Is tolerance killing your culture?
Culture is the patterns of behaviour that are encouraged, discouraged or tolerated by people and systems over time.
During this four-part whistle-stop tour of organisational culture, we’ve looked to find a workable definition of what culture really is, sought to distinguish it from engagement and learned how we can effectively use encouragement and discouragement to lever culture change. Our last exploration is an important one:
What are you prepared to tolerate?
The concept of tolerance is an interesting one. It implies a degree of ambivalence and by its very blandness can seem harmless enough. In reality, tolerating behaviours is far more dangerous and insidious than it sounds. It is also one of the most powerful culture shaping tools an organisation has at its disposal.
At what point does our tolerance threshold click in?
- Am I prepared to tolerate someone ignoring me when I say hello?
- Am I prepared to tolerate someone swearing in a meeting?
- Am I prepared to tolerate someone speaking abusively to another person in a corridor?
- Am I prepared to tolerate someone bullying another person?
The tolerance threshold will be different for different people and is made up of a number of factors:
- The sort of environment that you grew up in/ began your career in
- What has happened to you in the past
- How others around you behave
- What others accept you doing
- How you think others will react if you speak up
If we are actively managing our organisation’s culture, then we’ll be encouraging and discouraging behaviours more and tolerating them less, but this can only be effective when there are clear standards in your organisation about what is acceptable.
Imagine playing a game of tennis without any lines drawn on the court. The players could neither keep score, nor experience any satisfaction of achievement. Instead, there would likely to be a great deal of debate, discussion and discord between the two players, who will of course have their own rules in their heads. The issue you have is that until those lines are drawn on the court, neither player can be wrong or right.
Tolerance has an escalating factor. As human beings, we like to push the boundaries of possibility – it’s one of the things that makes us great. Having said that, when we test the boundaries around what is acceptable and no-one pushes back, poor behaviour can become endemic.
This thesis is most easily seen when looking at children: I’ll take one sweet (no reaction), two sweets (no reaction), three sweets (“Jimmy stop eating those sweets!”).
"Ok, so dad has a three sweet threshold."
When do people say 'no more sweets' in your organisation? Is it when someone is rude? Is it when someone is abusive? Or is it when someone is a bully? Are we adequately and proactively setting our tolerance thresholds at a level where major escalations don’t occur?
How much of the poor behaviour in organisations is because the little things have been tolerated so people think that the bigger things are okay too?
Counteracting tolerance is vigilance and pro-activity in the day-to-day. In some cases it takes downright courage. It can be hard for us to give people feedback. Speaking up and speaking out are never easy, but they become easier when companies are clear on the culture they want to create and the standards and values that prevail within that culture. As I say to my son in equal measure "that’s not how we roll around here" or "that’s exactly how this family works" – tolerating less can make a powerful difference.