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114 | What workplace culture is, how to measure it & a surprising way to improve it, with Arend Boersema
Episode 11415th December 2023 • HR Coffee Time • Fay Wallis
00:00:00 00:33:40

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‘Culture’ can seem like a vague and woolly concept. You can feel what a culture is like as soon as you start working in an organization but it can be hard to describe it and even harder to know what to do to measure or improve it. But with many HR teams being renamed as ‘People and Culture’ and job titles being changed to reflect this, understanding workplace culture and knowing how to shape and improve it are essential skills for People professionals.

This episode of HR Coffee Time is here to help. Host Fay Wallis and expert guest Arend Boersema explore:

  • Understanding workplace culture
  • Measuring culture
  • Thoughts on pursuing an ‘ideal culture’
  • How personal connection impacts culture
  • Where Arend’s passion and interest in culture stem from
  • Using poetry in organizations
  • A live reading from Arend’s book, “Poetry at the heart of business”

Useful Links


Resources Mentioned During the Episode

Hackman & Oldham’s Job Characteristics Model to Job Satisfaction

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(Disclosure: the book links are affiliate links which means that Fay will receive a small commission from Amazon if you make a purchase through them)

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You can find the transcript on this page of the Bright Sky Career Coaching website.

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Fay Wallis:

Welcome back to HR Coffee Time. It's wonderful to have you listening today. I'm your host, Fay Wallis, a career and executive coach with a background in HR, and I'm also the creator of the HR Planner. I've made HR Coffee Time especially for you to help you have a successful and fulfilling HR or people career without working yourself.

into the ground. In this episode you're going to get to dive into the idea of workplace culture. I've always thought culture at work is a funny thing. You can get a feel for it before you've even joined a new organisation and once you're in there you quickly see how it's different to or similar to where you've worked before.

But if you're asked to describe what the culture's like it can be really hard to describe it beyond saying things like Oh, it's brilliant, or it's okay, or it's terrible, I can't wait to get out of here. But, although it might be hard to put your finger on or describe culture, it's definitely something that's important to pay attention to, especially as an HR or people professional.

Because culture plays such a big role in attracting and retaining people to work alongside you and to help the organization you work for to succeed. So, I'm excited to be able to introduce you to today's guest, Arend Boersema, who talks us through what culture is, how it can be measured and he also shares a surprising way to improve it.

rking with emerging leaders, [:

The book explores how leaders and team members can create a sense of meaning and belonging at work. When Arend first got in touch with me, I have to be honest, I wasn't sure what I thought about the idea of using poetry in business. I haven't read poetry in years and I had an image in my mind of people being really sceptical about the idea.

was inspiring to hear and to [:

I hope you're going to enjoy meeting him and learning from him as much as I did. Here's what he had to say when I asked him my very first question, which was. Could he tell us what culture is and could he define it for us?

Arend Boersema:

Yes. So company culture includes a lot of different things. I won't necessarily throw a bunch of formal definitions to the audience listening to the podcast, but if you'd like to, this is where we have Chat GPT and artificial intelligence. Great resource to get all the formal definitions, but I'll, I'll start with my favourite definition and then build on, on what it means to me.

And. Um, the definition is from, uh, Schein and Schein really talks about culture as an iceberg. So often we really see the company culture as just the things that are written on the walls, the website with the value statements, the different ways that a dining room is set up or office space is created, but Schein is really saying that those are just the

obvious portions of a culture, what's really creating a culture is what's underneath it, the bottom part of that iceberg. And that's anything from underlying beliefs and assumptions. So it's really what people bring to the table and how they're really kind of aligning their different beliefs and values and how comfortable they are expressing that and living in those values as they are a collective under one company's mission.

Fay Wallis:

I love hearing that definition of an iceberg, I think it helps to bring it to life, and I can imagine everyone listening immediately can identify with what you're talking about. But whenever I think about culture, and I understand it to fit with that definition, I immediately think, but how on earth do you measure it?

How can you really nail down what a culture is when you're talking about such huge concepts. So it would be brilliant to hear from you whether you think culture really is something that can be measured.

