Is your organizational culture like the North Wind or the Sun?

Lisa Frank

Mar 8, 2022

When my siblings and I were young, my father often instructed us to never force anything mechanical. If the equipment didn’t work, our first act was to check if the plug was securely in the outlet. Otherwise, if the parts didn’t fit or properly close, we were to experiment and find another way for the pieces to align.

This principle is echoed in the story of the North Wind and the Sun, each trying to prove which is stronger; the pawn of the contest, an unsuspecting man in an overcoat. The North Wind takes its turn blowing with all its might to force the coat off the man. Of course, with each wintry blast, the man clutches his coat ever tighter. When the North Wind’s breath is spent, the Sun warms, casting its soothing rays. As beads of perspiration appear on the man’s brow and upper lip, he easily and almost unconsciously slides the coat from his shoulders, illustrating that coaxing warmth is a more effective persuader than brute, cold force.

When we become managers or join the C-suite, we are looked to as leaders. Our title alone grants us an initial period of compliance. Whether or not that compliance is maintained and transformed into respect, trust, motivated dedication, and loyalty will depend on our character and integrity. It will also depend on how much we truly care about and interact with our employees. Do we see them as whole human beings with personal and professional values or as the skills we hired them for?

Recently, James Crenshaw, MBA, CFCM, NIGP-CPP, CPPO, Office of Contracts, 1st Vice-President at Government of the District of Columbia, introduced me to the term “professional personalism.” Department staff gather each week to share personal interests, what they did over the weekend, which TV shows they watch, which books they are reading. How many leaders take intentional time to talk with their employees, find out about their lives, and encourage their interests and professional development? How many make their employees feel more like cogs in the wheel, pushing paper without knowing why, in an endless grind to get the work done?

No matter how seasoned an employee is, each entity has its own laws, rules, regulations, codes, ordinances, policies, and organizational culture. Will we act like the North Wind and plunge a new employee into the deep end of a reactive culture full of fires to put out? What signal, really, does it send when we besiege a new employee with an overladen pile of documents all due yesterday? Through lack of trust due to lack of training, will we then inflict a range of controls and force them to ask for multiple approvals?

We may plead we don’t have time, but will we make the time? Will we act like the Sun and coax our employees to empowerment, to take ownership and use professional judgment? Will we choose to welcome our new employee by acknowledging how valuable they are, how we look forward to their contributions, which we know they will make because of the training program we’ve designed to acclimate and prepare them for the work ahead? Will we proactively take action on the employee’s career growth (and the entity’s succession plan) by bringing the employee to directors’ meetings to show them the types of conversations taking place, discussions that involve more strategy than transaction?

If it’s difficult to recruit talent or if you’re experiencing high turnover, one aspect to consider is the working environment. Is it filled with fire extinguishers or training materials?