Culture is What You Walk Past

By Balaji Krishnamurthy written about 5 months ago

I generally try to avoid politically-motivated topics in this Food for Thought series. Even though it has been particularly difficult to resist this election season, this month’s topic is more inspired by a news story than the current political climate and should be viewed as such.

We have all heard, or heard of, the lewd comments that Donald Trump made about women in a leaked tape from 2005, which have been explained as simply “locker room talk.” My wife asked me if such comments are typical in men’s locker rooms, and my response inspired this article.

I told her no, those comments fall totally outside my experience — in the locker rooms I’ve been in and with the company I’ve kept. So, the natural question is am I the exception? Are the locker rooms I’ve spent time in, or the men who were there, unusual? Is it just me? Quite immodestly, I am going to claim it is just me. I told my wife I can think of people I know who might make those kinds of comments under certain circumstances. However, they know me well enough to not say such things while I’m around. I don’t promote prudishness, but I don’t walk past lewd comments either. That ensures the culture around me doesn’t include that kind of “locker room talk.”

For example, in my own company – of which I am not the CEO and do not have operating authority – I do not like the use of foul language in the workplace. I am told, much to my chagrin, that it used to be, and might still be, in common use. However, I do not walk past it. As a result, nobody uses foul language in my presence, and on occasion when somebody slips up they apologize immediately.

Let me use a more national example. All of us occasionally break the speed limit. It’s not uncommon for someone to come rushing into a meeting or to a social event and brag about how quickly they made it across town, implying they broke every speed limit in the process. Does anyone reprove? Of course not. Yet, you’ll never see anyone rush into a meeting and brag about nabbing the handicap parking spot. “It’s right outside the front door! How convenient!” If they did, they wouldn’t brag about it. And if they did brag, someone would say something. As a society, we walk past speeding violations but not stealing handicap privileges.  Both violations are written in the code of law.  But, where is it written in the code of culture that one violation is permissible and the other is offensive?

My friend Carolyn McKnight tells a great story. She went to Azerbaijan to run a multi-day meeting. People from many different countries, mostly from that part of the world, were in attendance. And, as Carolyn found out, the culture in that part of the world – probably in many parts of the world – is not fastidious about punctuality. Yet, Carolyn wanted to set a culture of accountability. On the first day, when the first person walked in late, she politely said, “We are sorry you could not be here on time. But we are glad you are here now. Please join us.” As each person entered late, Carolyn repeated, in her slow, soft and inimitable manner, “We are sorry you could not be here on time. But we are glad you are here now.  Please join us.” The refrain continued with each late entrant. Lo and behold, every attendee was on time from that day forward. Carolyn did not walk past the tardy.

In the February 2008 Food for Thought article, I told a number of stories to illustrate the fact that people are more accountable in organizations where everybody – even a bystander – undertakes an obligation to hold others accountable. I called this obligation co-accountability. Staying silent when faced with a lack of accountability is a failure of co-accountability. It’s walking past when you should be speaking up. Cultures that accept the obligation of co-accountability reach a higher level of accountability. To walk past a violation is failure of co-accountability.

Culture is not defined by what you condone or even what you promote. Surely, it’s not defined by undisputable phrases printed on a poster board and plastered on the wall. Rather, culture is best defined by what you will or will not walk past.

So, next time somebody in your company behaves in a manner that gives you pause, ask yourself, is this a speeding violation or a handicap parking violation? Should you speak up or stand silent? Should you or should you not walk past? Your action – at that moment – helps define your company’s culture. By being intentional about your action, you will create an intentional culture.