It’s Hard to Change a Culture When You’re Living In It

I’d like to say I always show up as my most powerful self at work, backing myself up and other women up as often I need to, pushing for change with all of my energy and intelligence whenever I can.Wouldn’t that be great? If we could always deliver on our values and intentions? We don’t because we’re human. And more importantly because “it’s hard to change a culture when you’re living in it.”Image via FlickrGloria Feldt reminded us of this not-so-small idea at the Take The Lead launch in February. Her words strike a chord not just because they help women (and anybody who advocates for women, who indeed believes the culture need to change!) feel a little less crazy—but because they drive home the fact that we are indeed part of larger systems and cultures. We forget this. And we really shouldn’t because if we didn’t, we’d remember that we can’t help but reflect (and to some degree reinforce) the cultural messages we live with, good and bad. For women, this means we’re up against the culture we live in and we’re often up against ourselves.For example, there are times I do the same thing to myself at work that I wish the work “culture” wouldn’t do to me or any other woman. There are important strategy meetings during which I want to speak up because I know I have something valuable to contribute, but tell myself not to, not just for fear of being seen as “too aggressive” or opinionated, but out of judgment I place on myself (thankfully, just momentarily!) that I am those things.There are times I want to do something radically different in my work or activism, but stop myself with, “But this other way is the way it’s always been done before.” Remarkably, the fact that the old way is no longer working, everyone knows the old way isn’t working and has said so (and it’s actually creating more problems!)—sometimes even this isn’t enough to convince me to trust my gut.So what do we do? How do we change the patterns of our culture? our own patterns? If we want to “change the culture,” we’ve got to change ourselves. There’s no way around it. And by change ourselves, I don’t mean figure out how to “have it all” as women—we’re done with this conversation, right?—or in any way jump through hoops. I do mean decide to change our relationship to ourselves and our own felt sense of power and leadership at work and in the world. This is part of what I’ll be talking about in my two webcasts on authentic leadership, influence, and power coming up in May and June. Because change always starts with us.How do we go about changing ourselves in a noisy culture that doesn’t work so well for women? We can live the way we’d like our culture to encourage us to live, whether or not it does. We can lead the way for our culture by leading our own lives in a way that energizes us, ask to be paid what we’re worth, and take the smart career risks we’d advise anyone else to take! We can choose not to participate in aspects of our culture that sap our power or hurt us. We can use our voice when it matters, link up with communities that give us strength and follow conversations that inspire us, recommit to our goals as needed, and persevere on.“It’s hard to change a culture when you’re living in it.” So don’t. Don’t try to do this. Focus on changing your relationship to yourself and your own work, and trust that the cumulative effects of people doing this—that changes the culture over time. It’s slow work, but it has a way of picking up speed. It’s that “go slow to go fast” thing, that’s been all the rage in the business community forever and for good reason. Maybe since the tortoise and the hare.Interested in learning more? Join me for one of two webcasts, May 1st or June 26th to talk authentic leadership, influence, and power. You’ll leave with a new understanding of the difference between the three and learn how you can use principles of authentic leadership to advance your career or move your projects forward, whatever your field. This will be a highly interactive discussion. Join us!


Read more posts by Lex Schroeder.