that helps decision makers become better-informed. The openness that emerges in a trusting and cooperative environment creates a robust marketplace of ideas that stimulates innovation. Connection among people improves performance in an organization and creates a new source of competitive advantage.

See also:

The Connection Culture

Fired Up or Burned Out

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The greener grass in front of me


Recently, human resource newsletters and blogs have focused again on the importance of employee retention. Even with chronically high unemployment, there is recognition amongst employers and employees that employee flight may be imminent. New studies by the Hay Group and the Corporate Leadership Council suggest that employees are getting frustrated with their current employers.

Employees feel overworked, underpaid and undervalued. As a result, as many as six in 10 employees are looking to exit, according to the Hay Group. Some 85 percent of those not looking remain with their current employer while the job market is so weak, but plan to start looking the minute unemployment lessens its grip. Some nonprofits are already feeling the pinch as key staff such as executive directors and development staff are leaving, and finding good employees is not easy despite the number of resumes that come in for each job.

So with the buzz of employees’ dissatisfaction and employers’ awareness that holding on to great employees is a goal now and beyond, one would think there is consensus among human resource professionals about what helps retention. Some professionals say it is systems like pay and benefits that make a difference. Some argue that the intrinsic reward of a meaningful job makes the difference. This argument is especially prevalent in nonprofit organizations where employees are usually vision- and mission-driven. Some suggest that some turnover is good and that retention is not always the goal.

Regardless of the reason for employee unhappiness, managers can attempt to reengage employees. If 85% of the workforce is just waiting to leave, can managers prevent this exodus? A good conversation to initiate with employees includes, “What will keep you?” “What can I as an employer help you do differently?” Even, just saying, “I wouldn’t want to lose your skills and talents,” can mean a lot to employees. These suggestions can be found in most publications on retaining and engaging employees. The reminder to do these items can’t be made enough. However, maybe the conversation needs to go deeper. Work life may not get better in this generation. Unemployment, with the stress it creates for those with and without jobs, is not easy to solve.

Technology will continue to blur the lines between work time and personal time. So, perhaps the conversation should turn to what everyone can do to find his/her own happiness. Recently, Mayo Clinic released an article suggesting that we all can choose our own contentment. Happiness researchers have found that only 10 percent or so of the variation in people’s reports of happiness can be explained by differences in their circumstances. The bulk of what determines happiness is our personality, as well as our thoughts and behaviors. So, the thought is that we can learn to behave as though we are happy. The steps that each of us can take to be happier include spending time with family and friends, expressing gratitude, cultivating optimism, finding a sense of purpose and living in the moment.

What a difference it might make if we as employees decided to take the steps above. Employees are working more hours, especially in nonprofits, trying to do more with less. This makes spending time with friends and family harder to do. But, what if each time we carved an afternoon with a friend or had a meaningful exchange with a family member, we stopped and felt thankful for that moment? What if in that moment, we believed there would be more moments like that in our lives? No one wants to be told to feel grateful to have work, but what if in the day when something goes well, an unexpected donation comes in, a client is well served or a shared laugh is acknowledged? What would happen to our attitude? No one alone can change what is difficult right now, yet we can make the choice to be content with what we have.

Were we to do this, we could each spend time on what is valuable and not wallow in all that is hard. That might change the conversation on employee retention.

See also:

The Happiness Advantage: The Seven Principles of Positive Psychology That Fuel Success and Performance at Work

Fired Up or Burned Out: How to Reignite Your Team’s Passion, Creativity and Productivity

Nine Minutes on Monday

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Perfect cultures and paired cultures

“There is no ‘perfect culture’ that all nonprofits should try to achieve. Each organization’s culture must be understood on its own terms, including its strengths and challenges. What is effective for each organization will be unique to its culture.”

This quote was pulled from our Page to Practice feature this month, The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide: Revealing Hidden Truths that Impact Performance by Paige Teegarden, Denice Hinden and Paul Sturm.

Here’s what the authors had to say when asked about “perfect cultures:”

CausePlanet: Most of us follow or model best practices when we want to improve something. If there is no “perfect culture,” how do managers go about improving it?

Authors: Every organization’s culture is unique, made from its own history and the groups of people who have been at the heart of the organization. Our research tells us this work is less about ‘improving’ culture than about honoring the culture that ‘is’ by revealing it, so that culture informs key decisions made by the organization’s leadership. Although there are likely to be elements of an organization’s culture that are unhealthy or unintentionally hinder the organization’s work, the culture in and of itself is not something that can be improved in the literal sense. However, understanding the unique elements of an organization’s culture – both positive and negative – can help leaders develop more effective strategies to improve systems, procedures, hiring practices, working environment, etc. in ways that enable the organization to more effectively make its intended difference.

When you consider that the U.S. nonprofit sector represents nearly two million organizations and employs nearly eleven million people, the social sector plays a critical role in America’s cultural fabric. Because nonprofits have such a large part to play in the economy, there has been a larger push from funders and community volunteers to better understand the impact nonprofits are making. Culture has become part of this sectorwide conversation.

