Leveraging Organizational Culture

What would you say if I told you that a key factor that impacts your bottom line every day is being consistently ignored? Your organizational culture is the fabric of your organization – it impacts relationships, accountability, motivation and commitment. When an organization’s culture is purposeful and effective, it can make the difference during hard times or critical deadlines. But when an organization’s culture is chaotic, unfriendly, or unintentional, your organization will experience challenges retaining talent and experiencing alignment – even in the best of times!

Many of our clients will spend resources on a conflict after the fact. We get urgent calls, in fact, from clients when there is an emergency:

“The majority of staff is upset over the firing of a beloved staff person – the first person of color in a leadership role. We can’t get passed this.”

“A long term volunteer is suspected of harassment and there’s a deep division among his supporters and detractors.”


“Our all white leadership team is stuck with how to move a racial justice effort forward.”


“A great deal of effort is being spent on major donor solicitations with no energy or resources being put into grassroots fundraising – and we call ourselves a grassroots advocacy organization.”


These are just a handful of situations. The list could be 10 times longer. Why is it so much easier to make the case to spend the money on an organization’s culture after the problem emerges, instead of planning for strategic culture change proactively?

What would it mean to take the old adage “Culture Eats Strategy for Breakfast” seriously? How can we build accountable, just, and joyful organizations?


Four Practices

There are three practices that set organizations up for successful and intentional culture change:

  1. Engagement. Notice who is engaged and who’s not. And begin to check in with everyone. Stay interviews! Not only exit interviews. Why is this person staying? What do they love about their role and responsibilities? Why do they care about the organization? What would make them even more excited or enthusiastic?
  2. Community Building. How do people know one another? Are we spending any down time together? Do all the same people eat together all the time or hang out after work? Who is left out of these informal rituals and what is the price paid for these unintentional exclusions? How can we build better relationships across the organization? Are there opportunities to serve on cross-departmental teams and are those efforts resourced appropriately? How can we build trust if we don’t know each other?
  3. Integrate Racial Justice into Everything. Are you asking enough questions? Every meeting debrief, every plan, every conversation can be imbued with questions about how this decision will impact people of color on staff. Who will benefit from this decision? Who could be hurt? What can be done to be transparent about power and status? How might white supremacy be influencing our frame, language, assumptions? What are the most effective ways of explaining these choices and reflections to our stakeholders, including our donors?
  4. Infrastructure. Your organization’s infrastructure is key. How you establish the boundaries for communication, data, meetings, job descriptions, and work deadlines all establish clarity. When we don’t have agreed to and transparent expectations for one another, we can have more interpersonal conflict – conflicts that we think are about personality or identity or status – when in fact, we are in conflict because we don’t know what to expect, or from who to expect it or when it will be expected. Systems and structures are necessary.

By recognizing disengagement, striving to build community, integrating racial justice into our work, and by having strong infrastructures – our organizations will cultivate a collective sense of purpose and trust. We will recruit and retain talent more easily, manage hard conversations more readily, and evolve cultures that are strategic. We will surpass our goals.

The Stay Interview

When I speak about equity and inclusion with clients, I often ask about turnover rates for whites and people of color. Unsurprisingly, we uncover (gently and with the trembling of all of Human Resources) that there is no clear documentation or process for monitoring these rates. With the few clients who do have trustworthy data, people of color do tend to leave faster, in higher numbers, and often with fewer second chances than whites.

And what about exit interviews?

Exit interviews are a tradition of organization reflection- an attempt to understand what went wrong and what could we have done to retain (or in some cases make a different hiring decision) an employee. Was the job description accurate? Was there a plan for when the grant didn’t get renewed? Was there sufficient coaching and professional development? Was their manager given adequate resources?

What about the exit interview? I ask.

The look is one of shame, apology, overwhelm and confusion. We discuss the challenge of who and when and what to do with the feedback. These are considerable obstacles and it’s not a simple set of operations. Depending on the role, the individual and the circumstance, the Human Resources or Office Manager as is the case is smaller shops, is the person to convene this series of questions and come up
with a plan.

But why wait for me? Why wait for the dramatic departure of the first black executive team member or the angry call from the board member who saw the vaguebooking by a disgruntled Trans employee?

Recently I heard someone describe an innovative practice at their organization:

The Stay Interview

Stay interviews are conducted to assess employees’ job satisfaction and their career ambitions, the aspects of their job they most enjoy, and the elements of the job or the organization they find challenging; concerns that might cause them to leave.

