Understanding Workplace Culture

Perhaps it is the recent economic upsets that have us thinking less about money and more about quality of life. Perhaps it is the immediacy of media, and the amped up technology at our disposal that allows us to share our experiences so much more easily. Perhaps it is both of these things, prompting us to individually and collectively examine our work-lives. Whatever the reason, I am finding discussion and debates regarding workplace culture increasingly present.

So what is culture and why should we care about it?

Culture can be perceived as the climate of the work environment. It goes beyond what your company does, and instead, defines its character or personality. It is made up of the values, beliefs, traditions, behaviours and attitudes of the people that work there. In short, culture is the unwritten rules that govern an organization. As such, culture cannot be mandated. It evolves from the minutiae in every action and interaction that goes on in an office, sales floor or factory line.

Most importantly, culture is unique to your situation. So while this article is titled Understanding Workplace Culture, and it implies an explanation of the term, the deeper implication is; are you understanding your culture? Have you honestly examined the actions of your senior team members, managers, directors, and partners? Have you considered the attitude of your staff? What aspects of your workplace culture might be prompting their attitude? As a leader, are you with purpose and consistency actively involved in fostering an effective culture for your organization?

Culture has a cumulative effect, reflecting leadership, engagement, productivity, creativity and growth.  One might say, workplace culture, like a specimen in a petri dish, is growing all around you. All you have to decide is: are you going to create a culture that enables your organization to thrive, or one that won’t.

By the way, the photo today is courtesy of Tasha Sturm, Cabrillo College. It is an actual hand print on a large TSA plate from her – at the time – 8 1/2 year old son after playing outside. Cool, huh.

Better Teams, Better Companies – in 3 Books

We all find ourselves, at one time or another, growing dissatisfied with our present work situation, wandering over to the “100 Best Companies to Work For” list and wondering how do I get a job there. It is a well-accepted fact that people don’t quit jobs, they quit people; sometimes managers, sometimes co-workers. And while it might feel nice initially to just point the finger and take all the blame off yourself, this approach won’t be the most effective way to go about getting to that ‘best company’. So before you go updating your resume, what about creating that ‘best company’ where you are. But how?  I think it might be possible in three books.

Three books? Only three? Which three? Where can I buy them? Tellmetellmetellme. Whoa. Slow down. Before I tell you which three, I need to tell you why three. What strikes me, is that there are three premises that are key in developing a company that might be list worthy.

Premise 1: If you don’t know yourself, how can you work with or, more importantly, lead others?

My pick: Growth Mindset by Carol S Dweck

The unique opportunity presented in this book is a good hard look at what attitude you might have that gets in the way of success. I stress, hard. We all want to think that we are well put together, positive thinking individuals without that liberal layer of ‘crazy’ lurking beneath the surface. Remember: without honest self-reflection there is no growth.

Premise 2: If you don’t know group dynamics, how can you participate, create, or lead in an effective team?

My pick: 5 Dysfunctions of a Team by Partick Lencioni

This book starts out with a fictional story that is so startlingly accurate, you may find it hard to believe that Lencioni wasn’t sitting in on your last team building workshop. It is followed up by an examination of the five necessary functions of a team, why they are important, and how to go about encouraging them in yourself and in others.

Premise 3: If you don’t have perspective, how can you gage your effectiveness? And everyone needs inspiration to keep going.

My pick: Creativity Inc. by Ed Catmull

Whether you work with what Catmull calls ‘smart creatives’ or not, his guiding principles, his efforts to be actively engaged in managing, and his successes and failures are both inspirational and instructional.

Now, are these the definitive books that are going to set you on your path toward company bliss? I don’t know. Part of the adventure is figuring out which are your three. There are plenty to pick from. Just remember; you work as part of a team, there are other people in that team, and don’t worry, great teams are out there to learn from. Hasn’t it been done before? Isn’t that list of “100 Best Companies to Work For” right there in front of you? Don’t you want to be on it?

What three books do you think might help develop constructive management skills, positive team mindset and get a company on that list?

