Is a positive culture woke?
Is a positive organizational culture “woke”? Aren’t "wokeness" and #ESG inherently good? It depends. Wokeness should not lead to fake correctness or a cancel culture. A positive culture is open and results-oriented at the same time. Let’s explore what happens if you bring your opinions to work. If you don’t “cancel” others and engage in actionable dialogue instead…..
A positive organizational culture satisfies five psychological needs for well-being: the need to feel connected, to have a sense of autonomy, to feel competent, to have a sense of meaning, and a positive outlook (a focus on what’s working well and what’s possible).
Given these needs, it’s great that more organizations embrace diversity, equity, and inclusivity (DEI) these days. This means that no one is excluded for reasons of race, gender, religion, culture, sexual orientation, etc. As the popular saying goes: “Diversity is being invited to the party; inclusion is being asked to dance and belonging is dancing as if no one is watching.”
Diversity is the first phase: making sure that the team has different backgrounds as a proxy for multiple perspectives. Inclusion and belonging are the next phases where you build trust, engage in dialogue and benefit from the diverse collective intelligence and achieve better solutions and actions. This is what positive organizations do.
We can argue that a positive culture is woke. The popular term woke means “aware of and actively attentive to important facts and issues (especially issues of racial and social justice)” according to the dictionary. I like to broaden the concept to include awakening to environmental and governance issues: ESG.
“Woke” then represents an attitude of awareness for social, environmental, and governance issues that may cause inequality, injustice, hurt, and separation. It means awareness for those issues that hurt our psychological and planetary wellbeing - with belonging being a big issue. This awareness is an important basis for compassion and actionable ideas to solve or alleviate these issues.
So, what could be wrong with wokeness? It’s about time we woke up. Let’s make the world and the workplace a better place. Let’s collaborate on our huge global ESG-challenges, as citizens, employees, consumers, or politicians, regardless of our roles in different settings.
However, the theoretical concept is pure, but the outcomes depend on how we use it. How do you translate the positive intentions of being woke to actual choices and behaviors? If you use a hammer to build a community circle of benches - that’s great. If you use a hammer to mute people with other viewpoints - not so much.
The dominant view rules
Inclusion and belonging require that we’re open to a diversity of viewpoints and thinking styles. It starts with having a diverse board, executive team, and workforce. Next, it means actively working with that diversity. Is your organizational culture open to multiple perspectives? Or is there a dominant view that must be adhered to in your organization? What’s truly valued in your organizational culture? How political or otherwise “correct” must you be to fit in?
An illustrative example comes from Dave Eggers’ latest novel The Every, the sequel to his novel The Circle about a powerful tech company. The Circle merges with the planet’s dominant e-commerce site and becomes the wealthiest, most dangerous, most addictive mega-corporation platform in the world. The digital monopoly is known as The Every and they control more and more social, economical, and political activities.
One day at breakfast, employee Wes Makazian wonders why bananas and tropical fruit are being served when they are out of season. California is three thousand miles from Guatemala.
Wes publishes his puzzlement in the Every online community. They debate about what could be growing on campus that’s green and climate-friendly. Studies are done, they buy nearby farmland and hang a sign over the eatery: We have no bananas. Any fruit not grown in California is wrong. #Bananaskam goes viral (the shame of eating exotic bananas - how irresponsible!).
This “green wokeness” dominates in The Every - and it’s judgmental. It’s not open to nuances, or “fifty shades of green”. It’s good or bad, a dichotomy. When it’s bad, according to the dominant view, it’s canceled. You use the hammer to hit any dialogue, nuance, and reflection flat on the head. Your intentions are good, but you’re not open to other perspectives. It’s authoritarian but clear. In a strong, dominant culture people chime in as they need to belong and be safe.
This is what strong organizational cultures tend to do. They favor one dominant view - whether that’s “woke”, conservative, or progressive, with a focus on just shareholders or all possible stakeholders, now and in the future, be they human, animal, vegetal, or mineral. (In line with the trend that some rivers, land, and an actual lake have acquired legal rights and must be protected). In a strong culture, it’s often not appreciated to ask uninvited, critical questions about the dominant view and values.
