What Makes a Conscious Business Culture?

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By Paul Levy and Jamie Pyper

 Here we go again …. Culture!

We’ve come a long way since culture was described as “the way we do things around here.” That simple definition underpins what writers such as Charles Handy said way back in the ’80s: “in organisations there are deep-set beliefs about the way work should be organised, the way authority should be exercised, people rewarded, people  controlled.” These deep-set beliefs, formulated as rules, structures, formal and informal processes, constitute the organisational culture.

Back in those 1980s, when futurist music was in full digital swing, we also had the definition of organisational culture offered by Edgar Schein. He described culture as “the pattern of basic assumptions that a group has invented, discovered or developed, to cope with its problems of external adaptation or internal  integration, that have worked well and are taught to new members as the way to perceive, think, feel and behave.

Now we are in deep and hot, swirling waters here. We have to content with “deep set beliefs” and “patterns”, if we are to understand culture, according to these writers. There’s come truth in that.

The Paradox of Conscious Business Culture

And yet, there’s a paradox. Because, in our view and experience, conscious businesses are emergent in, not only their actions and reactions in real time, but also unto their core beliefs and assumptions. In conscious businesses, even deep-rooted assumptions have to be allowed to shift, in real time. A conscious business culture will always have strong emergent and temporary qualities to it. Organisational habit will be the habit of not allowing habits to fix for any longer than they are needed. A conscious business embodies the old organisational proverb that the rate of learning is greater than or equal to the rate of change. And the paradox is that even this must be a daily renewed behaviour and not an ingrained habit that we, as a business, fall asleep too.

The golden rule of a truly conscious business is that there are no golden rules. The paint of a conscious business’s organisational culture rarely dries. The brush lies soft and ready for the canvas of possibility and unfolding happenings.

Checking out the Contradiction by Checking in

And now for the contradiction. If a conscious business is a dynamic open system in a changing environment, then its culture will be influenced by those changes, and also by deeper values that are truly alive, authentic, refreshed and renewed. These deeper values, when renewed, will likely repeat if there are “timeless qualities” to them. An example of a timeless quality is an archetype. Love is one example. Honesty is another. We can habitualise these because they are so timeless, and because we have experience of them emerging usefully in all kinds of situations over time. We become used to them. Yet there is still a danger that automatic reactions can become so habitual, that they result in lowered consciousness. It is still useful and healthy to revisit, refresh and renew even our deepest values. One ritual of renewal is the “check in”, where a group shares how they are feeling, “where I am at right now” with the rest of the group. Here there is an opportunity for “jarring” to be shared, where something may well have shifted in our collective “normal” state and we can look at it together. The check in, for some groups, is literally a one minute, turn-taking- sharing of “how I am feeling right now”. Here we may surface that assumptions about the culture are not as shared as we thought they were, and that people are out of sync with each other. There’s an opportunity here to explore any complacency that might have set in.

Some Relatively Timeless Features of a Conscious Business

So, with the proviso in place that nothing is ever fixed for its own sake in a conscious business, we are ready to offer a few features of a conscious business culture that we’ve tended to find in businesses we’d identify as conscious businesses. And once more – that health warning: none of these qualities of culture should be allowed to fall into such a fixed habit that they send the business to sleep…

A conscious business is a culture in which…

1. There is a  common, unifying purpose

2. There is active Collaboration

3. There is Distributed Leadership

4. There is Enough trust for Openness and vulnerability in communications

5. There is space for, and Integration of left and right brain activity equally

6. Failure is destigmatized and seen as an authentic opportunity for organisational learning

7. Transparency  and self-renewal as a shared virtue

8. A Human centric approach to coordination and management

9. An ethic that win-win is prioritized with all stakeholders

10: A focus on developing useful and usable principles and trust rather than rules and control

11. Equality and diversity


Diving in deeper

Now, we;ll take a more detailed look at these features. They are not an exhaustive list, but provide indications of the kinds of cultural features that appear to be repeating and re-emerging when conscious businesses reflect on their cultures.

1. There is a  common, unifying purpose

Common purpose is arrived at through dialogue and authentic communication. Purpose may be led by those in financial ownership, but efforts are made to ensure that joining the enterprise is a free, authentic act, based on voluntary commitment to the purpose. In more democratic and sociocratic businesses, shared purpose is arrived at through discussion, debate and an attempt to achieve consensus and common ground. The purpose is not remote or too rhetorical; it can be translated in ways that guide daily behaviour

2. There is active Collaboration

Collaboration is the way to get things done. Collaboration is self-organised where possible, and leadership and more formal types of control emerge out of the needs of the moment, not from structured habit.Collaboration includes inter-project learning, skilful overlap between functions and across organisational boundaries. The business is skilled in ways of collaborating. Competition is not pursued for its own sake. and attempts are made to collaborate rather than seek win-lose outcomes.

3. There is Distributed Leadership 

Leadership is not so much a person, than an emergent need and business activity. Leaders arise out of real needs and is distributed across the employee and stakeholder base. Leaders are never institutionalised, though a leader may remain a leader if that is needed, even for years. Leaders emerge, return to other roles, arise again, as and when needed. Leadership is seen as a shared responsibility and an act of service to the organisation and its people.

4. There is Enough Trust for Openness and Vulnerability in Communications

Vulnerability is a subtle asset for the organisation. We are prepared to be vulnerable (and to take risks when needed) because we do not fear humiliation and trust our colleagues to support us. People aren’t defensive of their status and “positions”, but rather seem themselves as part of a community, where the community reflects the virtues of each individual, and where, in each individual, the strengths and needs of the community are reflected. It’s a kind of holographic “culture”. With trust, there is the practice of openness. Information is shared and never stored for political purposes. Information is shared where and as needed, and there is a faith in others to act in all of our best interests.