Arend Boersema:

Yeah, I appreciate you asking that. And I know you mentioned, you know, the concept of poetry and business feels a bit odd.

Um, and it's because there is a contradiction there, but I feel like that contradiction is something we need to embrace and I think that's the same thing with culture as well. And if you look at like the contradiction that lives in culture, it is that we have the obvious and the non obvious things that the visible, the invisible things, but we also have the rational things and then the more emotional things.

So I think there's, there's a lot of rational ways and, and a lot of tools and, and, and smart people that have put things out there that allow us to ask questions that will give us insight in how people feel about the culture. Are they connected? Do they feel like they have an understanding of the mission of where the organization is going to?

Do they feel like people are practicing in an ethical matter? Do they feel like their voices are heard. Um, so of course there's always the standard surveys and the engagement surveys that we have to get a sense of what people are feeling, but I think it's important to not just look at that because that is one set of data, but it is not necessarily everything.

So the other portion that I think it's more of kind of the, the emotional, the feeling side of, of measuring a culture is, is truly what's, um, your employees, but also especially what your leaders are experiencing when they're walking around, when they're connecting with their teams. So even if you just look at something very simple, a meeting is a place where culture is created because we have people that come together and that do work together.

Just being present in that meeting can give you a lot of sense of what that culture is. So it's almost that, you know, that just, that sensing that qualitative way of looking at it, like, do people feel free to speak up? Do we feel like if a leader speaks up, does everyone just say, yes, that sounds great. Or is there opportunity for some discourse and sort of for some, some, you know, differing opinions.

It's those observable things that I think is, is, is something that we can't forget when we try to measure culture. But certainly match that with some other ways of measuring culture, like surveys. And there's a lot of other tools other than employee surveys like, um, Hackman's tool. I think it is a great tool that gives you a structured way of looking at all the components that contribute to culture and how well we're aligning them.

Fay Wallis:

For anyone who hasn't come across Hackman's tool before, would you mind telling us a little bit more about it?

Arend Boersema:

Yeah, so Hackman's tool really talks about the experience of an employee, but not from a traditional HR perspective, really more from an organizational developments perspective. So it looks at all the components that make up work, and you can think of, you know, leadership is a huge part of that, as well as the mission, the direction of an organization, but then also other things like technology, available resources, because they all, obviously influence how well somebody feels like they're doing their job and how well you're pursuing the goals of the organization.

And he's really putting it all together with an assessment to say, how well do you have all of these different components developed, but more importantly, how is everything connected? And the way he connects things is he's saying, you can't just talk about culture and hopefully it will change if you don't have the right resources, right?

Um, especially in a virtual settings that we're often in today. HR can talk about culture and say what do we need to do to help you feel better connected? But if the technological tools are unavailable. That's not going to create engagement. So he's really saying, take care of those basic things first, right?

Make sure that people have the tools that they need to do their jobs. But then beyond that, there's a huge value in the concept of coaching. And the idea of coaching is really to bring all of those things together to see how well are they doing on their own? And more importantly, are they aligned? When we give people recognitions and rewards, are those amplifying what it is that we want to see in the culture and a good example is especially nowadays, I would say, especially in the United States, there's very, very much of an individual culture.

So a lot of the reward systems are based on individual performance. Well, if you want to create a culture that really allows people to collaborate. You might want to consider adjusting your incentive strategies to incentivize people that are collaborating and not just your higher performers. So that connection of everything is really what that tool focuses on.

Fay Wallis:

I feel like I need to go away now and quickly Google the tool. It sounds absolutely fascinating. For anyone listening who is thinking the same thing as me, which is, Ooh, I'd like to learn more about that. I'll make sure that when I have Googled it, I will put a link in the show notes for you so that you can take a look at it.

And from what you were just saying, Arend, it started to make me wonder, is there an ideal culture that we can be aiming for? I'm guessing the answer is going to be no, because that seems wrong because so many organizations have got different purposes, but I'd be really curious to know what you think about that.

