In an effort to find the wisdom of an uncommon mental health organization that Wisdom Lab worked with, we asked members to bring in an image that represented the heart of the organization. As these images were placed on a wall, it became clear to those in the room who had been in other mental health organizations that something unusual was happening. Many of the images were items like Zen gardens, flowing streams, and peaceful scenes. This was not the way most mental health organizations thought about themselves – most were focused on crisis management or simply survival. In the ensuing dialogue, the members of the organization realized that this was a rare and important quality. The images gained significance and when used or seen around their buildings, they reinforced a culture that was believed in by the typical member as well as staff and leadership. Because these images came from within, they had a greater meaning for those on the inside. Because this meaning was confirmed from the outside, the significance grew. Organizational symbols can play an important part in shaping cultural cohesion.
“If we are to preserve culture we must continue to create it.”
The key to any organizational culture development is a deep understanding of what currently motivates, shapes, and defines the existing culture. We call this organizational wisdom. Unless slogans, objectives, strategies, and resources fit the current embodiment of the organization’s life, they will not last. They will not have roots.
Western Civilization has generally undervalued culture and is poor at building it. In the United States, our core values and societal structures are built around the individual. Our team has worked with tribal, communal, and people groups in other nations who still practice storytelling, iconography, theatre and dance as cohesive and expressive aspects of their culture. They offer an interesting contrast to our “relational poverty” which often leads to brittle expressions of culture. How can this be overcome at DCL so that a unified and lasting culture can sustain and fuel its future?
Every human group has wisdom. This wisdom is often the best of what has come from its experiences and relationships. One aspect of this is seeing – What does a librarian of 50 years see when she looks at rows of books? Clearly more than just the books themselves. Perhaps a cascade of memories – of authors, of children, of years of service doing meaningful work – these are the things that make her role in the group much more than just a job.
We are used to sustaining our ideas of culture with words. In many traditional and enduring cultures – actions truly speak louder than the words. Expressions of locally expressed culture through the arts hold so many layers of meaning that they are rich sources of learning for years. Exemplars of excellence or uncommon importance hold stories that are vital to the wellbeing of a culture. They are often brave enough to tell the failure stories so that the failures don’t happen again. They notice the people who do the unseen tasks and elevate them. They hold the stories of transition so that old ways are not seen as useless but a part of the foundation of the new. We tend to undervalue our stories, art, wisdom, and perspectives – and so they are lost, hidden, or hyper-localized and not given a place within the organizations operation.
If unity is possible in a large organization it must be built on what is already unifying. External messages that it is good to have a common identity and direction are fine until they contradict the individual. What is it within the individuals that is already a deep basis for collaboration – what is it that works for all involved? This is a question that must be pursued in specific expressions and discovered through small experiments that take what is known and stretches a little into the unknown. Psychologically this is called the developmental hot zone and it is where we all grow and grow together. We drop our guard to connect or try something new when we encounter the slightly unfamiliar from a familiar basis. If we are too stressed, our brain literally operates at a lower capacity. If we are under stressed or too comfortable we also do not have a thriving mind or relationships. Let’s find this balance for your culture so it thrives.