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If you want a positive company culture, tackle your inner saboteurs

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When we are in saboteur mode we lose the ability to empathise, connect to a sense of purpose, think creatively and see the bigger picture, says Sarah Taylor.

15th Mar 2022
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Company culture is a hot topic these days. For those of us in the people profession, we need no convincing that a positive culture is fundamental for supporting wellbeing, psychological safety, inclusion, learning and attracting and retaining talent as well as productivity and the bottom-line.

Since the global pandemic, people who still see culture as something fluffy and inconsequential are increasingly in the minority and somewhat of a dying breed. Regardless of how well we can define and measure culture (short answer – its complex!), we feel the culture around us and are increasingly likely to vote with our feet if its not supporting our wellbeing, development and purpose.

We end up with a list of platitudinal statements, values, and aspirational behaviours that no one can argue with

Beyond aspirations

But thinking about how to shape organisational culture gets us into thornier territory. Or at least it should; all too often a positive company culture is treated as something that can be audited, mapped, designed and programme-managed our way into. More enlightened, whole-systems approaches are growing in prevalence, but companies still spend too much time articulating a desired future-state rather than working with what is real and present. 

Despite the best intentions, we end up with a list of platitudinal statements, values, and aspirational behaviours that no one can argue with in the abstract but sure as hell can forget, thwart, re-interpret or even weaponise in the moment. 

Culture – like wisdom and wilderness

When thinking of cultivating a positive company culture, I am reminded of this quote: “No educational system knows how to create wisdom and no science can make wilderness. We do know how to damage and destroy both of them however” - (J W Meeker, 1981, Wisdom and Wilderness).

Perhaps then, like wisdom and wilderness, we should focus less on trying to orchestrate a desired culture and focus more on helping people with whatever is making it hard for them to be their best selves (whatever that looks like for them).

Personal paradigms

I’m interested in how our personal paradigms play a part in this. These are usually a blindspot in culture change initiatives. A personal paradigm is like a lens through which we see the world. They include patterns of conditioning that are formed early in life. These can be our survival systems (ways of being we enact to keep us safe) as well our reward systems (things that we crave and give us a dopamine hit). Over time, these patterns of brain activation become ingrained and habitual, like outmoded operating systems that keep us stuck.

There are different versions of what and how to overcome old patterns each with their own set of tools and practices

How our paradigms can lead to self-sabotage

Shirzad Chamine calls these our inner saboteurs. He has researched the most common ways we self-sabotage by getting hijacked by our survival systems and has playfully given these names, such as the pleaser, the controller and the hyper-achiever, to make them easier to identify and spot in the moment. When we are in saboteur mode, we lose access to the patterns of brain activation that are associated with an ability to empathise, connect to a sense of purpose, think creatively and see the bigger picture. We get tunnel vision.

Why does this matter for culture? In ‘Bearing Witness: A Zen Master’s Lessons in Making Peace’, Glassman (2013) says that “one way of looking at our society is that it’s a conglomerate of all our individual survival systems”. The same, presumably, is true of our organisational culture. Even with the most intelligently designed culture change programme, if an organisation’s people are in saboteur mode for a lot of the time, it’s unlikely to stick.

Practical steps

How as people professionals can we use these findings from neuroscience and help bring personal paradigms into awareness? One approach might take us into the territory of conscious leadership. Jim Dethmer (2015) in The 15 Commitments of Conscious Leadership writes that conscious leaders are “not trapped in old patterns”.

There are different versions of what and how to overcome old patterns – each with their own set of tools and practices, but essentially, they amount to becoming more aware of your saboteurs, catching yourself in the moment you are hijacked (by noticing your thoughts and feelings) and then pausing and choosing a different response. The more you do this, the theory goes, the more you can re-wire your brain and change default reactions.

This relies on individual self-awareness, metacognition (thinking about our thinking) and interoception (awareness of our physical sensations). A tough ask, perhaps, in our frenetic workplaces. But we can also create workplace rituals and shared practices that help us pause and shift out of saboteur mode, thereby relieving the reliance on personal discipline.

When our energy is low, it is much easier to fall into saboteur tendencies and is very hard to be our best selves

Feedback also helps, but not just any feedback. Come up with a hypothesis about how others might see you in saboteur mode. Someone with a hyper-achiever saboteur might say: “I think I have a tendency to come across as unhelpful or aloof when I’m overly focused on completing my own tasks. Can you give me a gentle nudge if you see me being that way?” This gives a focus for the feedback and a way for a few trusted colleagues to help you notice when you’re become hijacked. 

A focus on energy at work is also key. When our energy is low, it is much easier to fall into saboteur tendencies and it is very hard to be our best selves. An overly rushed, pressurised, drained workforce is a breeding ground for saboteurs. 

Culture Pioneers

Progess not perfection

With all this, think progress not perfection. The goal can’t be ‘saboteur zero’. We’re only human. But the marginal gains of reducing saboteur-hijack by even 1% each day could be huge. Ultimately, the impact needs to be judged by results for the individuals, communities and ecosystems our organisations serve. But what is certain is that in today’s rapidly changing world, organisations can not afford to have their culture driven by mindless patterns and ingrained, inflexible ways of thinking and doing things. 

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