Arend Boersema:

Yeah, I think, um, when we talk about culture, it's such a, a, a vague concept. And I think we have this, this, this want to put it into this box. So we have a good definition. We understand what it is, but I think we, we also need to be comfortable, especially as leaders and HR practitioners to embrace the fact that it is a bit messy.

To embrace the fact that it will constantly change. And that also means that there will never be one moment where your culture is perfect. I think there can be this, this idea that we can all strive towards, but it's really kind of that, that concept of happiness, right? Like we can just grasp happiness and then we have it

indefinitely, it's that pursuit of happiness. And I think that's the same with culture. It's the pursuit of, of going to a place where we feel like every individual has their voice and they can express it and they can feel heard and seen and appreciated, but more importantly, that, uh, you do that in a way that it really kind of creates that connectedness.

It is not just about us as individuals. It's about what we can mean to each other and then what others can mean to us. And especially nowadays, after we've, we've had so many lessons learned from the last couple of years, we recognize that, you know, going to work and getting a paycheck is extremely important, but there's also so much more to that.

And, and, and what that specifically means is unique for each individual. If we want to create the ideal culture, it is to really have an understanding of what that means for each specific individual.

Fay Wallis:

I hope that's a really reassuring message for everybody. I know it feels reassuring to me, actually, the idea that this isn't a tick box exercise, that there's never going to be a time you can say, ah, job done.

Look at that. We've got a perfect culture and that's never going to change. So thank you for sharing that message with us. I feel like having met you and discovered your work, Arend, it has now opened up a whole world of other resources that I want to dive into. One of the books that you referenced in your book.

And in fact, that's one of the things I loved about your book. You have got references to all these different inspirational quotes, all of these different thinkers, all of these different books. So it's an absolute Aladdin's cave of jewels for anyone who is interested in this topic and learning more. One book that you mentioned

that I haven't read yet, but I am planning to, was called Firms of Endearment. And I think you said in there that they actually have got lots of case studies where they're using culture as a lever for business success.

Arend Boersema:

Yes, it's one of the books that I, to be honest, stumbled upon. And it really kind of opened my eyes to recognize that there's a lot of value

in figuring out how you can create a good culture, but also really in, in measuring what the impact is and the longterm strategy as well. I think most people are familiar with the book, uh, Good to Great, and they certainly talk about, uh, the long lasting impact of focusing on your people, focusing on your culture.

But to be honest, if you look at the research now related to the companies that the Good to Great book, um, Collins references. They're not all doing as great as we originally had thought. And so Firms Of Endearment takes it a bit of a step further. And it really talks about strategies where, where culture can help support an organization in a sense that, again, if, if you want to go fast, you know, you certainly can knock it out alone and, and do a lot of things very quickly and see your profits soar.

But if you want to stay around for a bit longer and do impactful work over the next decennia. There's, there's value in really, uh, looking to build a foundation that is long lasting and not just fragile and focused on profits.

Fay Wallis:

It would be great to hear where did this real interest in culture at work originate from that's taken you down this road of learning so much about it.

Arend Boersema:

There's a lot of different things that have inspired me, I'll say, but it took me a while to get to the point of comfort and being willing to kind of talk as much about it as I do now. I'm glad I got to that point, and certainly many people have helped me to get to that point. But my passion and and interest really came from pretty much the whole summation of my, my life's timeline.

Um, I will not share with you how old I am, but I've lived for a bit now. And I've also, lived in a lot of different countries. Um, I've had to move when my parents moved, my parents were missionaries, but then also afterwards, when I left my parents house, I've moved on my own and I've, you know, like, like, um, my wife is from the States.

So obviously that is a the main reason why I live here now, but just being kind of plucked from one area and put into another area always allowed me to really be observant and to really kind of have a keen interest in trying to understand what is happening around me and then how I relate to that.

ou will, within work until I [:

One of my biggest, I'm just opening up a little bit here, Fay, but one of my biggest, uh, learning curves is still to not necessarily listen to that inner voice that, that tells me that people need to like me. And, I know I'm not the only one. So, so that's why I'm also comfortable sharing that, but I think a lot of what, what used to drive this idea of people need to like me was me showing up as my best self.

