Culture At Organizations – Ask Questions And Hear Answers But Watch Actions

Here is the funny thing that I have realized in the time between then and now, when the trainers were NOT talking to the membership coordinators they were making the best use of their time so they were, in essence, talking to their friends. We were new, temporary, and so few of us would be around for long enough to ever be elevated into the friend realm.

When I first started working at GoodLife Fitness as a membership coordinator I was filled with a blind or ignorant optimism about my future. It was my first official job working in a gym and in the fitness industry. While I had applied to be a personal trainer, the club was in need of sales people and decided to interview me for one of those roles. It didn’t really matter much to me one way or the other because I was ready for a change of industries having spent the first portion of my working life in IT as a manager. I interviewed well enough to get the job.

At the time I didn’t think much about it because it was not unusual for me to get hired for the jobs I interviewed for. None of them were much higher than entry level so taking a chance on me was a strategic decision – I have a degree and a fairly good attitude when it comes to the first few months of doing something new.

I didn’t begin to consider anything about it until a couple of weeks after I had been hired during the weeks following the on-boarding process. During this training, we were introduced to the sales system that the company used along with the scripts, features / benefits talking points about the gym and exercise in general, and some of the other aspects / services of the club. Pouring myself into the process I spent a lot of time doing my homework and practising the scripts and the fixed responses for common objections. I KNEW that I didn’t know what I was doing and opened myself up to doing exactly what I was told and adjusting my approach based on the feedback and coaching my manager provided. It was fun and I honestly enjoyed myself. It was also valuable. The company had either spent a lot of money to buy an effective system or they spent a lot of time developing one. While it was slightly stifling at the beginning, given that the push was to do what is outlined because it worked, but over time, you’d be able to adapt the approach to add more of yourself to make it more authentic.

I was conscientious and obedient, making the calls, booking the appointments, following the scripts, touring the prospective members, asking for the sale, overcoming the objections, asking and closing the sale, asking for the referrals, and then booking the new members into any of the orientation sessions that matched their fitness objectives. While I would never say that it was easy, it was very simple. You just needed to follow instructions, smile and be friendly, and as long as you did the activity that was outlined you would achieve the results that were predicted by the system.

At the conclusion of one of my early successful tours, during the new member hand-off to the customer service rep at the front desk, I happened to meet-up with one of the personal trainers. When I said hello, they replied with a reserved “hi” followed with a “did they just join?” Beaming I answered “yes” and their mood lifted completely. “Oh that’s great” looking at my name tag “Pat.” Jokingly I said “oh, I get to have a name now?” Their reply was stunning. “Yes, I might need to have to know it.”

I had calls to make so I laughed and walked away wondering what the heck I had just experienced. When I got to the sales office, I asked one of the other sales people if they had ever talked to that trainer. “I tried, but they didn’t seem very friendly. Rick is the only one who doesn’t seem to have a stick up his ass.” We laughed and got to work calling our leads trying to book people in for tours.

Over the next couple of days I started to pay more attention to the way the personal trainers interacted with the sales people and the rest of the staff. Other than Rick, the personal training manager, who was friendly and kind to everyone, the sales team were not treated with the same level of respect as everyone else by his team members. They were distant, landing as disinterested, and were kind of smug in the way a C level executive is at the company picnic. This all made me feel a little bit off. Up until that point I had not been thinking about it and was fine with the belief that everyone who worked at the club was just like me – enthusiastic, happy, and nice to everyone. Noticing their behaviour meant that I needed to change my view. But since I had been mostly clueless and noticed nothing strange before this, I knew that I didn’t have enough information to go on. Sure, maybe the club just hired personal trainers who were at least partial jerks, maybe all personal trainers were just jerks, or maybe something else was going on.

When faced with this dilemma I did what I always try to do, go to the source and ask some brutal questions.

The first trainer I spoke to answered my question “why do the trainers here seem to not have much interest in the sales team?” and it cleared everything up. “Because you won’t be here for very long. There is a turn over rate of 100% and frankly I’m fed-up getting to know people who just disappear after a few months. You get fired and never come back.”

He was right about the turnover. The other sales person who was hired with me lasted just a little more than two months (fired) and I moved on after five months (got a promotion to manage another location in a city a few hours away).

It seems important to mention that the club manager worked as hard as she could to make sure that we KNEW and followed the sales system and scripts as closely to the letter as possible. She was one of the best leaders that I have ever had and didn’t hold back when it came to coaching and being honest. She was very aware that she would need to replace the sales team three or four times a year as the low performers would get fired and those who remained would likely be given a promotion to a management role at a different club.

What was going on? At the time, everyone who worked for GoodLife Fitness at the club level was an hourly employee with the exception of the group fitness instructors, who all tend to be universally friendly people, and the personal trainers, who were not actually getting paid when they were at the club but not training anyone. It may seem petty and transactional, but any time the trainers spent at the club NOT training a client was their time. There was no financial reason for them to be there so most would just book it once their time was up. Sometimes they would talk to the customer service reps, which makes sense; given that customer service reps would only get fired for being unprofessional, most of them stayed at the job for years. The trainers were talking to their friends, so there was a value and investment factor for these interactions that was not there when it came to cultivating connections with the sales people.