The Not-To-Do List

On a previous post, I talked about how occasionally one might feel the need for a mental tidy. One of the most notorious contributors to that cluttered feeling is the T0-Do List.

We are all familiar with this sometimes growing, often never shrinking list of things that we must do, in order to keep our lives from descending into chaos. Sound dramatic? Don’t do the dishes or mow the lawn or recycle the garbage for a while. You may find yourself trapped in your house, a camera crew waiting outside and your family preparing for an intervention. I’m just saying.

But we never let it get that far, do we. We soldier on, pushing that rock on up that hill. Why? Because there’s no one else to do it? If it’s going to be done, you want it done right, and you’re the only one for the job? What will the neighbours think? What would you think of yourself?

Let’s start dissecting these arguments. You might find a Not-To-Do List surprisingly easy to create.

The no-one-else-could-do-it-like-I want-it-done Syndrome

Who else indeed. Did you know that there are entire professions, list of professionals, with the necessary skills and tools to get these jobs done? Google it. You might be surprised at how many enterprising people are providing a service for almost any task. Especially those that you might not feel are the best use of your precious time. Not only that, but as professionals they probably have standards that are even higher than anything you might be able to accomplish.

Got’em, Need’em, Trade’em Technique

Can’t afford to pay? Barter. That’s right. If you can’t afford a professional, barter with your mate, your kids, a family member, or even a neighbour. What might it take for a neighbour to mow your lawn while they’re doing theirs? You can return the favour in whatever ‘currency’ you both determine is fair. And who knows? What one person thinks of as a chore, could be a form of relaxation for another. You might be doing your bartering partner a favour in more ways than just relieving them of an undesirable task. You might actually be giving them something to do that they enjoy.

Other People Opinion Anxiety

Worried about what other will people think? Frankly they’ll probably think oh, thank goodness. I thought I was the only one. Sharing the load is something humans have had to do since we hunted on the plains. The fact that we have machines now and are isolated in our little boxed-off domiciles has made us forget that. Ask for a hand. Better yet, reach out a hand. You might find people are eager to take it and reciprocate the favour.

The Inner-Critic Visit

Now perhaps that negative voice in your head pipes up. You worry what does a Not-To-Do List say about you? It says you’re a realistic enterprising person who knows how to manage their time and recognizes the skills they have and values the skills of others. Look around your office, your neighbourhood, your home. Are there people with the skill-set, mind-set or abilities better suited to some of the tasks on your list? Are you better suited for something on theirs? Just because an item started on your list, doesn’t mean it has to stay there.

In closing

Now, there will be those jobs that just have to be done by you. Whether by necessity or circumstance, you just can’t put them on your Not-To-Do List.  If, however, you’ve re-examined these items and thinned the herd a little, maybe you won’t feel so trampled by the ones remaining.

How do you manage your To-Do List? What might go on your Not-To-Do List?

Critique Groups and Beta Readers

At some point in your writing journey, you’re going to need someone else to read your work. And I’m not talking about agents or publishers or editors. I’m not even talking about your mom or dad or your second cousin twice removed. I’m talking about beta readers and or critique partners.

In my mind I sort of separate these two categories, though I’m sure others would disagree. The biggest distinction for me is that critique partners, often found in a critique group, are other writers, while beta readers don’t necessarily have to be writers themselves. Both are helpful though in taking your stories from drafts to publishable novels. And while you can pay a professional editor, you might benefit from taking it first to a critique group.

A critique group are fellow writers who will read and critique your pages for you

The parameters of these groups can vary. Some choose to remain genre specific. The benefit to this is you have other writers familiar with the conventions of your genre. You also have discussions about well-known writers and can reference their work for easy examples. Sometimes it’s just fun to geek out and have someone actually get your weird Firefly reference. On the other hand, having other genre writers read your work, a mystery writer reading an epic fantasy, say, might allow for unexpected and mind-expanding insights into your work. If you write poetry or short-stories, the form may be a more important distinction than the genre in regards to the critiques. Again in this situation you have other writers familiar with the specific needs and parameters that the form requires and are able to read your work with this in mind.

