Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Culture Change

I don’t know about you, but I love it when different parts of my life parallel each other in such a way that I know there must be some mastermind behind it. Life cannot just happen to be that coincidental. I am in one of those times now.
I am fortunate enough to have a job I really love. I work at a very cool place that I still get giddy when I think about it. I work for a tugboat and barge company on the Columbia and Snake Rivers. Tugboats are cool, Tugboaters are cool too. They are just the sort of salty fellows you imagine when you think of tugboats. There is a strong sense of family here. The operation has been in business since the early 1900’s. There are many here who can site their lineage for several generations of working on these very boats. It’s all very nostalgic. When I walk down to the dock in the early mornings and look out over the magnificent river as the sun rises and the fog lifts, I can barely believe it’s real.
One of the most vital functions of my work is to facilitate culture change. What exactly does this mean? I am often asked what I do and find myself struggling to have the words to describe it. I decided to look up some definitions:
Here are some relevant definitions for culture:
An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning.
The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization or group.

And for culture change:
The shared beliefs, values, and behaviors of organizational members become the target of the change process.
Enlightenment resulting from intellectual development.

What I am facilitating is a change in consciousness within our organization. I can think of no clearer way to describe it. Barring some tragic event, this process usually takes a long time, dedication, desire and willingness of at least the critical mass of employees.
Why is there a need to change the current culture? Just like individuals, organizations grow over time and with experiences. I told you about the generations of employees here. There are many beliefs, values and characteristics that have been passed on from generation to generation. Many of these still fit the current paradigm. Many are in need of change. For example, back in the days before the dams were built, tugboaters had to push their tows upriver through dangerous rapids. They were commended for getting the job done as quickly as possible, regardless of the risks they took. It was a little like the wild west and there was a thrill in beating the odds. Now things have evolved to a place where safety is valued more than speed, efficiency or valor. Well, this is true for most anyways. There are a few renegades still around who will put safety on the back burner, but for the most part, the culture around this has changed. There was a time here in the past and under different leadership, that the employees were treated with little respect, especially in certain departments. After years and years of this type of leadership, the group began to act like a dysfunctional family. There were secrets that were not spoken. Communication lines broke down completely. There arose a belief that the leadership would punish employees for bringing light to safety concerns. It became a very “us versus them’” culture. After a time the leadership changed, but the culture was stuck in this old paradigm. This is where I came into the picture along with a few others, tasked with facilitating a change into a new, healthier way of being as an organization.

Over the past year I built relationships and attempted to insert myself into the culture in order to get a clear picture. I chipped away and chipped away at getting people to talk. We had meeting after meeting where the group would sit in silence, unwilling to speak their thoughts. This group had been beaten down. I found ways to feed their sense of importance and value. Things have recently begun to show the beginning signs of a shift. A few brave souls have started talking, and authentically at that. I knew they had it in them. They are still very skeptical, but at least they are opening up to the possibility that things have really changed.
I started the job at about the same time that I and my children moved in with my partner, now husband. When we moved in, my husband and I both held this vision of our home being a place of safety and peace. We desired a place where we were free from violence. We had both come from an abusive past and found each other through our common threads of this past and held these values in very high esteem. Somehow we believed the children would fall right into line with this family culture we were creating. Boy, were those some rose colored glasses. We did not take into account that they were still living half time in a very different culture, where aggression and even violence were part of life. I also did not take into account how absent I had been with my children after my divorce, while I was working through my own grief and trauma.
We have chipped away and chipped away in attempt to lure them into our paradigm. It is very slow going. We see a family counselor. We have meetings where we all get to speak our thoughts and feelings. My husband and I continue to process though our own past traumas that resurface again and again as we do this relationship work. The children are still skeptical that this ideal is even possible, and that there is a healthier way of being.
My personal challenge with this pursuit of change, both at home and at work, is finding peace with the present. It is so easy for me to slip into thinking that since we are trying to change, that now is somehow flawed. I am always reaching for this idealistic goal of perfection, of enlightenment. I do enjoy the process, and the gifts are endless. It is a daily practice, however to value the present moment for the perfection that it already is.
This morning I walked down to the river to greet the day. I looked to the East, toward the rising sun. The clouds lingered above and obscured the direct rays of the sun, but the light made its way though enough to let me know it was there. The result was breathtakingly beautiful. I felt a long moment of Ananda - supreme bliss.

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