Jan 15, 2024

Now, as mentioned last week, we need to think about the who, what, when and where... and no, it's not everyone, all the time, and everywhere. This is a common misconception that we all need to do everything and we have to do it right now. This perspective has developed more in the last few years with the rise of cancel culture and social media accountability. We can see what other people think or agree/disagree with online and if people don't do something then they are deemed problematic.

If we keep this up then culture work will not only be unsustainable, it will become hated (more than it already is). Culture work is really about psychology and psychological safety. When we shift mindset then the policies, practices, and procedures change as a result. So, if we are starting with the latter, we will not be successful in doing real work.

Who's role is it?

There are many new roles related to culture work that have popped up in the last few years, mine included. However, the desire to have people support the growth of organizations is not new. Businesses are always seeking new ways to improve recruitment and retention, capture bigger markets, increase profits, and serve their clientele more effectively. That is how they make money after all. It's not just private organizations, it's public organizations and non-profits as well. Organizations have to get buy-in to stay afloat. Sometimes that buy-in is through culture work and of course there is also a stream of organizations who gain buy-in through opposition to culture work (which is secretly actually culture work). See, culture work is supporting psychological safety, representation, responsive action, etc. It's listening to, valuing and creating a sense of belonging for your stakeholders.


You're probably thinking, "well who's role covers psychological safety?" It often gets put on the desk of Health and Safety reps, Human Resources, and other human relations related roles. But the reality is, we all contribute to psychological safety. Psychological safety is impacted by compiled experiences. So, it might be the chat at the coffee maker, an email, a departmental meeting, or work event. Psychological safety happens when people are understood and their needs are met. 

You wouldn't punch your colleague in the face all day, or let someone else... unless you're a boxer or fighter... so why would you let someone get hit repeatedly with psychological blows?

Many of the organizations I work with have very passionate, knowledgeable, and skilled culture workers at the lowest level of the organizational chart. They are the front line workers and the customer-facing representatives. I suspect that this is because these are the people who see the challenges faced by themselves and colleagues, but also the challenges of the customers. They see the real day-to-day of an organization and are connected to the direct effects of decisions. This means that they are directly impacted by the lack of action that an organization is taking. This might be why they are getting louder and louder about change because they need those in positions of power to make those changes. But really, what they are asking for is that mindset shift and understanding.

In education, teachers are the front line workers. They are creating lessons that respond to Individual Education Plans, social justice demands, cultural relevancy, changing technology, etc. The Principals, Superintendents, and Director might not be seeing how the policy and practice changes, or new directions of the school board are playing out in the day-to-day. 

When you start to think about how this is represented within your organization, you can start to identify the gaps in understanding. You can identify who makes the decisions and who experiences the effects of them. Once this is clear, leaders gain the responsibility to lessen that gap and create pathways for communication to connect decisions with desired effects. Leaders can also promote and lead the development of a mindset shift.

What does this look like?

Changing mindsets is difficult because you are essentially telling someone that the way they currently think is wrong. While that might not be your explicit words, that could be the interpretation. As a result, people become defensive, hostile, and upset because it feels like an attack of their credibility, ability, experiences, knowledge, skills, way of life, etc. Some of the most common things in our daily lives are quite polarized:

  • Does pineapple belong on pizza?
  • Does the toilet paper roll come out over or under the roll? 

Our experiences and identities put us in camps and people will die on the hill to defend it (really, you should ask people the above questions and see for yourself). But changing your mindset isn't about being right or wrong, it's about opening up to the idea that other people might experience life better a different way. It's different than your values, approach to life, beliefs, leadership style, communication style, etc. Your mindset is about being willing to think about and learn about other ways of life – not necessarily changing your way of life to them. When we have awareness and knowledge of different approaches we can better determine what to do for people's unique situations. 

Fixed Mindset:

  • The my way or the highway approach.
  • Avoids challenges, difficulty receiving feedback, can't accept mistakes, and quits easily.
  • Stays away from unfamiliar things or change.
  • Focus on the self, threatened by others success, belief that our talents are static.

Growth Mindset:

  • Embraces opportunities and learns from criticism.
  • Views challenges as opportunities and focuses on the progress versus result.
  • Inspired by others and often steps outside of the comfort zone.
  • Believes that talent is ever-improving.

Moving to a growth mindset is the first step to culture work. This allows people to think about the ways that other people think. It opens up opportunities for these views, values, or approaches to be right – it doesn't mean they are right. Just because you are open to hearing other ways of life doesn't mean you have to agree with it or do it in your own life. For culture work to be effective, we have to have this openness because it allows us to make informed decisions about what's best for growth.