Some established group have scheduled weekly sessions. This can be the needed kick in the butt to write and submit (lather, rinse, repeat) on a regular basis. These groups often have very specific rules of conduct with word count limitations and procedures on how to conduct the actual critique. There are some groups that require the author to remain silent during the critiques or only to ask a few questions of clarification. Others are a bit more loose.

The advantage to having an established group of writers is they are in it for the long haul and able to give valuable feedback on novel size work. The only down side might be the time it might take to get through an average 80,000 word story, as turns are rotated among the members. So depending on how many members are submitting and the diligence of the meet-ups, your novel may take a year [or several] to finish. Usually keeping the group between 5 and 7 members allows for the occasional and understandable absenteeism while maintaining a useful amount of feedback on your work.

Critiques are on a quid pro quo basis; you read and critique chapters or scenes from their work and they do the same for you. Having another writer catch your grammar and punctuation gaffs, point out your inconsistencies and notify you of structure speed wobbles, are just a few of the obvious benefits to a writer.  But if you go into it only thinking of the feed back you are getting, you are missing out on the opportunity to improve your ability to critique. This is an important skill to have and one that can make you a better editor of your own work. Besides which, if your critique partners aren’t feeling as if they are getting a fair exchange, you might find yourself with less and less people interested in spending the time on your own work.

Critique meet-ups operate more on a members-drop-in sort of approach

Meet-ups tend to be monthly scheduled open door affairs. Attendance is come when you want and writers wait their turn to read their pieces and are given feedback on the spot. This works for writers who may have difficulty committing to a schedule or are only dipping their toe into the writing world or perhaps only need feedback on short pieces or scenes from novels. Usually these groups are quite big and are a great place to meet many other writers and to hear a variety of styles and genres and in turn stretch your critiquing abilities. Sharing industry news and views and networking is another advantage. It might also be a great place to meet like-minded writers in order to create a smaller dedicated critique group.

Online critique groups are virtual communities

This is a great opportunity to get a lot of feedback on your work. Online could work for writers who have not been able to find writers in their immediate city or town. Online communities are often arranged by genre, again with the benefits that garners. Although from first-hand experience I find that meeting face to face and the subsequent conversations that erupt over the critiques is extremely valuable both as a writer and a critic, one can’t underestimate the value of feedback from multiple writers actively involved in an online community. Not that it is a guarantee, but often these writers are a little more comfortable navigating the internet and may offer valuable direction there for a newbie. In order to manage these large groups, some communities have strict rules of conduct and mandatory critiquing before you can submit. This can manage those that want something for nothing, but not gage effectiveness of critiques. You might have to weed through several to find feedback you can use.

That of course is the key element to whatever critique group you become involved in; feedback. As writers, we want to make sure our story is coming across and the only way to do that is to have the story read. Having said that, once you feel as if you are getting down to that publishable novel, you might need to find yourself some Beta Readers.

Beta Readers

Beta readers is another term used for critique partners, but in my mind, I think of them as your genre guinea pigs. They are those die-hard genre fans that have a lot of reading under their belt and while they might not write themselves, know a well-constructed story when they are reading it. They might not be able to give you all the help a fellow writer might be able to give, using all that writerly jargon, but they will be reading the story as a reader reads it. And after all, isn’t that who we are writing it for?

It might be a good idea to give a beta reader an entire draft, maybe even (dare I say it?) a paper copy, allowing them to make notes in the margins as they go. These notes can be as simple or complex as they are capable of giving. Even a comment on the likeability of a character or when they get board or felt like skipping a part, or when the gravitational pull of a small satellite doesn’t jive with the spacecraft trajectory, can give a writer great feedback on what they need to look at in the next draft. Did I mention genre? Make use of their love and appreciation of it; which means don’t give a military sci/fi fan a romance novel, unless something big gets blown up and not just a relationship. Also, make sure your novel has already been extensively revised and copy-edited and is definitely not a first draft. Respect the reader and their time. After all, they are doing this, usually, for free.

