That nose blind commercial came to my mind as I moved into a new house and smelled all the smells left behind from whomever lived there previously. The smells that we become accustomed to and don't notice anymore, but others notice right away. Maybe it's the couch the dog always snuggled up on or the musty closet where those old storage boxes sat for so long. When I was house hunting I was more aware than ever of the distinct smell variations between each house, some less pleasant than others.
When we are too close to something, it's almost too obvious sometimes. We're used to it and it's become a part of how things are. Culture can be a lot like that too, and my own struggles with creating and supporting team culture became the catalyst I needed to do what I know I was called to do: help people and teams develop, build relationships, overcome adversity and change, and thrive.
But even as I pieced together the most important parts of culture, there was one other thing that I began to understand after leading countless events with organizations ranging from youth athletics to universities, to employee conventions and large corporate global summits.
Leaders and teams often go culture blind to their own environment. Think about this for a minute - bad leaders don't often reach out for help (or if they do it's because they think their team is awful and they are the best leader ever...) Typically, it's the positive, caring, motivated leader who reaches out for help. The leaders that we would tag as knowledgable and experienced are quite often the ones I hear from because they know when their team is struggling, and they care enough to do something about it. ASAP! It's pretty normal that I will be on a phone call with them and see that we are in alignment on principles and how to handle situations, but for some reason the team isn't buying in or following through on what they've decided together is a priority. They may be fighting against the positive changes despite the vision and mission they claim to share. Or they can't quite identify what's causing the dip in performance and moral, but it's there all the same. So why can't they fix it on their own if the leader truly gets what great culture requires?
Like a smell that's no longer noticeable, the little things that can trash a culture become so woven into the fabric of daily life they don't stand out anymore. The belief system has been created around what can and cannot change, where limits are, what will be done about issues and complaints, how people interact, who shows up, what each person is capable of, and what achievements are realistic.
After speaking with a leader and feeling like they already have all the tools Im set to bring in, I head into the event and start to observe. I used to be quite confused after hearing the leaders description and then seeing the reality. Is this the team of the person who knew all the right things to say and do? What is going on? The issues stood out just like I had walked into a house that was previously rented by a tenant with 12 cats and taken a big sniff of the lingering cat box stench. They were living with the metaphorical stink within their culture but no one could smell it anymore and realize it needed a serious clean and refresh.
When we are too close to something it's hardest to see the little things. Bringing someone in to help out isn't a sign of weakness, ignorance, or laziness. It's usually a sign of experience and wisdom because we know that an outside perspective can see a much bigger picture, as well as the little intricate yet impactful details. Sometimes we just need a fresh nose, one that can sniff out what we no longer realize is lingering in the air. An outside person with knowledge and experience is going to pick up on dynamics, common pitfalls, resentment, frustration, negative beliefs, and undercurrents that seem to hide behind the scented candles we use to be polite and get through each project and interaction. Someone who can relate, identify with, and offer not only advice, but a new perspective is a tool that creates a huge advantage for teams and organizations.
Culture blindness is a very real thing. I've seen it over and over, and it's an area that great teams address on a regular basis to stay fresh and dialed in before they become a derailment. It's not a failure, but rather the result of grinding away each day at the tasks at hand, serving the mission, living the purpose, and getting into the rhythm of things so much that after awhile we get a bit numbed out by it all.
The next time you look at your team and wonder why your positive leadership is falling a little flat, or the team isn't quite reaching their potential and you can't put your. finger on it, don't call in a motivator, call in a fresh schnoz! OR as I like to refer to myself - a professional perspective shifter.
You need someone from the outside that will recognize what the team has become culture blind to in your everyday interactions, processes, and belief systems. You need someone that will take everyone through exercises and discussions that bring them outside and then back in again, where those smells are once again easy to detect. And you need someone that has the tools and strategies that refuel, refocus, reimagine, and sometimes repurpose the team and environment.
How does your culture smell to you these days? A little like fresh roses or more like a thrift store attic? If you asked a brand new team member what they observed and felt on their very first day, you might get a little sniff and realize it's time to bring in the big schnoz and order a spring cleaning!
If you're looking for a culture refresh, let me know. I've got a nose for culture and a passion for fueling high performance, thriving teams. :)