In today's competitive and volatile business landscape, companies are placing increasing demands on their employees. However, the same factors that drive businesses also overwhelm individuals, fueling fear and compromising their potential. While many C-Suite leaders strive to cultivate high-performance cultures, our findings suggest that focusing on performance alone may not be the healthiest or most sustainable approach. Instead, fostering a culture of growth proves to be more effective. This article explores the concept of a growth culture and outlines the key components needed to build one.
The Foundation of a Growth Culture: A culture represents the collective beliefs that shape people's behavior. While learning organizations traditionally prioritize intellectual aspects such as knowledge and expertise, a genuine growth culture delves deeper, considering individuals' emotions and resultant behaviors. In a growth culture, individuals enhance their capacity to identify blind spots, acknowledge insecurities and weaknesses, and channel energy away from defending personal value towards creating external value. Thus, how individuals feel and how they make others feel become equally significant to what they know.
Inspiration from Deliberately Developmental Cultures: Our approach draws inspiration from the influential work of Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey on building "deliberately developmental cultures." Constructing a growth culture requires a combination of individual and organizational elements:
Safe Environment: Leaders must create an atmosphere of safety by exemplifying vulnerability and taking personal responsibility for their shortcomings. This paves the way for others to feel secure and encourages them to acknowledge their own vulnerabilities.
Continuous Learning: A growth culture emphasizes learning through inquiry, curiosity, and transparency instead of judgment, certainty, and self-protection. By embracing continuous learning, individuals and organizations foster a mindset that prioritizes growth over maintaining the status quo.
Experimentation: Overcoming the unconscious assumption that change is dangerous requires conducting manageable experiments with new behaviors. These experiments challenge the notion that altering the established order will result in negative consequences.
Feedback Loop: A growth culture thrives on continuous feedback flowing in all directions within the organization. Grounded in a shared commitment to personal and collective growth, feedback becomes a catalyst for improvement.
Contrasting Performance-Driven Cultures: A performance-driven culture often amplifies fears, perpetuating a zero-sum game where individuals are categorized as either winners or losers. This approach intensifies anxieties and swiftly eliminates those perceived as "losers." While growth cultures also value results, they view failures and shortcomings as invaluable opportunities for learning and improvement, fostering growth individually and collectively.
The Challenges of Practicing a Growth Culture: Adopting a growth culture is easier said than done. Our instinctive inclination is to conceal weaknesses and mistakes, rationalize and minimize them, fearing vulnerability and inadequacy. These fears constrict our perspectives rather than expanding them, precisely when the complexity of problems demands nuanced thinking.
Building a Growth Culture: A Personal Experience: At my company, we embarked on building a growth culture following a turbulent period that involved bringing in new leaders with diverse skill sets to redefine our services and operations. Initially, our conflict-averse culture, aimed at preserving harmony while the business thrived, concealed resentments that began surfacing during this time of change and uncertainty. Tensions grew between existing and new employees, as well as old and new approaches to running the business.
To address these challenges, we first focused on cultivating safety within our smaller team of senior leaders. An anonymous feedback process allowed employees to express their levels of trust across various dimensions. The feedback was raw and demanding, but we approached it with personal responsibility rather than defensiveness. By sharing the toughest feedback received, understanding its significance, and exploring alternative behaviors, we initiated a transformative journey.
We continued by devising experiments to challenge our ingrained behaviors, meeting weekly to monitor progress and setbacks, and seeking feedback from one another. After eight weeks, we shared the insights and actions taken with the entire company, kickstarting the construction of our growth culture.
The Balance of Challenge and Nurture: The most fundamental lesson we learned, both internally and while working with clients, is that nurturing growth necessitates striking a delicate balance between challenge and support. Like a young child exploring the world, individuals require both opportunities for growth and periodic reassurance. Too much challenge without enough support can overwhelm and break individuals down, while excessive comfort zones inhibit growth and weaken individuals over time.
Embracing a Growth Culture: While a performance culture focuses on mobilizing energy within defined limits, a growth culture seeks to liberate limitless energy. By fostering an environment of safety, continuous learning, experimentation, and feedback, organizations can cultivate a culture that empowers individuals to thrive and embrace their full potential. In a growth culture, the answer to unlocking energy is infinite.