Month: January 2022

Culture = habits? … Blog #101

Sunday evening, church services were done, and the sitting room was all set up ready for company. Mom had been preparing for our visitors over the past couple of days, and the spread she presented was nothing short of front-cover-cookbook ready. The sandwiches were trimmed and cut into triangles, the scones were the perfect three bite size, ready to be lathered with Devonshire cream and homemade strawberry jam. Mince tarts, chocolate fudge shortbread, ‘plain’ shortbread, and Victoria Sponge cake were all part of the fare, served on a triple layer cake plate. Now, with the fireplace blazing, the room provided a warm and welcoming atmosphere for some good Irish craic with friends.  

If you think Mom put on this spread for a special occasion, you’d be greatly mistaken; this was a normal, regular, and most enjoyable cultural entertaining norm for a family in Northern Ireland, right up to when we immigrated to Canada in 1970. People would feel free to drop in anytime, knowing the kettle was boiled and ready to ‘wet the tea’ and let it ‘draw’ for the appropriate amount of time. As well, the pantry always had a tea treat at the ready for those welcomed guests who would simply drop in for an unannounced visit.

This was our ‘habit’ each Sunday evening. Similar times were enjoyed at my grandparents home in Annalong, Ireland. I have fond memories of sitting around the fire listening to my granda, with his gentle Irish brogue, recite stories and poems from years gone by, while granny cooked up her delicious tomato soup in the tiniest kitchen possible (I’ve no idea how they raised six boys in that tiny home!).

When our family immigrated to Canada, we expected those habits of culture to continue for us. Dad and mom expected neighbours to drop by anytime for a visit, they expected Sunday evenings after church to be times of visiting with new friends. Sure, my parents still invited people over, and guests were delighted by the table spread before them (albeit, with a greatly reduced salary the fare was more simple, though every bit as delicious), but such visits only happened when intentionally planned for. No one dropped by for a visit and a cup of tea. Mom waited, but no knocks ever sounded on the front door. It didn’t take long before her confidence started to crack; did people not like her? Was she an inadequate hostess? Would she ever have close friends again? It was a devastating turn of events for this accomplished homemaker who freely expressed her love and appreciation for others through hospitality.

Culture was not a topic of conversation back then. People were people. We didn’t encounter folks from other countries on our small island (the cultural landscape of Ireland has certainly changed over the years…a lovely thing to see). In our new home called Canada, we knew things were different, but had no words to describe it, only expressions of sadness, hurt, and longing for what had been.

Eventually, as a result of a heart attack, my dad met an Irish doctor who opened our eyes to the ‘Canadian way’. Dr. Mark quickly became a family friend, and provided our first lessons on cultural training. Who would have thought it would be considered an imposition to drop in for a visit? As time passed we would soon discover not only the differences in our cultures, but also in our common words of expression. Apparently it wasn’t a good idea for a student to use the term ‘stupid ass’ in class. Nor was it a compliment to tell someone their home was homely. (We learned that ‘homey’ was the complementary word we were after.) Another cultural practice, or habit, was drinking tea. Let me be clear, there is nothing wrong with tea…it is still a pleasure to be enjoyed by young and old alike, no matter where they call home. 

However, our habit was to have tea first thing in the morning, mid-morning, before going to the market, when we came home from the market, with lunch, afternoon tea, dinner, and of course supper (the snack we had just before bed). Not until my then boyfriend (now husband) came into the family did we realize this was not the norm. 

Culture is a beautiful thing, but even some cultural practices, or habits, can be a barrier to fully enjoying the many wonders of life and living. Let me share this example. As a young woman I was suffering with constant headaches. I saw one specialist after another, and none of their brilliant minds could figure out the problem. Until one. This doctor was an eye, ear, nose and throat specialist (ENT), but most significant was his heritage: he was British. In our first consultation, he inquired about my tea drinking habits. When I recounted a normal day, we added up how many cups of tea I was actually consuming…more than ten cups a day, well beyond the recommended daily allowance of caffeine! His prescription was for me to stop drinking tea for a period of time. I did, missed the tea desperately, but did not miss the headaches that magically disappeared at the same time I cut out my tea drinking rituals. 

Our culture, our habits, were so ingrained in who we were, we had no idea others would not share the same. Growing up, I had no exposure to other cultures, our family travels were mostly to the South of Ireland, England, Scotland, Wales, and just before immigrating we visited Ibiza and Canada. There is a great difference between visiting a place and residing in a place. Marriam Webster offers this as a definition of reside…’to be present as an element or quality.’ How long does it take to move from simply living to residing in a location? I don’t know…but I certainly hope that being in a place for four months (as we are in Portugal and then Spain) will afford us some of the cultural insights that are unique to these areas.

The idea of culture being habits, has created a bit of a mind shift for me over the course of my current research.  Organization culture or team culture is a topic of great interest in these changing times. We read articles and books about adapting to culture, learning culture, creating a culture, or embracing culture, among other topics, but the challenge seems to be most apparent when we start looking at changing culture.

