Creating an Open Culture of Gratitude*

Five Actions Gratitude- horizontal

The executive leaders of businesses are not just strategic decision-makers and systems managers, but the creators of culture.  This culture is the human dimension of their organization. It is how people interact, communicate, collaborate and operate ethically. 

There are some aspects of a healthy culture that transcend time and place, industry and organizational purpose. One of those marks is openness.

Two questions drive this interest for me.

What is an open culture?

How can the practice of gratitude contribute to it?

Think of a culture of a business as being the product of the ideas and relationships of people connected to it.

A culture has distinguishing characteristics, activities, branded products and services. and specific processes that represent that culture. It is also the connecting ideas of purpose or mission, values, vision and impact that are given life by the people within the culture. A culture is what binds people together as a group, a movement or an organization, and provides them a way to interact and support what matters to them collectively.

Cultures can be open or closed, healthy or dysfunctional, unified or confused, sustainable or dying.

The key to creating a healthy, sustainable culture is openness.

The Marks of an Open Culture

In an open culture there are low barriers to contributing.

A new person can join, and immediately make an impact. There is no process of jumping through hoops to determine whether you are worthy of contributing. I see this particularly in social organizations, whether a club or religious congregation. In an open culture, people join and start participating and contributing right away. Their contribution is valued and recognized.

Another characteristic of an open organizational culture is a high incidence of personal initiative being taken by members. In my mind, initiative is the beginning of all leadership. Without initiative, there is no leadership, only passive followership.

In a closed culture, the initiative is reserved for the authority figures. They decide what the group does and doesn’t do. This high control environment means that personal initiative is resisted and those who may be more independent, creative and innovative in their attitudes and behaviors are discouraged or punished for being so. In an open culture, people recognize that they have the opportunity and responsibility to create new and better ways of realizing the impact of their organization. So, they take personal initiative to make difference that matters.

A third mark is that openness creates a higher level of adaptability. In a closed culture, the mindset becomes defensive and resistant to change. The assumption is that a culture is fixed in time, and remains the same over time.  Rather, what is fixed are the values that drive the culture. The expression of those values can change over time. But the values don't.

Jim Collins and Jerry Porras in their book, Built To Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, make the distinction between core values and cultural practices.

“Core Values are the organization’s essential and enduring tenets – a small set of timeless guiding principles that require no external justification.”

Cultural practices, in their model, are those practices that have replaced the core values as the drivers of the company. These practices have lost their connection to the core values with the result that the company becomes closed to opportunities through change.

In an open culture, values matter. 

Your mission or purpose can change. Your vision can change. Your understanding of the impact that you want to have can change. They can because you are adapting to changes that are occurring simultaneously throughout the landscape of your business.  What guides you through change are your values. 

In an open culture, people find a culture where there are low barriers to contributing, their personal initiative to make a difference that matters is welcomed, and the company adapts more easily to change by being rooted in its values.

The challenge to creating an open culture is implementation. It is one thing to have well defined connecting ideas. It is another thing to know how to act upon them within the structure of the organization.

What I've discovered is that the practice of gratitude, as characterized in Say Thanks Every Day: The Five Actions of Gratitude, is a set of strategic practices that support an open culture.

The Five Actions of Gratitude as Openness Strategy 

Each of the five actions is an outreach of openness to others. It is not protective, defensive, exclusionary or elitist. It is open, grateful, giving, welcoming, respectful and creative.

Five Actions Gratitude

To Say Thanks is appreciate the actions and impact of another person.

It is recognizing another person or group’s contribution to your life and work. It is also a type of self-awareness that sees the beneficial place of others in our life

To Give Back is to recognize that I want to give back in service to persons, groups or communities some measure of the goodness that I’ve received from them.

This is not a payback of a debt owed, except as a debt of gratitude. It is an act of thankful contribution.

Imagine if this was the culture of your office right now. What would it would it look like. Maybe, what you’d see is a higher level of not just contribution, but sharing of work and responsibilities so that it gets done, and done well.

To Make Welcome is to create an open environment for people to take initiative to contribute.

With openness comes personal responsibility to make the workplace a better place to work, to innovate ways to better serve customers, and to resolve problems and issues before the grow into a crisis.

This is the key action for creating an open culture. It requires a specific kind of leadership that permits others to lead along side one another. It is a culture of shared responsibility and opportunity.

To Honor Others is to treat people with dignity, respect and kindness.

These are values that characterize the best of relationships. The are the basis for a culture of gratitude and trust.

The reality for most businesses is that these are rarely evident with any degree of strength. Why is it so?  My guess is that these practices require effort and commitment.  They do not easily translate to a company's bottom-line. They are not typically the qualifications for executive leadership. These values only create efficiency when the culture has reached a level of maturity. As noted above, it is this culture that produces the adaptability that is so essential for sustainable growth in the current business environment.

To Create Goodness is the outcome of an open culture that invites personal initiative to make a difference that matters.

Creativity is born in the initiative of a person. It rises from their values, their sense of purpose, the questions that lead them to explore new ways of doing the things and finally to make a difference that matters.

Goodness is the impact of an open culture. As the ancient Greeks understood goodness, it is a way to understand the fulfillment of purpose. It is way to understand wholeness, completeness, integrity and success. It is the fulfillment of the potential that resides in each of the connecting ideas. It is that intangible quality that brands the experience that people within a company's culture comes to measure the organization by.  It is the product of personal initiative, which flourishes within an open culture.

Creating an Open Culture of Gratitude

These practices are not just good ideas, which they are, not just good things to do, which they are, but more importantly a systemic strategy for the effective functioning of every organization. In order for a system of gratitude to be developed, the system that currently exists must be changed or replaced. It may be a small change or a large one, but turning your organization into an open culture of gratitude creates an environment of shared leadership that attracts the best talent to join you.

