Creating culture is like gardening

In my work with business and team leaders, the question of ‘culture’ invariably comes up…

“Jeff, it sounds like what you’re really talking about is creating a specific culture.”

To that I often respond that culture isn’t something that a leader creates – culture belongs to your people. Your role as a leader is to be a gardener. You shape the environment where a certain type of culture might grow.

A member of my Akimbo community, Mary Ellen Bratu, recently shared a watercolour she’d painted and the gardening story that inspired it.

Reprinted by permission of Mary Ellen Bratu


Mary Ellen’s story inspired me to expand on this idea of ‘cultural gardening’.

Culture isn’t an organisational attribute – it’s a people thing

We’ve been taught to believe that a leader establishes the culture. Or that a ‘business’ has a certain culture. The extension of this belief is that culture can somehow be mandated or communicated or specified like a new work procedure. And organisational leaders are the authors of these cultural algorithms that make the workforce respond according to a set queues or pithy little slogans.

But culture isn’t an organisational attribute that can be declared or dictated – it’s a people thing.

It’s the set of shared beliefs, behaviours and values adopted by a group of human beings in response to their surroundings. It’s the common ground that a group of individuals establishes in the way that they view and interact with each other (and the people around them) under the influence of the environment they share.

In short, a business doesn’t have a culture and a business leader doesn’t set a culture. Organisations, and the leaders within them, create the environment where a culture establishes itself and grows.

This happens in any group where people experience the same environmental influences[1]. It happens in a senior management team, a department or a project team. A culture forms whether its leaders are intentional about creating that environment or not.

Intentionally creating the environment where a specific culture grows is like gardening

In our metaphorical cultural garden, people respond positively to being nurtured and negatively to being neglected. So, business and team leaders need to consistently and persistently nurture their organisational environment – their garden – if they hope to shape a culture.

It begins with where you plant your garden. You select, condition and fertilise the soil to form a solid foundation – because it determines the strength of your cultural roots. Find a position where it receives plenty of light but isn’t constantly exposed to the harsh sun.

You should select the seeds that have the best chance of producing the fruit that you hope for. And you need to plant them so that each variety compliments those around them – making your garden more abundant that sum of each individual plants (carrots love tomatoes!).

Then, if you ensure that what you’ve planted has the right temperature and moisture, it will begin to sprout.

Weeds suck the nutrients from the soil and have each individual concerning itself with its own survival. Parasites degrade or spoil the fruit. So, consistently tending your garden – pulling out the weeds and eliminating the parasites – will allow it to grow tall and produce in abundance. If the gods are on your side[2], it will bear magnificent fruit.

What’s more, a flourishing garden will flower and seed…and those seeds will create new growth. The roots of your earliest plantings will improve the structure of the soil. The unconsumed fruits of early seasons will create fertiliser for even stronger growth as the seasons progress.

Become a cultural gardener

So, don’t focus on designing or communicating or instilling a culture.

Tend to your cultural gardening…

Create an organic, fertile foundation that will allow your people to grow. A place where they feel they can put down roots, where it is psychologically safe to stand tall and encourages them to engage with the diversity that surrounds them.

As a leader, you need to nurture that environment. Look for ways to feed the organisation’s desire to grow and evolve. Be on the lookout for pests that will erode the environment or infect the positive cultural health of the business. Ensure you support those that have big ideas or bold vision so that they’re given a chance to come to fruition.

Most of all, be consistent and persistent. As much time and effort as it takes to create your cultural garden, it takes but a small amount of neglect to have all that good work undone. The setbacks will inevitably come, but on the other side of them you will know more about what you can do to help your culture grow stronger.

Become a good cultural gardener and your people – and the organisation that they enable – will be on their way to towering greatness.

[1] Here ‘environmental influences’ doesn’t merely refer to the physical environment. It includes the social, psychological and incentivisation environment as well.

[2] Any gardener will tell you that diligence and hard work helps you make your own luck, but a little divine intervention sure helps.

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