I’ve never understood why human qualities such as the courage to risk yourself, the willingness to be honest and transparent, and the strength to empathetically engage conflict are considered “soft”. Perhaps the hard stuff would be easier if we were practiced at the soft stuff.

This realization that the root of success is to develop a culture that attracts people that are inspired and committed to the mission and to empower and trust the ecosystem was not instinctual to me. You could say I’m more left brain than right. I’ve historically trusted analytics and logic over intuition and emotion. I’m an MBA with a Finance undergraduate degree – I can’t help it!

However, my real world experience over the last couple of decades is consistent with the 80/20 Pareto principle – we spend (generously) 20% of our time on the things that really matter, that have the biggest impact. We completely under serve designing and iterating the cultural elements that impact how work gets done – defining purpose, establishing meaningful success measures, distributing power, building communication channels, changing the nature of meetings, surfacing and dealing with tensions, and even down to how office space is designed and how teams collaborate.

On the other hand, we spend an inordinate amount of time building strategies, project plans, process flows, drafting policies and compensation structures, creating detailed budgets, rationalizing historical data, creating presentations, and sitting in meetings that create no value and become self-perpetuating – you know the drill. Yes, we need to do all of this to some extent. My bigger point is not how much time we waste but how little time we allocate to the things that really matter.

My belief is because the “soft” stuff is scary and stretches us out of our comfort zone we generally just avoid it. Have you tried this lately:

  • Say “no” to your boss.
  • Say “I don’t know” in front of your peers.
  • Allow your team to make the final decision.

These things challenge us but those willing to be uncomfortable are generally rewarded with the outcomes that are generated. People crave authenticity. The more your culture promotes tough conversations the more inviting an uncomfortable moment becomes – it signals the discovery of truth.

Rather than creating policies to enforce mandatory participation in yoga classes and meditation training, I will offer more tangible (left brain) ideas to consider. Systems thinking is a great framework to put this in context. If you rise above the day-to-day and look at how the entire system operates – how the component parts are impacted by the relationships with each other and with other systems – you start to appreciate the impact of culture.

I believe you can start to change the culture by changing some of the core habits or practices of the system, including:

  • Decision making – High performing teams consist of individuals that are purpose-driven and crave the autonomy to apply their creativity and experience in the pursuit of meaningful outcomes. Nothing crushes this entrepreneurial spirit more than a command and control hierarchy. Design a system that allows individuals and teams to solve issues and cut through bureaucracy.
  • Transparency – A byproduct of trust, organizations that are transparent are generally inviting a dialogue among the stakeholders in pursuit of achieving the mission. An open sharing of strategy, financials, and customer relationships – the good and the bad – galvanizes people and fosters a community of participation. Going further, enterprise transparency with respect to defined roles and accountabilities reduces informal office politics.
  • Meetings – I saw a quote recently about never inviting someone to a meeting that enjoys meetings. I get that meetings are needed but they generally should be more crisp with fewer numbers of attendees and designed for action. I once worked in an organization where only customer meetings were allowed between 8 and 5. If you wanted to have an internal meeting you had to schedule it before or after “customer time”. That was extreme but I’ve learned to appreciate it over time.

Let’s continue to explore these concepts in future posts. I’d love to shatter the myth about “soft” things being secondary and move past the terminology itself. Let’s talk about what matters – or should I just go sip green tea and burn incense?