5. There is space for, and Integration of, left and right brain activity equally

Recently left and right brain has been critiqued as a valid metaphor for how we think and create. Even at the level of a metaphor it can still be useful to characterise a conscious business culture in which we do not over-value the “hard numbers” at the expense of trusted instincts and intuitions. We have both in a conscious business. A conscious business is evidence based, but also values imagination and lateral thinking as ways of dialoguing with emerging reality.

6. Failure is destigmatized and seen as an authentic opportunity for organisational learning

A conscious business is a culture of learning; that includes learning from both success and failure. A conscious business also skilfully places experimentation within clear awareness of risks. Experimentation includes the need to learn from the negative hypotheses we set up. A conscious business encourages feelings to arise about our failures and for all to commit to the consequences of under-performance. But this is not stigmatised. There is much opportunity for personal and professional development, and linking learning to improvement and innovation. There is a “blame” culture. But here blame is grown up. Blame is really transformed into responsibility – individual, collective and organisational responsibility for what goes wrong as what goes right. At the root of this is a need to turn responsibility into the “ability to respond” – the learn and correct, to achieve reconciliation.

7. Transparency and self-renewal as a shared virtue

Without clarity there can be no transparency. Without being able to clearly see “Into” the organisation’s processes, we can’t be a conscious business. A conscious business needs sharpened, even heightened senses. It regularly enhances its information systems, ensures information and knowledge is up to date, and shared where and when needed. It is regularly self-renewing, adjusting and correcting its self-image, It seeks open flow of information with external partners to ensure it remains a clear-seeing open system, able to react quickly and as needed. This behaviour is seen as a key virtue in the business and forms the heart of recruitment, induction, learning and development.

8. A Human centric approach to coordination and management

A conscious business sees its people as its foundation for success. People are the energy that form the commitment to it acting at its best. People offer creativity into it, lessons and reflections that help it improve. Coordination is based on respect for people. We do not have human “resources”. We have people. We seek consensus but also the business is based on “grown up” approaches to giving and receiving feedback. We do not hide behind “niceness” but we ensure honesty is constructive and respectful of diversity. Coordination involves “checking in” with each other, and people act, not only for themselves, but also on behalf of their colleagues. There’s nothing cheesy about teamwork in a conscious business. It is emotionally intelligent and focused on achieve best performance for the business.

9. An ethic that win-win is prioritized with all stakeholders

A Conscious Business believes that creating “losers” – either internally or externally, generates resentment, reduces commitment and motivation. This, in turn, can harm openness, and damage the business’s quality of consciousness. It can harm the quality of feedback it receives as well as creative commitment. Win-lose redistributes energy, and insodoing, unbalances the flow of motivation in the system. Win-win tends to create synergy, increases motivation and also trust and commitment to improvement and innovation. Win-win is also longer term, and, when embedded in long term trust, can still allow individuals, groups, suppliers and customers, to “take a short term hit” in order to achieve a better longer term outcomes. Win-win is about enhancing self-esteem and finding new, emergent ideas and resources that arise from synergy, the notion that the whole becomes greater  than the sum of the parts. A conscious business always takes a meta-systemic, holistic view.

10: A focus on developing useful and usable principles and trust rather than rules and control

Structures supports, but also weighs down. In a conscious business, rules and control are usually temporary, they tend to arise from self-organisation rather than being imposed through top-down power structures. Externally imposed rules such as legal requirements are mutually understood and discussed to achieve common ground commitment and understanding. Internally rules arise and are regularly reviewed, tied closely to the needs of the present moment. Some rules and structures may pervade over the longer term where they prevent risky outcomes. The organisation tends towards shared values and principles that guide us towards to kind of conscious and even wise behaviours that rules often clumsily try to force us towards. Control arises in a conscious business from the self-organising groups that are delivering value to the business. For example, control of cost arises from values of “lean” or sustainability, rather than because a boss has ordered a cost-cutting drive. This links to openness with the financial and other resource needs of the business.

11. Equality and diversity

In a conscious business, we have an equal right to be individual and different. We also have a duty to direct our individuality towards achieving the commonly understood and committed to purpose of the business. We make reasonable adjustments for each other, operate fairly and seek equal opportunity, whilst celebrating and looking to best utilise individual difference and diversity. Individuality is largely self-defined in a conscious business. There are helpful and easy exit points out of the organisation for those whose self-defined difference is leading too far away from the share purpose of the business; leaving isn’t traumatic but a positive, free act.

The business uses diversity to gain multiple perspectives and viewpoints. It is a sensitive employer because it seeks the best in each person in the business.


A self-assessment exercise

Try this short self-assessment activity. You can do it individually for your business or you could do it with colleagues in your organisation.

Score each of the items above on a scale of 1 to 10 where, 1 means: “This feature doesn’t describe our business at all and 10 means “Yes, that describes us completely”. Score anywhere from 1 to 10.

This will create a good starting point for identifying how you might develop a conscious business culture in your organisation


A final warning

Remember our paradox. These features may well change. So far, working in the field of conscious business for a few years, we have found them emerging as possible archetypal and timeless qualities that represent how to be conscious in the current world economy. They may well be very different in the future. We are reviewing them all the time, “out there” and also in our own businesses.

The emerging digital realm may well modify and even transform these “features” of a conscious business culture. There are already differing definitions around privacy. We all used to take right to privacy for granted as a core cultural value. Companies such as Facebook suggest that right to privacy is being superseded by “right to decide what to share”. Privacy settings on social media platforms then become up for debate.

But, for now, the above model represents a useful starting point for taking the first steps to developing a conscious business culture. Contact us if you want to talk further about making your business culture more conscious.


Paul Levy is director of CATS300 and Jamie Pyper is a director of Conscious Business People.


Visit our Conscious Business Realm

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