Photo caption: Considering the "Wilt, Wilt" Story Board at the U.S. Summer Conference of the Center for Innovative Cultures.
I have never worked at Amazon so I cannot speak to the veracity of the recent New York Times article. But, shockingly, thanks to a short exercise, I was able to get a feel for the culture described in the article. What is fundamental to high-performing organizational culture? Is it the ping pong table and the keg of beer in the break room? Is it the M and M's in every conference room? If the games and beer and candy are really signs and symbols that connect to the foundational values of the organization, than yes, they may be representative of something deeper and profoundly important to the culture of the organization. If not, they are just window dressing.
And yet, I felt, yes, FELT the power of workplace signs and symbols, and pictures and stories as emotionally compelling, even in what I initially considered to be a somewhat trivial activity. Generally, I consider myself very able to compartmentalize and neutralize emotional responses, especially when it comes to work-life, where I was socialized to separate professional from personal. So I was pretty surprised at my reaction during a concise exercise at the U.S. Summer Conference of the Center for Innovative Cultures at Westminster College in Park City, UT, August 12-14, 2015.
About 30 of us were separated into four groups and given the task to storyboard one of four scenarios. What does it look like to work in an organization where the organization thrives AND the individual wilts? Where the organization wilts AND the individual thrives? Where the organization wilts AND the individual wilts? And most importantly, where the organization thrives AND the individual thrives?
I was in the organization wilts AND individual wilts group. There were eight of us from business, non-profits, academia, and thought-leadership. We checked in with each other several times about the rules of the exercise and followed them to a T. We were to choose five of about 25 pictures to construct our story. And our story was dismal, depressing. It began with an organization where everyone was working at 150% capacity, "Bureaucracy, Inc." as one group member characterized it, with general distrust and disconnected leaders. The picture we chose was of an obscenely overloaded rikshaw, 150% or more, risky, with a driver whose face was sweating, even as it showed purpose and fear. Then a disruption, from either within or without, that no one saw nor was ready to respond to - in this case a tornado. Employees reacted by focusing on themselves, amplifying the culture of "me" and reproducing a cycle of fear, uncertainty and doubt, depicted by a man holding his head in his hands, fingers outstretched over his eyes. And ultimately an end that left both the organization and the individuals without nourishment, represented by a desert with no life and no plants, just cracked dry earth. Someone in the group asked us all, "How do you feel?" We responded, "Despondent, tired, bleak, dark, and beaten." Our body language gave us away as well. We were quiet, restless, looking around but not talking much, stuck in our seats, and in our own thoughts.
What a contrast to the group that was assigned to tell a story about an organization that thrives, where the individuals in the organization also thrive. They were having a PARTY. Vibrant, fun, smiling, thinking out of the box. They didn't follow the exercise rules. They made their own rules and used the pictures any way they wanted. They celebrated success and also failure. They were "mission driven and engaged as a network as equals," interconnected in relationship. Their story was not what was most outstanding. It was their attitude that I most noticed. And frankly, I was jealous. I wanted to be in their group. To me they represented a high-performing organizational culture.
During the rest of the conference Michael Pacanowsky led us in discussions and exercises, as we considered the specific components of "Thrive/Thrive" or high-performing organizational culture, drawing from models presented by Deborah Ancona of MIT and Sonja Sackmann of The Universität der Bundeswehr München.
If you live the life of "Wilt, Wilt" day after day, week after week, what are the emotional and physiological impacts? And to have the experience of working in an organization that is "Thrive, Thrive?" It doesn't mean that every day is a party. There are challenges and obstacles internally and externally, and they are sometimes met, exceeded, skirted around and botched. I've had the privilege to work in an organization of "Thrive, Thrive" with a diversity of people - intense, easy going, introverted, extroverted, but all steeped in the values and the goals of the organization, in learning for their own growth as well as in service to the organization, and in feeling (there's that word again) that management valued them, and encouraged and implemented their input and innovative ideas. And this is right in line with the research on thriving and mindset in organizations. It is not a coincidence that this also connects exactly to today's discussions of growth mindset that is prevalent in schools and parenting circles - that of praising children for effort (growth) regardless of outcome, and not for talent (fixed).
I felt the emotional power and passion of even a small, somewhat removed experience of "Wilt, Wilt" versus "Thrive, Thrive" because I could relate to it from my own work-place experiences. The exercise revealed to me in a very profound way that the stories that we tell about work, whether depressing and dismal, challenging, thought provoking, inspiring, and, yes, fun, make a difference to our own well-being and that of our families, partners, friends and organizations. Even the small, seemingly inconsequential stories. Is there a "Thrive, Thrive" story in your work day?
Susan Scheller Arsht, MBA, PhD is Visiting Assistant Professor in Management and an Associate at The Center for Innovative Cultures at Westminster College. She focuses on connections and relationships in positive organizational culture.
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