Here is the funny thing that I have realized in the time between then and now, when the trainers were NOT talking to the membership coordinators they were making the best use of their time so they were, in essence, talking to their friends. We were new, temporary, and so few of us would be around for long enough to ever be elevated into the friend realm.

What does this have to do with corporate or organizational culture?

Recall the post People Act Like The Truth in which I discussed Heather’s habit of not believing the things that people say until she has seen them act in a way that validates that their brain also believes the things they are saying. Basically, we know that a person is speaking the truth as they know it when their actions and words are congruent. When they are not, you need to pay more attention to what they are saying because something is does not align. They are not talking about reality as they know it to be. They may be trying to get you to believe something that isn’t true, they may be trying to manipulate you into feeling a particular emotion, or they may be describing the world as they want it to be. You may not ever find out, and unless you notice the lack of congruence between words and actions and take the time to ask questions to dig in, you absolutely won’t.

Given that actions speak louder than words, we may need to adjust the value we place on the various input modalities until we become well enough calibrated to know that a persons words and actions are spawned from the same version of reality. We then need to ask them questions and listen and hear what they have to say about the organizations culture. We will also need to do this with a few people to make sure that their view of culture is aligned with what you have learned from others. The goal here is to track in on and surface the things on which everyone is aligned AND, if any exist, to surface the things for which they are personally aligned (words and actions) while being somewhat misaligned with the other people.

Take a moment to read the following definition / description of organizational culture while considering the question “what is the best way for someone to figure out the characteristics, qualities, and properties that combine to form the unique culture of a company?”

Organizational culture encompasses values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of a business. The organizational culture influences the way people interact, the context within which knowledge is created, the resistance they will have towards certain changes, and ultimately the way they share (or the way they do not share) knowledge. Organizational culture represents the collective values, beliefs and principles of organizational members. It may also be influenced by factors such as history, type of product, market, technology, strategy, type of employees, management style, and national culture. Culture includes the organization’s vision, values, norms, systems, symbols, language, assumptions, environment, location, beliefs and habits.

If we assume that “best” in this context is the combination of speed and accuracy that allows us to get the most of each, watching the behaviour of the people who work for the company is better than everything else. Yes, looking vs. listening shifts a lot of the heavy lifting in terms of creating a narrative onto the watcher and it will slow the reveal of industry specific nuance – given that a baseline level of knowledge is required in order to begin to understanding what is going on – but the human brain works to generate a congruent narrative automatically when one is not provided and the particular method for making widgets is much more heavily impacted by culture than the other way round.

When we get right down to it, organizational culture is about how a group of people interact with each other and the physical world, how all of these people move information between themselves, how information spreads throughout the company and how these movements impact or change this information. All of these, save maybe how the information changes, are observable and can be understood without having to read or hear anything. This means that we could watch the goings-on of any company in any country that does not use our native language and we would gain almost as much insight into the culture as we would by watching and listening to the operation of a company that functions in our native tongue. The reason for this is very straightforward, ALL human beings move and interact with the world in exactly the same way, using the same sensory tools and the same mechanism for determining, planning and coordinating our actions. With few exceptions, the parts of the brain that are active when handing someone a piece of paper are also active when we watch someone handing off or receiving a piece of paper. This characteristic of the human brain allows for a type of mind reading such that potential explanatory context are generated that surface the intention of an action. It is fairly superficial and yet the lack of a specific why has little to no impact on our ability to determine the interaction dynamic between the two people and to shape our understanding of the general rules of the company.

When we take this back to my experience at GoodLife as a new sales person and imagine that I was watching things for the first time, it is easy to imagine that I would have noticed how the personal trainers did not interact with the sales team in the same way as they did with everyone else. Upon noticing, it is entirely plausible that I would have mind-read that they did not like the sales people. And when we think about it, that is mostly true. They don’t KNOW the sales people therefore they have not yet learned to LIKE the sales people. Their actions are congruent with the mind-read intention. So, while the specifics are not clear – they didn’t want to invest in getting to know people who would be gone in a month or so – the cultural aspect of it was mostly clear.

So what?

There are no lies in the actions we take, even when the actions are intended to deceive. Lies need language and exist within the narratives used to describe, explain, or capture the meaning of events. We should therefore rely on our eyes more than our ears when we are attempting to figure out how the world is and only reverse this when someone has demonstrated that they are an honest broker of the truth who works earnestly to deal in facts and acknowledgements of “I don’t knows” when they do not know.

There are normative rules that govern the way things interact with each other. These rules will spontaneously emerge over time and, given long enough, they begin to shape all aspects of the these interactions. People who are new to the theatre in which these interactions are occurring will learn and follow these rules simply by interacting with those who are well versed. They will learn them even if they are never taught directly. Organizational or company culture is made-up of these rules and once a critical mass is reached, the culture becomes self-correcting and self-sustaining.

Once established and learned by its members, the culture will be shamelessly modelled by the members of the group. From here, it will begin to impact everyone who engages the organization – vendors, customers, investors, etc. – evoking a feeling that people will associate with the company.

When understood and influenced effectively, words will no longer be required to shape behaviour and little effort will be needed to keep things going. While this will be helpful during the good and normal times, it is essential for the survival of a company during the difficult times when people are displaced from their normal activities because it ensures that the rules of engagement and interaction are maintained even when there are material changes in how someone performs their job.