Encouragement is the antidote for bad culture

Encouragement is the antidote for bad culture

According to The Culture Code, high-functioning organizational cultures have three things in common:

  1. There is a virtuous cycle of signaling vulnerability, where you can tell me you need help with something, and I'll pick up on that signal and not only help you, but also become free to express my own vulnerability to you, and none of us is shamed for it.
  2. People feel psychologically safe -- free to take educated risks and free to fail if actions are being done for the right reasons.
  3. They have a strong sense of purpose. Those "right reasons" mentioned above are fully worked out and people have bought into them. They know why they are here, what they are working for, and what the big picture is. This makes decisions easier to make, and actions easier to take, because you don't have to figure out what's important all over again every time something has to be done.

When an organization, and especially I am thinking of an academic department or entire college or university, does not possess these characteristics, what you get is a linear combination of the following:

  • A broken cycle of vulnerability. The leaders are shaming and blaming people for the mistakes they (both the people and the leaders) make. Rather than meeting vulnerability with vulnerability, it's met with incredulity -- I can't believe someone in your position would still be making these mistakes! People who make mistakes, which is everyone, receive the message loud and clear that they just need to shut up and stop needing help -- to stop being human. The cycle of vulnerability is broken, literally, like you would break a window or a bone, with destructive force.
  • It's psychologically unsafe. A psychologically unsafe environment is a lot like a physically unsafe one. When you're in such an environment, you know it, in your bones, your nerves, and your gut. It becomes hard to think, hard to act, hard to be who you are. You begin to think that every step is not only wrong but potentially your last. So you do nothing, except those things that have a low probability of failure and high probability of not angering your boss (who is the chief breaker of the vulnerability cycle).
  • There is confusion about purpose, or possibly nobody thinks about it at all. Nobody knows why they are doing anything. There's no attempt to find real consensus on the core reasons for why the organization exists. Every time a decision has to be made, the purpose of the organization is reinvented, often by a different person or the same person in two different ways.

These all overlap. Where people feel stigmatized for being vulnerable, they are psychologically unsafe, which leads to more stigma. Both of those lead to confusion in purpose because nobody wants to be the person to suggest big ideas about the meaning and purpose of the organization, because they'd just be made fun of, or told that they're being presumptuous, or wrong, or they're out of their lane. Which leads to more unsafety, and so on.

Not all organizational cultures, and again I am thinking especially of academic departments, have such dysfunctional cultures. But many do, and all of them can go from functional to dysfunctional in the course of one academic year given the "right" conditions and the "right" leaders.

What's the antidote to all this? How can a single faculty member begin to push back against a culture like this --- or work now, to prevent a good culture from going bad? I'm not entirely sure, but I've been thinking lately that the antidote is encouragement.

Twenty years ago, my wife was in the Chicago Marathon. I was there, freezing to death in the October wind to cheer her on. As I watched the other runners go by, I started clapping for them too, and shouting out encouragements -- "Looking great! Stay strong! Just a few more miles!" It occurred to me that encouragement is powerful when sincere. I was giving out claps and shouts to help people, with exactly zero probability that I would ever be repaid tangibly for doing so. It had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the others. I don't know if my little contributions made them run better or withstand the cold more, but I think it might have, and it certainly didn't hurt --- and it did something good for me, in the process.

When we encourage a student or a colleague, or even an administrator above us, and we do it with no outlook for getting anything back, we actually create something out of nothing. We create the foundations for virtuous, psychologically safe organizations with a strong sense of purpose -- the kinds we love working in, and which are harder to bring down the more we encourage.

I've committed this semester to giving out encouragement shamelessly whenever I can do it sincerely. It's having an effect:

  • When one of my abstract algebra students finished talking with me in office hours about a proof she was struggling with, I just said, "Hey, I really appreciate the work you're putting in on this. It means a lot that you're working hard." I don't know if that will make her a better mathematician, but I think it gave her permission to struggle with difficult math, which is something many students never hear.
  • When one of our faculty members came to me with an idea about setting up a departmental listserv, initially I met the idea with a lot of skepticism. Later, I realized that I sort of shot that faculty member down, and perhaps encouragement would be better. I went back to her and asked her what her ideas were, and then encouraged her to look into it and assured her I'd help if needed. Less than 24 hours later she'd set it up, and it's a big upgrade in how we communicate in the department. (And better communication breeds more psychological safety, etc.)

Encouragement repairs the broken cycle of vulnerability and creates safety by telling other people that what they do matters --- that they matter, and their mistakes don't change that. That idea, that people matter regardless of or even because of their risks and mistakes, isn't a bad way to lay the foundation for the organization's purpose, either.

Even if I am the only person around me being consistently encouraging --- even if I myself were someday to end up on the receiving end of of discouragement and psychological unsafety --- I'm committing to being an encourager wherever I find myself. It's radically countercultural and radically pro-cultural.

Robert Talbert

Robert Talbert

Mathematics professor who writes and speaks about math, research and practice on teaching and learning, technology, productivity, and higher education.