The undiagnosed tension between learning and culture

We have a habit in the Western world of shifting responsibility on to the individual, rather than recognising the collective responsibility of creating the system in which the individual operates.

At theSHIFT we see this play out in the work discussions we often have with brilliant and caring people who want to help their staff work better and live better.

Many of our conversations are centred around individual learning, rather than the cultural factors that might be preventing the outcomes they’re seeking.

  • Teaching women how to speak up and be more confident in meetings, rather than 👉 Creating environments where everyone’s voice can be heard and has equal weight
  • Sending staff on resiliency training, rather than 👉 Redesigning work practises to reduce stress and burnout
  • Training already time-poor managers to have better 121 and development conversations, rather than 👉 Structuring manager roles so they have dedicated time for pastoral care

Now I’ve obviously set these up as an either/or binary which shouldn’t be the case. 

Mindset shifts and culture shifts should co-exist. 

Developing new mindsets and skills is incredibly important to enabling people to better navigate their world and work with grace. 

But I wanted to stress how often we’re asked to support the learning challenge, rather than the cultural challenges


Why should we focus on culture first?

We believe that the magic happens when we pair mindset shifts with culture shifts. But given the tendency of companies to overlook culture, we tend to prioritise culture for a few reasons.

1. Culture shifts make your L&D budget significantly more effective

Through social norms, incentives, rewards, working practises… you signal the types of behaviours and thinking that is acceptable and valued. But there will never be enough training that could counteract culture signals that send the opposite message. 

So if you want people to take more risks: create an environment without blame or shame, where failure is seen as a learning experience, people are rewarded for showing their workings out…

If you want people to collaborate more: remove individual bonus metrics, incentivise knowledge sharing, reward team and company results, break down siloed thinking…

If you want people to be better managers: ensure managers actually have time to manage by factoring this into resource utilisation, build team feedback into reviews, build psychological safety into 121 structures, give managers space to demonstrate vulnerability…

Culture shifts enable the adoption of mindset shifts at scale. 

If you set the scene with culture first, and then also train the corresponding skills and mindsets, you’re onto a powerful combination.

2. It demonstrates your commitment to genuine change

If you want your staff to trust that you are genuinely committed to creating change, you need to demonstrate that you are willing to change the system and not expecting them to carry the burden of overcoming the cultural constraints. 

Overcoming in the sense of either gaining enough skill that the cultural constraints are less of a hindrance (e.g. training innovative thinking in a risk-averse culture) or gaining new skills to adapt to a badly designed culture (e.g. teaching women to lean in).

A classic example illustrating where this goes wrong would be a company offering a meditation or yoga class to reduce stress in an already overworked team. Don’t get me wrong, I love meditation and yoga and find them both to be valuable. But that’s not the solution to burn-out. Your staff would much rather give back their perks if they could leave at 5pm.


Why aren’t we doing this?

I think there are a few interrelated reasons causing us to default in the way we do.

1. Our society promotes individualism 

I mentioned this in my introduction: individualistic thinking has a vice-like grip on us.

We’ve seen it with the climate crisis. Whole advertising campaigns trying to make us bear the burden of having shorter showers rather than companies and governments owning their much larger responsibility.

We’ve seen it with “pull yourself up by your bootstrap” economic policies. 

We’ve seen it with society’s approach to mental health (Bruce Daisley’s book Fortitude has a brilliant collective response to ‘resilience’.)

We’ve even seen it with the invention of the nuclear family, expecting two people to do the task that used to take a village. 

And we see it play out in the world of work too.

2. It’s hard to step outside of our existing frameworks

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?”

It’s incredibly difficult to see the frameworks we operate in as merely one way of having structured the world. 

I’m sure my comment about the family unit may have raised a few skeptical eyebrows.

Think about how difficult it has been to get people to imagine a world of work that isn’t 5 days a week in an office.

No wonder it’s far easier to see it as an individual capability issue, rather than a complex cultural one. 

To see it as a cultural or systemic issue, requires us to be able to step outside of our framework or ideology and imagine other ways the system could exist.

3. It’s not clear who is responsible for culture

Learning & Development is an established function in business with its own budget line. There are whole teams and departments dedicated to helping individuals learn and grow.

Where’s the budget for Culture? Who owns it? Sometimes it’s the CEO, sometimes it’s in Ops, sometimes its HR/People/Culture all bundled into one and rarely do they have money (I know, I’ve been there…) 

Most companies do not have a budget dedicated to culture. 

Most companies don’t even have a role dedicated to it.

This makes it difficult to make a case for it.


What should we do about it?

For L&D people

Business can be a brilliant environment for personal development. People are faced with regular challenges they need to overcome with the support and budget to facilitate this growth. 

So absolutely keep providing opportunities for your staff to learn and grow. 

But at the same time, start to recognise the system and culture effects impacting the change you’re seeking to make.

This can be difficult in large companies and we appreciate that sometimes you can only solve what’s within your remit. 

Where possible, partner with your People and Culture teams. Make the same case I have above about why they need to be linked.

Where that’s not possible, make the case that culture falls within your scope. Certainly, creating the learning environment does.

It’s an effectiveness argument essentially. Your budget will be more impactful. 

For Leaders and Managers

If you’re thinking that you don’t have enough accountability or authority to make a difference, don’t worry. Even if you can’t impact company policy at the top, you can still have a huge impact.

Most of culture is created through social norms and signals that managers send anyway. There are as many cultures as there are teams. 

So think about the team culture you want to nurture. Create rituals and ways to reinforce the positive behaviours and mindsets you want to see.

Consider the training needs of your team and see whether the team culture you’re creating is aligned. Are you giving them the right environment to test out the new skills you’re asking them to learn?

For HR/Culture/People people

I realise I’ve just bucketed you all into one and that’s part of the problem. But in most companies it is one department (or even one person) doing all of this.

You’re probably already making these same suggestions but I’ll list them here nonetheless for morale support.

The people function need to be much more central, and much more senior. The CEO/MD need to be constantly talking to HR/People about the environment that’s needed to deliver on the business strategy – because your cultural strategy is your business strategy. To break that clichéd sentence down: it doesn’t matter what your business strategy is, if your culture isn’t aligned you’re going to go in the direction of your culture.

The people function needs leadership support and buy-in. Behaviours are modelled from the top and top and “do as i say, not what i do” just won’t cut it.

And you need a budget, like your partners in the L&D department have. 

And obviously once you’ve got budget you should get in touch with us 😉

Matthew Cook
matthew@theshift.company