So when I started my HR career, I really wanted to make sure that people saw me as knowledgeable. Because I was young and I was supporting these executives that had, you know, years of their discipline under their belts and they were leading these large teams. And then, you know, this idea of them listening to what I had to say from an HR and an organizational developments perspective felt weird.

So I really tried to, show my best self and do all this studying and showed that I knew what was going on and that I knew what I was doing. It wasn't until later that I recognized that even though that that is important, that is not necessarily what's going to have you influence others.

It is really figuring out how do you. Bring that, that, that self to work. So right now I am, you know, bringing my passion of poetry to work. And I could certainly talk a bit more about that, but I'm also bringing just my curiosity and interest in cultures, both organizational cultures, as well as just, you know, countries, cultures, and, just kind of bringing that curiosity to others to say, there's so much that we don't know yet.

Let's explore together.

Fay Wallis:

It's fascinating, isn't it? When we reflect on what it is in our journey that's brought us to what it is that we are doing now? Thank you for sharing that with us. Ar and I know for sure when you said, I don't think I'm the only person who feels this way, you know, with this worry about, oh, making sure people like me and trying to quieten that inner critic.

I can totally identify with that and I'm sure lots of other people can as well. And it's a reassuring message to know we've all not got to be perfect and know the answers to everything. And actually I, if I'm asked about what traits or qualities I see in successful leaders, it's often when they've been able to let go of that feeling that they've got to have all the answers or be the expert and actually realizing it's, it's not, it's just not possible because we are humans.

Not robots. And in fact, it's far more powerful when you do collaborate and, and open up and ask other people for their thoughts and input as well. But I feel like we could go down a whole other episode diving into that and, uh, leadership styles. So I'll pull us back for a minute. I think it's really important having alluded to it so much so far that I actually ask you

about your book because we haven't properly dived into it yet and what the purpose is behind it. Would you like to talk us through it?

Arend Boersema:

I think it's actually a perfect connection to your previous question where the main purpose behind my book was that I needed to get my thoughts organized and I needed to put it out there.

I've been writing for a really long time and I've been writing poetry for a really long time and for me, that is really a tool to help organize my thoughts, organize the world around me, and just to make it just a bit more sense of it. And so that writing and reflection helps me tremendously. And during the pandemic, I had to rely on that heavily because the world just did not make sense.

Nothing made sense at that point in time. So because I was writing a lot and, had much more time also to really reflect and write because of everything that was happening and we were staying home. It really kind of just organically grew into a book, and even though I first and foremost, which is with most art forms, wanted to write it for myself, I also kind of really took the plunge and said, I need to put this out there because I'm hoping that there's other people that will be inspired by this.

And a bit going back to, to what I had said earlier, there's obviously at any time that thought about, well, this is really good enough to put out there. Are there really people that are interested? And that's where I had to go back to this idea that I'm writing, I wrote it for myself. Um, it was my way to kind of make, make sense of the world and to organize things.

But. Also wanted to put it out there because often we think that we can't share our thoughts and our skills and our talents until we're the best within that discipline. And I think that is a misconception. I think there is so much we can learn from each other. Uh, no matter at what stage you are, whether you are, you know, early career, mid career, late career, there's, there's so many different perspectives that we can learn from.

And that really caused me to say, let me put this book out there and see what people think. And, just having this conversation with you alone makes me feel like I made the right choice. And. Certainly part of the intent is to talk about what's culture and using poetry as starting points for reflection to see what comes up with you individually when, when you talk about these things or when you think about these, these concepts.

But it is also to highlight that, you don't have to pursue perfection before you can really add your artistic value to the world that we live in. I think art makes our life so much more beautiful. And I think if every employee could really bring their artistic values, whether it is poetry or whatever that may be to an organization, it could be such a richer experience for anyone.

Fay Wallis:

I have to admit, I haven't read any poetry in a really, really long time. Like you, I used to be a teacher, and so the poetry books that I had in the house were collections of poems to use with the children that I was teaching. So I don't think I have read a whole collection of poems in years, Arend, and when I picked up your book, just before you get to the very first poem, you give some guidance on how the person reading the book may benefit from the poetry.