When does it have to happen?

RIGHT NOW! Kidding. But that is what a lot of people are telling the world. We can't unravel a complex and wildly traumatic history overnight. I have been doing culture work exclusively for a few years and as an educator for even longer. I am still learning and trying to find the best ways to incorporate changes into my work... and this is what I do all day, every day. So we can't expect people from industries very far removed from culture work to do it. Consideration has to be given to understanding of the purpose of culture work, pre-existing experience, relatable identity, educational background, exposure, time to self-instruct, access to appropriate learning materials, etc. It's a lot. Sure, as an academic I can say it's easy. I regularly read academic journals, I have taken courses on educational psychological and social psychology, I have lived experience and professional experience... That isn't the case for everyone.

Pace yourself and allow others time. Start with small changes, small steps, and small expectations. Help someone understand the definition of a term before forcing them to agree with the concept. It's probably even a good idea to refresh your own understanding to make sure you don't have a biased view. If we rush into the work then we won't be doing it sustainably, we will be doing it to do it.

Where are we doing it?

It is everywhere but it has to be implemented with a ripple effect. So it's not everywhere at once. From my experience, a bulk of the people engaged in culture work are not in positions to change policy, practice, and procedure. Sometimes they are also not in positions to put their ideas forward. That is a problem. So within an organization the first thing to do is consider how that communication is created and nurtured. This allows people in positions of power to respond to the needs of individuals within the organization and clients. Without management or "leadership" buy-in, it's difficult to continue or commit to culture work. Culture work requires organization-wide changes, logistics considerations, and formal change alongside informal change. When there is an organization-wide stance then everyone sees that it is valued and important. The same can't be said when it's just a DEI working group, a DEI committee, or health and safety reps. 

When I was teaching, the health and safety reps were loathed. They would make me move my desks back into the traditional arrangement, despite the call for teachers to move into more community style teaching/learning (circles, u-shape, small groups, etc.). They would make me unplug my room length extension cord, despite it being connected to the only working plug in the room. They had a list of do's and don't but didn't have the power to make the changes... I recognize now that it was not them that I truly loathed. The same is happening for psychological safety and DEI groups - they know what people should and shouldn't do, but they aren't in charge of the big changes to make it happen the most effective and sustainable way.

The Reality

A lot of allies, activists, and people doing culture work are demanding XYZ. But some organizations are at ABC, others at JKL, and a few at QRS.... and some don't even know where they are at. In other conversations we try to support people to get across the finish line. We provide training, we provide adequate resources, we pace our expectations, and communicate barriers. I don't see that in some of the culture work being done. For those who have been living inequity, injustice, inequality, etc., or have experienced harassment, discrimination, and psychological or physical violence, the answers might seem simple. But we have been living that for a long time, we have been working through it for a long time. We understand it and sometimes it can be difficult to grasp why other's cant. The reality is we can't keep going on this way. If we want culture work to be a part of conversations and a priority we have to be willing to help people understand. We also have to have an open mind to why people think the way they do and to understand where they are at so that we can support them.  

Here are some questions to start assessing your organization's psychological safety:

  • What are your organization's values and how do you know they are being exhibited?
  • Does your organization provide mental health services or resources?
  • Does your organization have a standard for respect and dignity in the workplace and are people held accountable?
  • How are people shown that they are appreciated or valued? Is this how they want to be shown and how does your organization know this?
  • How are people's opinions and thoughts shared, welcomed, and utilized in various capacities?
  • In what ways are workloads assessed and managed? Is there a process for people to offload if required?
  • Is a work/life balance encouraged? How?
  • Is there progressive discipline for workplace harassment, psychological harm, or discrimination?
  • Is there a reporting process in place for concerns? Anonymous?

This is not a full or complete assessment to determine if your organization is supporting psychological safety. But, these questions should allow you to start thinking about what is in place or could be done to support safety and well-being. 


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Janelle Abela

Janelle is the Founder and CEO of Diverse Solutions Strategy Firm. She is a former K-12 educator and found value in nurturing identity for student success. She has since expanded her approaches by working with various industry sectors. She believes it is imperative that a realistic means of change is created outside of the progressive education system and that guides the work that she do. Janelle hold a Bachelor of Arts, Bachelor of Education, and Master of Education degrees, while currently pursuing her PhD at the University of Windsor. She is currently researching barriers to application of professional development content.