Critique groups and beta readers are easy things to find out about. There are several articles that you might find helpful. I suggest you start with this article from Writer’s Digest. It explores the whole critique group concept. A must for writers venturing out for the first time, it is also a touch point for those who have been at it for a while. Another one to check out is this one from Jane Friedman‘s website. There, Brooke McIntyre of Inked Voices invites you to evaluate where you are as a writer/critic, shares what to expect, and offers suggestions on how to go about becoming involved in a critique group. And because I try to be balanced in my view, here is an article from Kristen Lamb that might make you more aware of some of the pitfalls.

Not all critique groups and beta readers are created equal. You may have to go through considerable trial and error to find ones that work for you; offering feedback that you can use, in a manner you can digest. You’ll want to be challenged to improve but not so overwhelmed you quit writing. Remember, you’ll be part of a community. You’ll need one that is a good fit with your personality and writing style.

Know that it is worth it. All you need to do is check out the acknowledgements page of your favourite book. That author had a community around them. They didn’t do it alone. Why should you have to?

Artist With A Day Job

I have mentioned that I am an AWADJ –  Artist With a Day Job. And the truth of the matter is that until Blockchain Technology or some system that can ensure compensation for intellectual property comes into play, most of us while endeavouring to secure paid work, probably have other forms of employment. But I’m not here to complain about that. The reality is artists or artist-preneurs or author-preneurs or whatever label seems apt, must often supplement or support their vocation/career with a ‘day job’. This also includes jobs that are shift or at night. In fact the new paradigm might be to have multiple jobs at the same time and we artists have been doing this forever. So instead of bemoaning the fact, I have chosen to look at it as a welcome reality.

Reasons Why We Need You

Money – duh. You can easily google stats on what the average artist makes a year and without supplementing or supporting our art, it isn’t a living. There is however another advantage to the artist than the money and stability [and maybe even health benefits] a day job offers; the outside world. We can get so locked into what we are doing that we forget about the world. Not only is this harmful to our mental health it is harmful to our art. Without some inspiration often found just outside our door, it is hard to create. Where better for the writer to find inspiration for that twisted character? Where else can the musician experience angst for that poignant lyric? Where else can an actor study people? A day job forces an artist to step through their door and into the world.

Reasons Why You Need Us

Some artists have day jobs in the same field as their vocation. A musician might teach music in a school. A writer could write copy for an advertising firm. A visual artist might be a web designer by day.  Here, the benefit to an employer is obvious.  Some artist however opt for something that allows creative energy to be saved for after work.  What’s the benefit to the employer here? Someone happy to do a mundane task, satisfied that they are getting paid to do something necessary to the success of the company but perhaps not the most glamourous of jobs. Don’t however overlook these employees. Even while sorting mail or answering the phone, an artist might see problems differently, and in so doing create a solution using outside the box methods that bypass the group think that can manifest in some industries.

What You Might Have To Put Up With

You might be worried about artists being flighty or non-committal or easily distracted. Other words for these are creative, adaptable and curious.  These are key soft skills most employers site as desirable. Now, I’m not saying all artist will absolutely bring these skills to the table. Artist are as diverse as any other group of people. However, by the nature of being an artist, they do tend to engage these soft skills. Of course, there are other real dangers to having an artist in your employ. You might find yourself cornered in the lunch room with requests to see our play, buy our cd,  come to our art show, or read our story but as any of these art forms take a long time to produce, it’s not like we’d be hounding you every week.

If only we were lucky enough to gig that often, well, we wouldn’t need the day job now, would we.

Holiday Traditions – The Gift of Time

When you look back over the years, what do you remember about the gifts you got this time of year? Probably not much. But you might remember the friends and family visiting, the special meals or even photos with Santa.  Holiday traditions anchor us to the season and to each other. From the food, to the lights. From the music, to the hugs. Memories are made at every turn, engaging all the senses and making them all the more vivid and unforgettable. Traditions give us a link to our past and something to always look forward to from year to year to year. They can be an extremely personal matter, yet a shared event that enrich our lives and the lives of those closest to us.