Leading in an Open Culture of Gratitude

I hear from people that gratitude is this sweet, grandmotherly sentiment that has little relevance to leading organizations. Obviously, they didn't know my grandmother. Instead, to practice gratitude as I've outlined here requires personal maturity, inner confidence, and a willingness to trust. Instead of it being trite, it is the most transformative, courageous thing an executive leader can do. 

To transform an organization’s culture from a closed one to an open one is dependent on the person at the top changing. It is a simple change, but a very difficult one. It is difficult because it is not tactical, but personal.

In order for an open culture of gratitude to grow, you have to decide that you are not the go-to-guy for everything, that you can’t make every decision, resolve every issue, be the king or queen on the throne, and be the one who dictates the course of your business. You can't even be the expert at creating an open culture of gratitude. You have to realize that you are a facilitator of talent, and that the value of that talent is only realized fully when each person is free to exercise their personal initiative for the greater good of the customer, other employees, the business and the community.

This is a change of mindset, of attitude and behavior. This is the supreme test of the character of the leader. Can you let go and let you people lead? If you can, then you can create an open culture of gratitude. If not, then you will be following those who can do it.

Openness is the key, and gratitude is the strategy that elevates openness to a practical, functional level.

Be grateful, giving, welcoming, honoring and creative and you’ll find new depth of impact emerging from the parts of your organization that have never produced to their potential. It all starts by being open and grateful.

* An earlier version of those post appeared as one of The Stewardship of Gratitude columns in Weekly Leader.


Quick Takes: Open Sourcing your business

Hard economic times demand creativity. Here's a story from Bill Taylor that is a great example of a principle that is very important for leaders to understand.


Bill speaks about "open-source footware." A clever play on words that is also an insightful perspective for leaders to have. Open source simply means open to contribution. In this case, customers are designing shoes that the company then makes and sells.

The question that you may have is how do I create an open-source environment in my business?

The simplest place to begin is to decide that you are no longer the expert in your business. In some respects, what you know may inhibit development of creative approaches to dealing with this recession.  Your assumptions may blind you to new possibilities. If you are trying to make by doing the same things, by working hard, by cutting costs sharper, then you may find that this isn't enough.

Let me borrow a theological term to describe what we must do. We need to "repent" of our expertness. To repent simply means to turn around. We turn around by asking questions. Ask questions about assumptions. Ask questions of staff, customers, and maybe even competitors.

To make this change is to invite others into the decision making process that governs your business. The collaboration that follows is a key to the future.


The psychology of openness

Hugh McLeod has picked up a gig to blog about Microsoft. He makes an interesting point about open-source and its value to shareholders and CEOs. Seth Godin challenges the thought with the comment:

Almost no new idea meets the needs of shareholders and CEOs. That's because most of all they need predictability and apparent freedom from risk. This is why public companies are almost always on the road to disaster. They flee from change in order to do what they think is meeting the needs of those constituents. They fight changes in laws, policies, technologies and markets because their CEO (especially) wants a nice even flight pattern while he racks up big time options.

Shrink wrap software feels safe. Secure. Supported. Beyond reproach.

This reminds me of Guy Kawasaki's posting on the difference between Fixed and Growth oriented thinking as understood by Carol Dweck. He followed up the post with a video of Dr Dweck speaking about the difference.  I commented on the idea here.

I encounter a lot of people are of a fixed or closed mindset.  They are security oriented people. I find them resistant to thinking logically, openly.  They are tradition bound in the sense that tradition is some "fixed" object or culture, rather than a living practice that has existed for generations.

What I find with these people is fear and insecurity.

Here's an example. If you haven't seen The Devil Wears Prada, I highly recommend it. My daughter called it a chick flick. It is a chick flick, just as much as The Emperor's Club is a guy flick. Both films however are about leadership, personal ethics, and the role of character in the maturity process of young people . In The Devil Wears Prada, Meryl Streep plays a very tough fashion magazine editor. She treats people very hard, very condescendingly. You get the impression that she feels that most people are not worthy of anything but scorn.  The filmakers do a good job of making Streep's character, Miranda Priestly, a real person who has a side beyond the meanness. There is a vulnerability to her. I've talked with a few people about the movie, and universally, they see her as an ogre. I however, see her as a person who is committed to an ideal, a mission, with a vision for the importance and the potential of her magazine.

Anne Hathaway's character Andy understands this and yet chooses something else. They understand one another, though Miranda would never allow Andy to become a "best" friend to her.

What I see in Miranda is not so much a fixed mindset, but rather an openness to the potential hidden in her field. Everyone else, except Andy, is living within a fixed mindset of survival. No matter how hard they work, they are working for the position, the status, the promotion.  In essence, their goal is narrow and fixed. It doesn't mean that Miranda doesn't want the status or the position and all the trappings of success. But she sees them as means to another end, the success of the magazine.

Openness as characterized in open-source technology is a key to the viability of many businesses. If they cannot imagine doing anything else, or imagine changing what they do, then they are seeking the security that is fleeting at best. 

What I find is that with openness in business comes openness in other arenas.  In The Devil Wears Prada, young Andy begins to see through the assistance of her friends that she is following the same path as Miranda. She sees what Miranda's life has become and choses something different.  Her openness is a position of strength that is exhibited when she walks away from her job to begin again.

Openness is a real key to success of any venture. It is also one of those things that is difficult to control, hence the resistance to change. From my perspective, with the boards that I've worked with over the years, openness involves just too much risk. However, if those same boards understood that standing still involves a different kind of risk, they might think differently.  What they are looking for is the sure thing. There isn't any. Just opportunity. That is why openness is such a key mindset to have.