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The 3 Essentials to Shaping Workplace Dynamics in a Masterful Way

Joyfully, the major component of my work is in the field of Emotional Intelligence. This leads me to engage with a variety of teams and team members. Some teams are newly forming, some are in crisis, some are adjusting to new managers, some are undergoing change.

I have worked with small and large organisations, those that are centrally located and those that are geographically dispersed, and those from the public, private and community sectors. From my observations, whether we are a manager or a leader (leaders have social capital and exist at all levels within an organisation), there are 3 essentials to being able to lead and shape workplace dynamics in a masterful way.

These are:

  • understanding what 'culture' really is,

  • being able to identify different organisational mindsets, and

  • having the skills to use language explicitly to co-author team expectations.

1) Understanding what Workplace 'Culture' Really is

Firstly, let's define the word 'culture'. It is one of the words I like least in organisational nomenclature because it is incredibly vague and in most instances unhelpful in diagnosing what is going wrong or in programming how to get things going right.

'Culture' is not a thing. We cannot pick it up. We cannot see it. In and of itself, it actually does not exist, it only exists as a collective of behaviours. 'Culture' is merely a term we use to describe a longer list of behavioural attributes that have become the 'accepted norm' in any team or organisation (or home for that matter).

So when people say 'the problem is our culture' or 'there is no use in trying because of our culture', this actually tells us nothing and is a disempowering statement. It is like going to the doctor and saying 'my body hurts' without any further details and expecting her to take care of it. The body is make up of many organs, bones and tissues. These have many functions and when one malfunctions it has knock-on effects which show up in other organs, bones and tissues. In order to diagnose what is wrong with 'the body', we need to know what organs, bones or tissues are actually sore and symptomatic.

Like the body which exists because it is the sum total of its parts (although the body is actually a visible manifestation of all of its parts), a 'culture' exists because is it the sum total, or collective, of individual behaviours. Therefore, blaming something on or referring to 'the culture' as the problem, is not at all helpful because it is way too vague.

'Culture' includes the behaviour we exhibit regularly, the behaviour we walk past, the things we 'let slide', the behaviours we challenge and the behaviours we don't, common narratives and 'stories,' and expectations that are implied. We can do nothing about the 'culture', but we can do something about the individual behaviours that make it up.

Once we know what is happening at each of these behavioural levels, we can begin to shift behaviour, and as a result the 'culture' naturally shifts because the culture is the behaviour.

The bottom line here is, talking about 'culture' in often unhelpful. Go deeper. What specifically about the culture is causing an issue?

2) Identifying Different Organisational Mindsets

I observe a variety of mindsets in working with such a wide array of people who are at various stages of their lives and careers, working in very different workplaces and range between the public, private and community sectors. Some mindsets are empowering!

Others, sadly, are not. The latter have detrimental impacts on the people who hold this mindset, as well as their colleagues and ultimately their organisation as a whole.

Ask most people what makes a great workplace team, and you'll get fairly similar answers, including aspects such as everybody does their part, there is accountability, people help each other, etc. Inherently, we all know what makes a great place to work. So why doesn't everyone just get in there and do those things?

I reflected on my observations of mindsets for a long time, categorising the differences, piecing together the similar attributes, analysing the different narratives and language that people chose to tell their story. Then I happened across the Integral Organisational Model (Ken Wilber). Wilber theorises that there are four perspectives that relate to any situation. If we can see and understand all perspectives, then we have an integral or very well-rounded understanding of it. If we do not, then we have missing pieces.

To illustrate this, he indicates that a product that is designed considering two or three of the elements will not be as good as one which is designed considering all four elements of the Integral quadrants. As a crude overview of the Integral Organisational Model, the quadrants are:

'I'- my own thinking and feeling

'We'- how we relate, our shared values and feelings

'It'- what something actually is from an outside, observable perspective, a thing.

'Its'-the broader system perspective.

This model informed my reflections and I was able to construct a coherent model of my own, depicting individual mindsets and their effect on organisational culture using the Integral Organisational Model as the framework.

Broadly, the Integral Model applied to workplace Culture looks like this:

Using the quadrant categories described above, I have given examples of possible mindsets in the table below. Each the mindsets from each quadrant can manifest in empowering and healthy ways, or disempowering and unhealthy ways. Usually, the more perspective a person can see and understand, the more empowering and healthy their mindset. If they are missing perspectives, they lack understanding of the 'full picture' and their mindset can be disempowering or unhealthy as a result.

For example, looking at the quadrants below, a person who can see only the team perspective may not speak out or raise issues. Someone who can see only the 'I' perspective usually does not invest in what is good for the team. The more perspectives a person has, and the more they interpret them positively, the more they take personal responsibility for their own choices and behaviours.