And the minute that I read this, before I'd even read a single poem, I thought, Oh gosh, I can absolutely see how this could be really helpful. I hope this doesn't feel weird having me read this out, but I'm going to read to everybody the advice that you give in the book because I think it will be helpful for people to hear.

So it says, The book is organised in a way that it can serve the individual reader, but also the teacher, speaker, facilitator or leader. If you are so inclined, use it as a conversation starter. Set the stage of your next public talking engagement with a poetic snippet. Share a poem that spoke to you with your team at the beginning of a meeting.

Use the quotes of the many brilliant minds referenced throughout the book in your PowerPoint presentation to evoke a sense of contemplation among your audience. Get grounded with challenging our mental models before embarking on a large project. Use a poem as a wild card when your team gets stuck to provoke divergent thinking.

Flip through the reference guides to find inspiration from authors that inspired me to put pen to paper, or share inspiration by discussing this book in your next executive leadership book club. Oh my goodness, I had no idea there are all these brilliant ways that you can use this book as a resource, so I hope that's helpful for anyone listening to get a bit of a glimpse as to how they might use the poems inside.

within organisations to help [:

Arend Boersema:

Yes, I actually have two examples if that is okay, just one quick example and even if there is time, I can also share one of the poems and read it for the audiences to have them kind of conclude what it is that they would want to pull from it for inspiration themselves. What I always think is interesting when I introduce it, it's, this idea that people are, are a bit standoffish when they think about poetry or spoken word within business.

And I liked that. I think we, we need to embrace contradictions a bit more than, than we, we are. The world is filled with paradoxes, but what I think is interesting is, is that once you kind of get people over that initial hump of like, Oh, I don't know poetry or, you know, when I used to write, read poetry, it was, you know, the

older genre, and I'm not quite sure if that was really me. My poetry is certainly not that. It is really intended to be as practical as possible. And I think that lowers the bar. And I think many of us are capable of writing poetry much more so than they believe. And a good example is, is that, every so often when I provide different retreats or summits or training sessions for leaders.

I would also ask them to write some poetry to conclude a session. So a great example is, is that, when we provide leadership training for our physician groups, the physicians are, are such an interesting discipline and I have so much respect for them for what they do. And then, seeing them bringing what their world view is of how to take care of patients into leadership is, I think, such a valuable add on to how leaders can truly show up and be caring of their team members.

And even though there's a little bit of like resistance in the beginning. Often after a leadership session, I asked him to write a haiku and a haiku is one of the most basic poems where you don't even need to rhyme, is three sentences. And the only structure is that you follow the syllables that are in each sentence.

And you'll be amazed how much people like it to really put their thoughts and their reflections into something like a haiku and then share that with the group. Um, you'll, you'll get some great creativity and you'll get some great laughs.

Fay Wallis:

As you're talking, Arend, I'm thinking, ooh, where could I use that?

What a good idea! So thank you for helping to bring it to life and it would be great if you wanted to read one of your poems.

Arend Boersema:

Yeah, so we, we talked a lot about culture and we talked a lot about how culture, you know, with, you know, capital C is, is obviously what's everything that's happening in an organization, but then culture in a smaller C is really what's happening between individuals.

A lot of what I, I reflect on is especially that, and within that, I think culture is created by conversations and sometimes those conversations require feedback, right? I need to give you feedback and how I want to be treated. I want to hear your feedback on how I'm showing up is impacting you because then we can kind of fine tune that and get better and better at that.

So, this poem that I'll read is, called Gullible Guppies. And to your point as, as like using poetry for, for children, I work in a children's hospital. So sometimes, that perspective and audience is certainly something that influences what I do, but I think there's something for everyone to, to take away.

So I'll read it and I'll leave it up to, you and the audience to, to take whatever from it that you think is, uh, is important. All right. So it's titled gullible guppies. She's been swimming for a while now, mostly in circles out of frustration. Aimlessly rotating, fumes coming out of her mouth and a frowned brow.