Employees are given the opportunity to reflect and share their experiences and the organization learns more about the impact of it’s’ structure and culture. In order for Stay Interviews to be most successful, managers should aim for the best job of your life question. “What factors would contribute to you doing the best work of your life?” This is how managers learn about the ambitions and the passions of their employees.

And when we uncover the hearts of our colleagues, we let them know that their passion and purpose matter. Whether we can match them or not, then and there, is an honest question. But we have demonstrated an authentic interest in them and they know it. These conversations are fresh air, they are opportunities for reflection and honest dialogue.

Stay interviews afford us a glimpse of possible futures.

Creating A Learning Organization: Debriefing is Key

Many of us put a tremendous effort into programs, systems and meetings – Most times we spend more time designing, recruiting and planning the logistics for an event than the action or meeting actually takes. And yet, few of my clients choose to plan and schedule debriefs for all their hard work. The manager of a 500 volunteer effort for an event that lasts over 6 days recently asked to help design a debrief. I asked them how long the event had been happening. 18 years!

There’s a lot of reasons we skip debriefs: We are tired and relieved it’s over! We have other high priority work that’s been waiting for us. We aren’t really sure what we want to ask. We can’t stand the moaning and complaining sessions that debriefs inevitably become.

And yet – there’s so much learning that can come from a solid debrief – plus, our teams get stronger and we learn quickly to be adaptive and incorporate the feedback.

Debriefing meetings, projects, programs, and retreats is key to building team self-awareness, increasing open communication and keeping team culture top of mind. If you are not making time to debrief or self-evaluate, too much will go unsaid and come out sideways!

Here are some easy to use debrief tools – (Pro-Tip: Don’t use them all at the same time!)

  1. The Plus/Delta (change) – a 1 hour meeting format that can be used with a tiny group of 3 to a larger groups of 33. It’s a simple list – what did we like? What do we change? If you prefer to protect anonymity, people can use sticky notes and place them – handwriting is a concern.
  2. Highlights/Lowlights – a 1-3 hour debrief with this as a check in question. Individuals write and then share with 2-3 others or with the whole group. A great way to kick off a longer conversation.
  3. Sweet Questions: This is a fun activity. Get some little candy bars and send them around the table. Everyone picks one or two candies out. Each candy corresponds to a question. Go around the table and ask people to answer the question(s) that is connected to their candy.
  • The best logistical decision we made is:
  • A thing we should NEVER do again:
  • A courageous choice we made was:
  • A thing I learned about this team is:
  • What surprised me the most was:
  • What I learned about myself is:
  1. Meeting Debrief:
    • How did our team get stronger through this process/meeting
    • What is 1 thing you would change about this meeting?
    • What is 1 thing you appreciate about our time together?
    • What were the surprises today?
  1. Surveys! You may choose to send a survey out separately for collecting opinions from your team or, you can send a survey to debrief participants and then share the collective data at an in-person meeting. It’s a great way to step back and look at the wisdom of the team.

Whether you do a long and elaborate 38 question survey or quick 5 question survey, matrix questions are a great way to get a lot of feedback along a similar vein:

  • How effectively did we… (communicate before the event, recruit attendees, plan the food, manage the fundraising, plan the program, etc.)
  • How comfortable were you with … (with your role, with the space, with our final turnout)
  • How satisfied were you with…
  • On a scale of 1-5, how did we….
    • Live into our values?
    • Lift up/center marginalized voices?
    • Use our conflict to innovate?

About Demographics: Asking demographic questions of respondents in debrief survey is one way to demonstrate your commitment to justice. Explain to survey takers why you are asking questions about their identity – “we want to be accountable about our values and so we are asking demographics in order to assess how people’s identities and their experience connect.” If the most satisfied/happy/comfortable people all identify as white or people who have been with the event for several years – that is good information for you to have. Once you examine the data, you can re-set the bar for your next event. You may experience some discomfort as you try to implement this – And I would encourage you and your team to ask “Who benefits from us leaving the demographics out?”

Ultimately, debriefs are a courageous way of building your smarts as a team. It’s a strategic opportunity to learn about your strengths as well as opportunities for improvement. Sometimes, it’s smart to bring in an outside staff person, volunteer or consultant to facilitate the discussion. And whatever you do, remember to add a line to your budget for next year: “debrief meeting.”

Let Us Help: If you want support designing a debrief meeting or need a facilitator – give us a call 336-404-5959