“Life is lived forwards, but understood backwards.”
That’s the quote we kicked off Season 9, Episode 4 of The Internal Comms Podcast with. Guest Shane Hatton, author of Lead the Room and Let’s Talk Culture, among many other accolades, explained that his working life felt like one long collision that he hasn’t understood until much later in life.
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, and in internal comms, where we’re constantly building off past successes or learning from previous campaigns, it pays to look back.
Looking back at culture over the ages, it can be a hard concept to pin down and define. Workplace culture has evolved, especially after covid, and finally sits on the corporate agenda (in most places!) But as comms professionals who are tasked with cultivating, defining and nurturing this so-called ‘culture’ at work, where can we begin?
Here’s a handful of ways you can approach the culture challenge, as told by Shane Hatton on The Internal Comms Podcast:
Intent before content
When Michelangelo was creating the Statue of David, he believed the sculpture was always there, within the stone, and it was his job to free it from the stone surrounding it. Apply this to your comms approach:
“Most of the time, when we think about communication, we think about it as a process of addition: get more information, get more and get more, get all of that content together,” said Shane. “And what I try to encourage people to do is strip it back to find that intention. Ask: ‘what do you really want to achieve? What does success look like?’ And then remove everything which is unnecessary that gets in the way of that intention being achieved.”
When shaping culture in the workplace, consider what you’d like to achieve. Maybe you can’t define what that culture is, but perhaps you can figure out how you’d like it to affect people.
Start from a place of empathy
A strong culture is one which celebrates uniqueness, and seeks to provide a safe space for all in the workplace. When approaching the culture challenge, it’s essential to get a diverse range of viewpoints and really uncover the challenges people are facing in the business.
“The greatest entry point to communication is through empathy,” Shane told Katie. “And empathy is by sitting with people and understanding their stories, understanding their experiences.” Shining a light on the stories within your business – giving them a voice and a space to exist and be acknowledged by everyone – will cultivate a feeling of belonging.
The most obvious realities are hardest to see
Shane retold a story that David Foster Wallace gave back in 2005:
There are these two young fish swimming along, and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says, “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes, “What the hell is water?”
Why tell this story? There’s an intangibility to culture that makes it difficult to know where to start. “There’s this almost amorphous nature about culture, we kind of know it’s important, and we know it’s there,” Katie explained. But much like the water those goldfish can’t see around them, the culture is part of the very fabric of their life.
As Shane shared, “If you look at those things that are actually shaping the culture of an organisation, it’s not telling people what the culture is, it’s not trying to even just live it out yourself. It’s all of those core elements of addressing the inconsistencies, communicating it to people and sharing it with people.”