As you can see above, the systems perspective (it's) is not always necessary for a functional team culture, but very beneficial. This is the strategic perspective and those in leadership and management need to have a good understanding of this perspective.

To illustrate this model using another example, consider the choice whether to litter or not.

Iesha finishes a muesli bar. Iesha looks for a bin because she knows that littering is not good for the environment (It and Its) and that people in her town think littering is bad manners (We). She spots a bin in the distance and walks several metres out of her way to place her wrapper in it (Her understanding of 'We', 'It' and 'Its' leads her to take personal action 'I').

Sam finishes a muesli bar. Sam throws the wrapper on the ground (I). Sam knows about the environmental issues but decides her wrapper doesn't count and won't make a difference (no visibility of 'We' at all and without the 'we', Sam cannot connect the 'I' to the 'Its).

When someone is forming an opinion and choosing behaviour, but they are missing a perspective (quadrant), their behaviour will show this. If people don't see the 'I' in culture, they are likely to think that culture that exists outside of them and is something they have nothing to do with. This can often lead to blame. If someone sees the 'It' and 'Its' perspectives, they may be dismissing the powerful social and emotional elements that exist in a team or workplace and instigate enforce change without taking this into account, resulting in damaged relationships and hurt feelings.

3) Develop the Skills to Use Language Explicitly

As I highlighted above when discussing 'culture', the language that we use if often very vague and global. Consider words like respect, teamwork, collaboration, love. These words describe a series of feelings and behavioural criteria. Again, can you pick up respect? No. It's not a thing. 'Respect' brings up different connotations for different people. Some people consider things like good manners (also a nonsense term because manners are not a thing). Some people might draw a blank and say they don't know how to describe it but they know it when they see it. There is danger in both of these types of responses because they are not explicit.

If a manager stands up and shares that respect is a value she holds dear and she expects everyone to behave in a respectful way to each other, is that really a useful statement? Really? People will nod their heads and have a generalised or global understanding of what she means, but they will each walk out of the meeting room with a slightly different understanding. This is because the manager has not been explicit.

To use language expertly, break down those conceptual (or nonsense) words into behavioural criteria. Or better yet, do it as a team so you can create a co-authored understanding!

Discuss as a team what respect actually looks like. How does it show up? If you saw a colleague 'being respectful' what would he or she actually be doing? Your team may share suggestions like:

  • saying hello and goodbye

  • sharing information

  • not interrupting me when I have my headphones on because it means I am trying to focus

Breaking respect down into this level makes it so easy to live up to. Everyone is clear on the intent of the word. Everyone knows what is expected. There are no misconceptions and no misunderstandings. If it is not broken down and people are left to 'display respect', everyone has to mind-read what that looks like for different people and challenges arise.

Engaging in these type of discussions regularly will help you be explicit, clear and set expectations that people can actually live up to.

Consider the example below:

Shrinni asks Emily to complete a report and to bring it to him when she is finished, on the due date. He gives her the due date and considers the conversation over. Now in his mind, 'finished' includes having a colleague proof-read and edit the document, ensuring the document is circulated to stakeholders for comment so these can be incorporated and formatting to his preferred specifications in order for him to easily to send it on to his boss.

However, in Emily's mind, 'finished' means she has completed writing the report. Emily does not realise Shrinni wants it proof-read, or that she had to circulate it for comment and she also was not aware that Shrinni required a certain format.

Emily send the document to Shrinni only to be berated for sending an unfinished document. Both Shrinni and Emily are left confused by the encounter. Shrinni is confused because Emily has not followed his expected process. Emily is confused because she thought she had finished the document and done what he had asked.

This is not an uncommon occurrence and can simply be avoided by unpacking some of the vague terms we use to ensure we are being specific in our expectations. If we are the recipients of vague language, we can also 'check in' to 'unpack' what is meant.

Consider the previous example again. Shrinni has given Emily the report and the due date.

"Just to clarify Shrinni, by 'finished' you mean you would like me just to write this report? Is that right? Is there anything I have missed?" Shrinni ponders this and replies, "make sure stakeholders get a chance to comment so you can include anything you've missed."

"Ok. So write the report, circulate the report, and incorporate additional comments. That's all you need me to do?" Emily asks, to check her understanding.

"Yes. Oh and make sure you use this format." Shrinni hands her another document.

"Got it!"

This example illustrates how using explicit language is so helpful in setting clear and expectations and therefore by-passing confusion, misunderstanding and misinterpretation.

To shape workplace dynamics in a masterful way, we need to ensure that we are being explicit, understanding people's differing perspectives and recognize the explicit behavioural elements that collectively form a 'workplace culture.' When we are mindful and active in our understanding of these crucial aspects, we can see the perspectives individuals have, diagnose the elements that require shifting within a culture, and use language explicitly to achieve a deep and shared understanding.


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