Establishing ‘non-negotiables’​ to build a positive culture at home and at work

“Culture is simply a shared way of doing something with passion.”
– Brian Chesky

When I was young, there were certain rules that were strictly implemented in my home. One of them was for my siblings and I to share everything to foster a strong sense of equality and ‘justice’. If I went to a birthday party and brought home a toy gift, it would be shared among us. If a sibling was given some sweets by someone, he or she would bring it back home to share with the others. The rule was simple and straight, and we would adhere to it for fear of being strictly reprimanded by our parents. I presume we were initially frustrated about sharing things given to us. This mentality slowly transformed to a point where I began to pride myself on sharing. From a culture perspective, it deepened to a habit of thinking about the other person before consuming what I had. Slowly it became a part of my psyche. Today, whether I am having a meal or sitting on the bus, my thoughts go out to others around me and if I can share what I have with them. Even if my need (or practical thinking) holds me back, I feel the primal twinge of ‘not doing something right’. When my situation allows me to give away and/or share with others, I get a feeling of exhilaration.

This rule, among a few others, was clearly a ‘non-negotiable’ at home and played a significant role in shaping our family culture.

Any culture (whether it’s family, social engagement, or work) is founded on a few non-negotiables that hold it up like a rock. If these non-negotiables are tampered with, it can bring down the cultural edifice like a house of cards.

I worked for many years with a reputable multinational company that had a non-negotiable value of safety. Safety came before everything, including profits. Anyone caught violating the basic rules would face disciplinary action, even job termination. The leader role modelled this value, and it was discussed, explained, and argued continually among the employees. I observed how this one singular value shaped the way all employees thought and behaved in the organisation.

The non-negotiable values are clearly seen as the ‘way things are done here’. They are also seen as the ‘way to success’ and are necessary to survive, because any violation of that value will face harsh disciplinary action.

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Any leader driving a culture change has to take into account two things:

  1. Dismantle those non-negotiables that are holding up the unwanted dimensions of the present culture: I was consulting a client organisation to shift their culture. They had a powerful culture of ‘driving performance through fear’. Leaders would shout and reprimand their team members to get work done. Praise would be given grudgingly, and good performance was your ‘duty, as you are being paid’. Further, leaders would decide (without any clear logic) what was worthy of praise. So, no one was sure of the work, performance, or outcome that would elicit praise from the leader. This behaviour had created an ‘emotional fabric’ of uncertainty, disengagement, and high turnover. Productivity was dropping, and the leaders were doing more of the same thing, hoping that if they shouted louder, productivity would increase. The key non-negotiable here was identified as part of the leader’s behaviour. If any work was not done up to the mark, they ‘had to’ shout and reprimand the team. It was literally expected from the leaders and subliminally seen as the way to succeed. Any other behaviour (e.g., being empathetic, caring, or patient) was seen as ‘soft’ and a danger to the survival of the organisation. It was an accepted fact that any team member, once being promoted to a leader, would transform into another apathetic, pushy, impatient person. This was clearly the non-negotiable that had to be dismantled. This was done through a combination of various tools, such as role modelling by the top leaders (especially at ‘moments of truth’ during meetings or public engagements) and training/skilling the mid-level leaders in empathy, listening, communication, and delegation. At a deeper level, the leaders were allowed (and motivated) to ‘negotiate’ this behaviour in their minds, and slowly they shifted away from it.
  2. Establish the non-negotiables of the new culture: Without any doubt, the family unit is the most powerful crucible for setting our personal values and culture, which support us when we go out into the ‘big bad world’. I would urge you to look back into your past and recollect the non-negotiables established by the elders in your family. They could be ways of engaging with elders, the kind of food eaten at home, outings, vacations, honesty, caring for each other, praising or reprimanding, and so on. Remember, they would have been few but would have been implemented with an iron fist and never negotiated under any circumstances. These would be the beliefs or values that would have predominantly shaped your thinking about the way to succeed.

The key steps to establishing non-negotiables are as follows:

  1. Explain the non-negotiable value and why it is good for the individual and the team (e.g., family, group, organisation): The ‘why should I do it?’ has to be answered completely and emphatically. A weak argument will surely drop it into the ‘negotiable’ category. Embellish the answer with stories, incidents, and demonstrations. An organisation I worked at for a few years had a non-negotiable of achieving outcomes at any cost. A highly driven, outcome-based culture where achievers survived and non-achievers were moved out. Achievers would go out of the way, bending rules, lying, manipulating, and sacrificing their personal lives to ensure they achieved the outcomes. The leadership had tons of stories on why achieving outcomes (at any cost!) was critical for the company’s survival, and these were narrated ad nauseam in formal and informal settings. This non-negotiable had been successfully established, and many achievers believed it to be a fundamental truth of life. Some of them took this ‘truth’ with them to other organisations and were surprised when it was not positively received.
  2. Clarify the implications (which can be very serious!) of violating it. On the other hand, the rewards of following the non-negotiables should be sustainable, long lasting, and tangible. In the case of the non-negotiable of sharing enforced by our parents, the implications of violating it was that our mother would not talk to the perpetrator for the whole day. That was a distressing implication for the mind of a small child. On the other hand, a demonstration of sharing would receive loads of appreciation, hugs, and smiles. In our minds, there was no question about adhering to this ‘expectation’ with pride and happiness.
  3. Expand the non-negotiables to engagements outside the organisation: One of my earlier organisations had a non-negotiable of ethics. Even the slightest fraud (once proven) was dealt with using the harshest actions. As this was clearly embedded in all dealings within the organisation and with external stakeholders, the employees were encouraged to engage with vendors/clients who were aligned to this value. Vendors/clients who were unethical or had a history of such practices were stricken from the list and disengaged from the organisation. Employees were also appreciated for being honest/ethical in personal dealings.

The logic is very simple: Culture is a part of our psyche, and if we want certain non-negotiable elements to be truly ‘baked’ into our belief system, they should be practiced at home or within our social settings. Only then would we fully accept it and not falter any time. A mixed engagement (different at the workplace and at home) would dilute our behaviour, causing deviations at truly critical moments.

The edifice of a powerful culture stands on a strong foundation of beliefs, among which there are few that truly make the difference, and these are the non-negotiables. A leader who has a firm grasp on these values will ensure that his or her desired culture thrives and grows with time.

(This blog content excerpt from Rajat Tewari’s upcoming book “Taming the Dragon: Shaping Culture for Success”)

A leader who understands the power of stories can leverage them to transform culture very swiftly. In the context of a DevOps culture transformation, the leader has a unique challenge. He/ she is moving from an old, traditional culture to the new world of DevOps. He may not have stories to flesh out the context. In such cases, the leader has to drive the specific agenda to build stories, which can be used to fuel the culture change.

How is that done? What are the key steps?
Find the answers here

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Rajat Tewari

Co-Founder and CEO, TranZend Consulting LLP

Rajat Tewari brings rich experience of 26 years with reputed multinationals like DuPont, Bausch & Lomb, Coats (FMCG, Lifestyle Brands, Commodities) in Business Management, Sales/Marketing/Branding,…