Imagine all that enhanced with true communication, real sharing and more closeness with friends and family.

The holidays might be the one time of the year when everyone gets together. And if you come from a large or extended family or perhaps gather with your friends, you are dealing with a lot of bodies. There is something joyous about the raucous chaos of holiday gatherings, but in the excitement of sharing a year’s worth of your life, you might not be listening to what is going on with anyone else.

I mentioned emotional intelligence in a previous blog. Empathy is one element of emotional intelligence and perhaps the most difficult to tackle. One way to employ empathy is to practice active listening. In active listening, you pay attention to what someone is saying.  You listen to understand. You engage your heart and your mind and even your body. Everything about you should be saying, I’m here to give you my full attention. If you are interested in getting more specifics about active listening you may want to check out this site.

But maybe you’re thinking you don’t need to work on this. How can you tell if you haven’t been listening? Cast your mind back to last year.

  • If the only thing significant from an encounter is the memory of the hideous reindeer sweater your brother-in-law was wearing, you might not have been listening to what he was talking about.
  • If you can recall your meal to perfect detail but not so much any stories about your friends’ kids, perhaps you weren’t as engaged as you should have been.
  • If the only thing you can remember is how shocked everyone was at your office drama, maybe you weren’t asking enough questions about what was going on in their lives.

In the fast paced rumble tumble of holiday festivities, it’s hard to get to everyone, to have those intense moments of one on one. Heck, sometimes it’s impossible to finish a sentence. Giving everyone adequate soapbox time feels as impossible as serving a perfect holiday meal, but maybe, like a meal, all it takes is a little planning. Maybe all it takes is time.

Perhaps create a game where everyone is given a moment to talk about a significant personal event and everyone else engages in active listening. What about using a talking stick or a candy cane or a giant Toblerone bar that you pass around? What about drawing names and at certain times through the night, each person shares something that they are grateful for to the group? What about using mistletoe for something other than kissing? Or a necklace of tinsel? These ideas might seem silly, but I’m sure when you get together, there are people who dominate conversation and those who can’t get a word in edge-wise. Using some sort of game might give everyone a chance to talk, and everyone a chance to practice active listening.

Active listening can be the beginning of a new holiday tradition and the greatest gift you can give. So give your loved ones your time. Listen. Be attentive. Be empathetic. Being generous of spirit will cost you nothing, but an investment like that in your friends and family could pay-off richly throughout the year in deeper more meaningful relationships.

And to that, I wish you all the best and see you in the new year.

Community

If you write or have thought about writing or know someone who does, one truth rings out strong and clear. Writing is lonely work. You sit, alone and think. And think and think and then write and think some more and then hit delete a bunch of times and then write and write and write. Every now and then you come up for air and usually at least in my case, hours have gone by and I’ve really got to pee. I don’t mean to be crass, but that’s the truth of it.

How can that happen? How can you spend so much time alone? I think because while I’m physically alone I’m not really alone. I’m lost in a world, of my own creation. I have created my own community. And as much as that might smell of a rank dose of self-important god complex, my world, for as much as I plot and plan and draw diagrams and collect pictures of who and what I think lives there, still seems to have a mind of its own.

This article was supposed to be about community. We are all part of many different communities; work, home, family. I am part of a writers critique group that I meet with once a week. I highly recommend finding a group of writers with similar passions about writing, who can share their work and their journey with each other. That community offers me a place where I can be pushed to be the best writer I can be in a safe and joyful arena. For the month of November I am part of a grand community of writers who all collectively invite the muse to visit them. And in that month I explore a brand new community of characters and settings and worlds that live in my mind and manifest on the page.

Maybe I’m just nuts but I guess writing isn’t that lonely after all.  I’ve got plenty of company.

One third down, two thirds to go, my fellow NANOWRIMO-ites. Heads down and keep going!