Although culture is an ever-present term used throughout leadership and management literature and commonly identified as responsible for powerful outcomes, it’s rarely defined and specifically analyzed. The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide provides a simple process for gleaning organizational truths about culture that helps you define your culture and develop a summary statement with which you can guide all your important management decisions.

This week at CausePlanet, Vance Yoshida of La Piana Consulting wrote about why nonprofit should explore sharing administrative services, which in many cases can be the beginning of more formalized alliances or collaborations. Consequently, culture becomes a consideration. In our interview with the Culture Guide authors, we also asked:

CausePlanet: Talk to us about culture and merger considerations. How much are cultural differences a sticking point when examining two organizations as potential partners?

Authors: We think it’s critical for organizations to understand their unique cultures before consummating a merger. Remember AOL/Time Warner? Virtually every analysis written about the merger’s failure mentioned the merged organization’s inability to meld the two original organizational cultures. We believe this is no different for nonprofit organizations. Undertaking a merger is challenging under the best of circumstances. Attempting to merge two organizations with conscious knowledge of the different organizational cultures increases the potential for everyone involved to make better judgments about what will facilitate a successful merger and create a cohesive, integrated organization.

We also recommend that both organizations separately undertake the ROC process, and then come together to talk about areas where the cultures overlap or are complementary – as well as areas where there are likely to be problems. Then delve into areas of potential conflict, seeking to understand how deeply held these elements of culture are, and what aspects of organizational process and structure reinforce them. With this information, the merger team (representatives from both organizations) can have frank and open discussions about whether or not the two organizational cultures can be integrated over time or not. If the answer is ‘not,’ then depending on the circumstances and reason for merger discussions, one organization may simply agree to its programs being spun off, without it being a true merger.

Whether you are seeking “to perfect” your individual workplace culture or make two cultures compatible, the authors argue that defining it to begin with is a critical step in improving every aspect of your management decisions—be they hiring, board training, strategy development or alliances.

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Can you change your culture?

The value of knowing your organizational culture cannot be overstated when you realize the impact it has on everyday management decisions, as well as important benchmarks such as executive transitions, restructuring, organizational alignment and mergers. By choosing to reveal your organization’s culture, the authors of our current feature, The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide, say you will be better able to orient new staff and board members, find better leadership matches, better understand and define your theory of change, develop more effective strategies, market and communicate more effectively and make successful choices about restructuring or mergers. In other words, culture awareness increases your effectiveness in almost every leadership choice you make.

The following is an excerpt from our Page to Practice feature of The Nonprofit Organizational Culture Guide: Revealing the Hidden Truths that Impact Performance by Paige Hull Teegarden, Denice Rothman Hinden and Paul Sturm. In this excerpt, the authors explain how you can reveal hidden truths about your nonprofit by exploring its stories. These stories in return will shed important light on how your organization operates, what its norms are and how to mobilize change. We also asked about the biggest mistake nonprofits make when trying to change culture.

Learning through stories

Three kinds of stories are critical sources of information about organizational culture, according to the authors: the creation story, the survival stories and the heroic or successful staff stories. The authors report that these stories are usually filled with images, values and assumptions, and characters who acted on these values and assumptions. They found analyzing these stories to be the most powerful way to surface the “hidden truths” about organizational culture.


The “creation story” is a “thick” or richly described telling of who formed the organization and why, say the authors. The creation story includes information about what the founders hoped to accomplish, who founded it, how they founded it and information about the broader environment. The story reveals evidence of important solutions to problems and uncertainties, which becomes the core belief system and assumptions surrounding the organization.

Survival stories are also thick narratives that focus on life-threatening challenges that the organization has successfully conquered. These are not stories about securing a grant. When you hear a survival story, you should be able to identify the seriousness of the threat and what the organization did to navigate the threat. Because the story is about “life and death,” the story should endure.

Hero or heroine stories have magical and mythical qualities where the central figure becomes larger than life. In this case, you are looking for stories about an uber successful staff person that inspires retelling. Sometimes these stories are

portrayed in the setting of “the way things used to be,” which conveys norms about the organization. These are often internal stories.

CausePlanet: What is the biggest mistake that organizations make when trying to change their culture?

Authors: The mistake is believing that organizational culture can be changed in a wholesale way. Culture is an organization’s DNA. It’s always present – seen or unseen, spoken or silent, explicit or implicit. An organization’s culture can certainly evolve or shift as its internal or external environment shifts. However, attempting to ‘change’ organizational culture is less likely to succeed. This is why we stress the importance of revealing and understanding organizational culture so that it becomes an ally in structuring shifts that enhance organizational effectiveness. Swimming with the current is always easier.

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Have the holidays got you fired up or burned out?

“Fired Up or Burned Out” is a great read this time of year because Michael Lee Stallard’s book discusses how to reignite your team’s passion, creativity and productivity.  Stallard feels that emotional connection is important for a team to the extent that he explains how to build a “connection culture.” I like this book in December because it’s a great foundation for New Year’s resolutions and new positive patterns–especially in the workplace. You can book shop till you drop at the NEW CausePlanet Store!

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