Tuesday March 16, 2010
Jane Sunley on the importance of culture within the workplace...
Last week Jo and I attended a Hindu wedding. We understand the significance of culture and decided to submerse ourselves in ‘being Indian’ for at least part of the two day celebrations.
An Indian wedding is about rituals and customs and also about having a lot of fun. The festivities commenced with the sangeet party (which traditionally lasted for up to ten days!). As is common today where time is more restrictive, this was combined with the mehendi ceremony and completed over the course of one evening. The sangeet is one of the most important pre-wedding rituals, held by the bride’s family (on this occasion, by her sister) to bless the bride and also for friends old and new to have fun together. There’s lots of eating, drinking, dancing and chatting.
Professional henna artists sit on a garlanded platform to apply mehendi, a paste of henna, lime juice, essential oils and sometimes spices, to the bride’s hands and arms. This ritual signifies the strength and power of love in a marriage so it is regarded good omen for the would-be bride. It is also good luck for the female guests to be similarly adorned and of course we entered into that too (even though we knew it would stain for for a couple of weeks – as I write this on the tube, I can see at least three pairs of eyes staring at the eccentric, strangely tattooed woman…).
As the evening progressed, people became more acquainted. Family members and friends preformed pre-choreographed dance routines to everything from Bollywood’s best to Beyonce. There was even a ‘Mrs & Mrs’ style quiz for the happy couple. Almost everyone was in brightly coloured traditional Indian dress. How relieved we were that we’d taken the step to kit ourselves out in Tooting High Street’s finest; right down to ‘blinging’ stick-on bindis on our foreheads.
We like to make the most of every occasion and so had also previously taken ourselves off to Pineapple Dance Studios for six week to learn to Bhangra dance. It was all part of the cultural emersion and it did not go unnoticed.
At Indian weddings there are many older ‘aunties’ who sit around in groups and seem to gossip for most of the night. Several of them complimented us on our ‘very creative’ dancing; maybe a euphemism for ‘hopeless though tried hard’ and much appreciated all the same. Many commented happily that we had really honoured them and their culture with our efforts to fit in. All of this really broke the ice and there were many hugs from old Indian ladies! It made me think how different things would have been if we hadn’t made the effort. We certainly wouldn’t have enjoyed that evening and the rest of the celebrations half as much and people wouldn’t have connected with us in the way they did.
All of this reinforces the importance of culture at work. We have created a very strong culture at learnpurple and call it ‘being purple’. When recruiting we write our ads in a way to attract those who will fit in with our culture. We talk about what it means to ‘be purple’ throughout the interview and selection process so that people know what to expect and can think about whether they want to come to us and become so. We have a one word mission / purpose: transformation and it runs through everything we do. We have very specific values and work hard to integrate these into the way we operate the business both strategically and day to day. We talk about our values a lot and make sure everyone understands them in a way that they can live them too. We measure how ‘purple’ people feel they have become though our talent toolbox online reviews. We live our brand and our values and this preserves our culture.
All of this could be applied to any organisation though sadly it doesn’t happen enough. Values aren’t just a brass plaque in reception – they have to mean something, be simple and easily remembered (we love mnemonics). Most of all they have to pervade everything the organisation and its people say and do. Creating a strong culture needs strong leadership, great ongoing communication and consultation.
Culture is not about cloning people and it’s important that individuals can be just that. It is about aligning those individuals to the common purpose and behaviours.
Those staring eyes on the tube this morning and other odd looks in the gym a little later, reminded me what it’s like not to fit in; to be culturally misaligned. How disconcerting that can be – even for a confident person like me.So make an effort to help people align with your culture and it will serve you well in terms of engaging and retaining your people and having a motivated and productive workforce.
Best wishes to Kiran and Nomita and thank you for the lesson.