Guest post from Corporate Anthropologist, Michael Henderson (a 6 minute read)

Whenever I do a webinar there are always fabulous, unanswered questions left over at the end of our time together. In this post Michael Henderson, my guest for Advancing Culture, generously answers some of these questions in order to build on the wisdom and inspiration he shared live.



Q1: Fear (eg. fear of virus, fatigue, etc) is a central theme in our workplace. How can it be addressed in a cultural context? 

When it comes to fear, culture is the context. In other words, what people are fearful of differs from one culture to the next. So how you address fear in a culture is dependent on the level of maturity of the culture.

In an elementary culture, fears are addressed by increases in control and measurement in an effort to reduce the impact of that which is feared. In more evolved cultures, people ask themselves questions concerning their fears; e.g What is it about the virus that we are afraid of? How likely is that to occur? What can we adjust in how we think and act that could reduce people’s fear? In high performance cultures fear is not feared. In high performance cultures, dangers are considered to be real but fear is acknowledged and known to be a choice. Given the crippling effect that fear has on people it is simply not accepted as a choice.

Q2: How do we sustain culture in a remote team once the “honeymoon period” is over? 

(In this context, we referred to the positive way many people seemed to have responded to COVID-induced changes in work location and habits, feeling supported by each other and feeling more connected.)

The thing is to adjust how people are thinking about culture. Culture is best thought of as culturing. Your culture starts fresh every day as it is a living, breathing social phenomenon. So each person should ask themselves every day….without fail…..”What did I contribute to the culturing at work in our business today? What can I contribute tomorrow or this afternoon that could make a difference?” The idea is to make the shifts deliberate now that we have discovered, through circumstances or accidentally, that some of the positive culturing habits that have emerged are wonderful and worthy of continued embodiment.

Q3: In the current environment, when the CEO is mostly focused on $ and not people, what is a top tip to encourage them to be more visibly people-centred?

CEOs who are mostly interested in money and not people probably shouldn’t be in the CEO role. Or, if they insist on being so, should be referred to Kate Billing for leadership development! That may sound harsh, but a CEO who doesn’t understand that people are the key influencing factor in their organisation’s success (apart from the economy) don’t understand what performance is. Money is a result, not a performance. A performance occurs before a result. Culture is the single most influential contributor in business performance. A performance is the beliefs, behaviours, and identities that the people in the culture embody in order to deliver their daily performance that leads to a financial result.

The tip? Inquire where the CEO sees the performance of their business coming from? If they don’t mention culture as a dominant contributing factor then ask them what role they think culture is playing in the business. Then, if they don’t identify culture as a contributor of performance, gently point that out to them and ask if they would be open to exploring this as an idea and opportunity to enhance the business’ ability to improve its financial results. If the CEO is not the type of leader to listen or even care about the conversation then that tells you everything you are ever going to know about them as a leader.

Q4: If the context keeps changing, how do we keep evolving our culture?

Organisations need to stop thinking of culture as a noun. It never was and never will be a noun. It’s a verb! In the 21st Century, if a business hasn’t embraced culturing as a core capability then at best it will only ever be average compared to organisations that understand and practice culturing. At worst…its days are numbered.


Michael Henderson:

Michael is a Corporate Anthropologist. His job is to help organisations learn the role of culture in delivering workplace performance, business results, customer experience, and employee satisfaction.

As an anthropologist, Michael delivers deep insights into culture that go far beyond what many organisations are aware of, including: what culture actually is, what culture does, how culture forms and is structured, and who really owns a culture.

After graduating with a degree in Social Anthropology, Michael travelled extensively for years studying and participating in both indigenous and organisational cultures all around the world. After a life-changing experience of becoming lost in the Sahara desert, he returned to New Zealand and, along with his wife, founded Cultures At Work (C.A.W.), a Corporate Anthropology practice that has now guided and supported over 300 culture transformations in organisations around the world.

Connect with Michael on LinkedIn

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