She can't believe the audacity. Her parents thinking they knew what was best for her. They were testing her, but she had it with this academy. They brought reason, rationale, and anatomy for why she could not hang out on dry ground. But all she was hearing was doubt, how it would end up in a catastrophe.

Insanity is what they called her tenacity. She would show them wrong. After all, she was not just a fish from a pond, but from the open ocean, way past the reef. Leaving her school, she encountered a shiver of sharks. Excuse me, mister, she carefully dared. You seem like an expert. Can you tell me how a fish can walk?

Sniffing and grumbling, the sharks turned around. You can't be serious. You're a fool and delirious fish can't walk of no certain amount. Phew, that was ruthless. She took a deep breath. She wouldn't quit this fast, just a mishap. That wasn't feedback, just mean men. So she shook it off instead. Headstrong she swam to what she knew was the edge of the ocean.

She had asked a couple more fish but all they did was dismiss her wish list and offended her devotion. Tired and slowing down, she decided to take a break. When all of the sudden, a wave came rushing and a head poked through the service with the strangest face, what she believed to be a duck from when class was in session, was now staring at her.

She didn't look mad at her, so she examined her and wondered if she should ask her the question. Excuse me, Miss Duck. Would you be so kind to help me out? And oh boy, was she kind. Darling of mine, she replied, you decide what you want to be. Even if that means you want to dance and shout. Don't let those other fish get you down or make you upset.

You poor thing, ignore them. They bore and have never soared in their dreams. But you, you are my favorite yet. Those words just brightened her day and blew the storms away. Not that negative, repetitive, menacing, blasting, I will never walk on land from those that knew her well, or so they say. With determination in every stroke, she sputtered away from ruthlessness.

Never would she turn back, not swim one fin, one she has taken that first step. Eyes on the coastline, but her mind cluttered with foolishness.

Fay Wallis:

What a way to come to the end of our interview, our first ever live poetry reading. Thank you so much for sharing your poem with us, Arend. It's wonderful to hear it read out loud after I've just read it off of the page and from the author's very own voice.

And now obviously we've talked about your book today, we've talked about at least one other book, I can't even remember if there's been more than one book during our time together today. So it feels like a natural move on to my penultimate question that I try to ask almost every guest who comes on the show, which is, what is your nonfiction book recommendation for us?

Or would you prefer to share a confidence building tip?

Arend Boersema:

So I will try to combine them both into one sentence, by sharing a book and sharing how it has impacted me. The book recommend recommendation, I'll stay local here in Pennsylvania, but it is by, Adam Grant and he wrote, think again.

And I think it is such a critical book because it really encourages us to remain curious. And I think if we talk about building culture, having a sense of curiosity is your strongest confidence builder.

Fay Wallis:

Adam Grant is someone who's been mentioned a few times on the show. I'm a big fan of his work, so it's great for us to be able to have another one of his books recommended.

That brings me to my very final question for today, Arend, which is for anyone listening who would like to get in touch with you or learn more about you and your work, what is the best way of them doing that?

Arend Boersema:

I would say the best way to connect is always through LinkedIn. I think it is a great platform to connect.

So you can, look me up there. Uh, my name is Arend Boersema and located in Philadelphia, PA in the USA, or you can go and check out my website, which is levelupcoachingconsulting. com.

Fay Wallis:

Fantastic. And as always, I will make sure that I pop those links in the show notes for everybody. So all that leaves me to say is a huge thank you for your time today.

It's been fantastic having you on HR Coffee Time.

Arend Boersema:

This was such a such a great experience. I'm glad I had the opportunity.

Fay Wallis:

That brings us to the end of this episode. I hope you've enjoyed listening to it. If you have, can I ask you for a small favour? It would be wonderful if you could either recommend HR Coffee Time to a friend, or leave it a rating and review on Apple Podcasts or Spotify for me.

All of these things make such a huge difference in helping other people to discover the podcast. And I'd love to help as many HR and people professionals as I can through this free show..

Thank you so much, have a great week, and I'm looking forward to being back again next Friday with the next episode for you.