Mastering Cultural Agility

Culture is an often-unseen element of an organization, one that influences how people interact and accomplish, while reflecting true values and unwritten rules of success. Employees who align with the culture find support and belonging that leads to quick success. Those who don’t understand the culture or feel included can become isolated and ineffective. Culture issues from uncollaborative teams to toxic competition, lead to low morale and high turnover. Sadly, culture issues within the organization are most acutely felt by employees who are in underrepresented groups. Leaders can’t afford to hire promising employees only to have them walk out the door because of issues with cultural acclimation.

A careful hiring process strengthens the positive elements of culture that make the organization successful. But simply passing the “fit” test can translate to homogeneity in hiring. The resulting lack of diversity and “group think” leads to organizations with blind sides and stunted innovation. Leaders should also be fostering and hiring for cultural agility.

Robert Wilson of the Culture Shift Team recently joined me at a fireside chat to share his experience as a Nissan executive and culture consultant. He noted that people rarely fail for technical reasons but rather because of an inability to maneuver within the culture of the organization. He argued that cultural agility is the key to success, for individuals and organizations.

Agile employees see and understand differences in culture. This allows them to join new organizations and quickly acclimate to the culture. It also enables them to work effectively with diverse individuals who may be marginalized by others.

Culturally agile employees are particularly valuable on cross-functional teams. Even within organizations that have strong overarching cultures, groups and business functions typically have their own micro cultures. For example, the risk tolerance of a sales team may be dramatically different from the engineering department. Cultural agility enables individuals to recognize those differences and help both groups work together. If the sales team is inclined to make customer promises about new product features that engineering sees as risky, agile employees can help find compromises that brings sales and engineering together to close the deal.

Culturally aware individuals also recognize hidden rules and possible barriers to success. Rather than fail because of a hidden barrier, the agile employee identifies it and maneuvers around it. Importantly, agile employees know such awareness takes time. It comes from a willingness to ask questions and struggle with the uncovered challenges. Agile employees are willing to be uncomfortable as they seek to understand the culture and the path to success.

Robert observed that organizations which struggle with diversity and inclusion often have underlying culture issues or a lack of cultural agility. These issues often manifest themselves in the members of the organization who are most marginalized or underrepresented. Building cultural agility is an important step to improving organizational diversity and fostering employee belonging.

To hear more from my interview Robert Wilson, Senior Partner, Culture Shift Team, watch the video.

Leadership Notes is a blog and video series on leadership.  Through interviews with leaders from both the private and public sector, Johnson examines key leadership issues like empowerment, team development, and cultural dexterity.  The blog also addresses topics such as learning from failure, the importance of friendship, and the role leaders play in developing organizational culture.

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