That harms dialogue and mutual trust. It hampers learning, as we’re not open to contemplating more options. Choosing between the flavors “good” and “bad” is limited. It makes us dumber. It divides us. Again, the intention might be good. Some things are bad and should stop. Let’s draw clear boundaries about what’s intolerable. But let’s feel free to first reflect on and talk about those boundaries: see the shades between black and green.
Leave or bring your opinions to work?
“From the Rotary to my employers, the rule was: leave politics, religion, and any other sensitive topics at the doorstep”, a friend told me. “Just do your job.” Of course, that’s fast and easy, and understandable in the fast-paced corporate world. Focus on your task and leave your opinions at home. Avoid tensions, confusion, and conflicts. Achieve your targets. In this narrow shareholder view, the company is a business, not a church, a political arena, or climate action group, and the goal is to make as much profit as possible. The wider circle of stakeholders is not a business concern (and can be dealt with by charities, government, action groups) - unless it hurts the business.
This narrow view is the easy way out. It’s understandable. We’re all in a hurry and overwhelmed. There’s no time to have crucial conversations or respectful dialogue. It’s easier to dismiss the minority view and move on. It’s easier to judge than to listen and learn from an opposite perspective. It’s hard to be open to information that contradicts or undermines your assumptions and beliefs. It’s hard to place your conclusions on pause and enter the world view of the other. You might feel confused, uncertain, vulnerable, and irritable. You don’t have time. It’s easier and faster to judge and cancel the other’s point of view.
Cancel culture: quick, easy, not smart
We experience a cancel culture in the public sphere, exacerbated by social media and bubbles with alternative truths and narratives. We cancel “the other”. They are wrong, stupid, and uninformed. We’re not interested in them and why they came to these conclusions. We don’t have time for soul searching, for understanding their underlying needs and wants. We’re not curious to hear the facts. We push our truths and views and cancel theirs.
But given the enormity of the global challenges we face, this lack of dialogue is dangerous. We need to slow down to listen and try to understand “the others” instead of canceling them. We need to understand, find common ground and collaborate to solve our current and future issues. Judging and canceling are not helping. It divides us and makes us dumber.
Slow down to smart up
When we leave our personal views at the doorstep, we miss out on a huge opportunity. That opportunity entails: building a relationship with our co-workers, being interested and open, understanding their needs and wants, building trust, and having real conversations about DEI, ESG, and “woke” issues. Once we do that, we bridge the divide and the judgments. We influence each other. We both become enriched, smarter, and co-create more actionable options than just “good” or “bad”. We’ll be more engaged, creative, productive, and positive at work - including a positive bottom line. Research suggests that a positive organizational culture can yield 20-40% better performance.
Once we take time for dialogue, we’ll feel connected and competent, we’ll have a sense of autonomy and meaning. Thanks to our positive outlook: a focus on what’s working well and what’s possible beyond our differences.
We can add real value to the world, for both shareholders and stakeholders, by delivering true ESG-friendly products, solutions, and services that are needed. What’s more, we’ll take our social dialogue skills home after work. We can be role models in our families, neighborhoods, sports clubs, communities, churches, charities, and more. By listening to understand, we’ll help others do the same. By not “canceling” but asking questions and offering suggestions, we are building a bridge. We positively influence others - and together we can create more positive outcomes anywhere.
So, is a positive culture woke? If it means being open to diversity, equity, and inclusion - then yes. If it means taking action on environmental, social, and governance issues (ESG) as a responsible business - then yes. If it means taking the time for dialogue and actionable solutions without canceling “the other” - then yes.
If it means practicing wokeness as a hammer to mute reflection and dialogue - then no. If it means “greenwashing” your organization or lipservice to political correctness - then no. If it means authoritarian pressure to comply - then no.
The basis of a positive culture is social safety that thrives on free speech. A positive culture is open and results-oriented at the same time, but not authoritarian. You can ask all questions and offer suggestions. The dominant view and values are open for reflection and development. By engaging in dialogue you activate your organization’s or team’s collective intelligence and agency. Bring yourself and your opinions to work. Don’t hide. Don’t judge and cancel. Ask and listen. Influence the others and be influenced. Learn and co-create. It pays off to first “slow down and smart up” and then achieve positive performance.
© Marcella Bremer, 2022
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