“Culture will not change by propagating different values. Culture can only change by changing habits and behaviours. These in turn will change values, plans, procedures, and norms and finally the ‘stories we tell ourselves about ourselves’ regarding our bottomline assumptions and beliefs.”  

Jutta Ekstein and John Buck, experts in the ‘Agile’ space.

While changing my behaviour around drinking copious amounts of tea may not revolutionize an organization, it was a change in my habits, my culture, that certainly brought healing and growth to how I live my life. And, opened up a whole new world of coffee (decaffeinated of course!)

We continue to live in a time of change, change that often calls for a re-examining of organizational culture. Is it possible that such an examination might reveal some habits that, if changed, may be the first step in shifting a culture towards one that more realistically aligns with the values, plans, procedures and norms aspired to as an organization? 

The Cambridge Dictionary defines a catalyst as ‘someone or something that causes a big change’. Is it possible that individuals within organizations could be the catalysts for a necessary cultural shift in an organization by intentionally changing one habit at a time? I wonder what some of those habits might be for your organization?

Praia da Oura Leste, Albufeira, Portugal

Tea cups photo by Rodolfo Marques on Unsplash English tea service photo by Sebastian Coman Photography on Unsplash

Living with expectancy, not expectations… Blog #100

Albufeira, Portugal

Part of me feels the pressure to make this blog significant, inspirational, insightful…that’s a lot to live up to. It’s writing also happens to line up with the start of a new year, leaving behind a year filled with such mixed emotions, for everyone.

I do, however, need to start off with the acknowledgement that I am truly blessed. While the past year has had its fill of sadness and loss, it has also had a great deal of joy, laughter, and much to be thankful for. 

I went for a walk on the beach today, as I have done most days since arriving in Albufeira, Portugal. This is a true novelty for me–not the walk, but where I walk. No need for winter jackets, gloves, touques, or boots. No snow. Most days the sun has been shining, but even on cloudy or rainy days, the weather is very mild with temperatures hitting around 16-20 degrees. We even had an amazing day at Monchique where the temperature hit 25 degrees.

Rather than the crunching of glistening snow, my feet sank into the soft sand as I revelled at the majesty of the glistening Atlantic ocean while the sun sparkled on the white caps. Watching the mist clear after storms truly is a sight to behold. Two very different landscapes, snow and sand, in the amazing world we get to inhabit, each with their own beauty and unique features. 

But there’s more, the pièce de résistance…we got to spend Christmas with our son, daughter-in-law and six grandkids. What a treat! This doesn’t happen often since their immigration to Europe. The times we have been able to share Christmas are richly embedded in our memory bank of never to be forgotten moments. Over the past years we have spent two special Christmases with them, one in Ireland and the other in France. Now we get to add Portugal to the list. Papa and Gramma were truly blessed to be their house guests from December 24 through 26. The excitement grew as the days approached. The thoughtful planning of how we would spend our time: the games we’d play, movies we would watch, and last but not least, what yummy food would be prepared and enjoyed. To top it off Grama would be joining in their now Christmas Day tradition of jumping into whatever body of water they happen to be living on. So glad they are spending these few months in Portugal, away from the frigid Baltic Sea of their home in Finland!

Christmas was indeed wonderful! To be honest, the only thing that could have made it better would be to have our daughter, son-in-law, and granddaughter in Canada join us here in Portugal!

Nativity, created by Gracie

Still, we all entered our family time with great expectancy, and we were not disappointed. On Christmas Eve our six grandkids (now aged 9-17) put on their traditional Christmas play…oh my! Our grandparent hearts just about exploded with joy, pride, love, and amazement at their dedication, creativity, and excellence as they reenact the story of Christmas in song and spoken word. One grandson even saved some of his dad’s beard shavings (he has quite the viking beard), and pasted them on his face to be more ‘authentic’ in his depiction of a shepherd. We were doubled over in laughter when he turned to face the ‘audience’ to reveal this transformation.

Our dip in the water was indeed refreshing. The water wasn’t cold, nor was the air, all adding to the enjoyment of the experience. I was, however, taken by surprise by the strength of the waves and the undertow. My assumption that all the hill walking and stair climbing of Lisbon and Albufeira would rebuild the strength after knee replacement, was certainly overrated. How wonderful to be able to grab the hand of my grandson as I struggled to gain my balance and unstick my feet from the sinking sand as the tide fought against itself.  

Christmas dinner was a culinary treat prepared with love by our daughter-in-law, aided by well trained sous chefs whose creativity and skill goes well beyond putting on Christmas plays. Our daughter-in-law home schools their kids, and honestly, they blow me away with how much they know about, well, everything! I think it’s fair to say that travel is an education in itself, but combining that with intentional learning that embraces the history and geography of where you happen to be living at the time is unequalled. What could be better than learning about the history of Rome while camping just outside the great city, or studying design while living in the Netherlands, or learning about ocean tides while living by vast bodies of water in Ireland, Portugal, or Spain. This is certainly one of the advantages nomad families get to enjoy. Amazing to say the least. 

It’s fascinating being in a culture so different from your own for such a significant and tradition filled season of the year.  Significant from my perspective. I expected a similar celebratory atmosphere in Portugal as we experience in Canada. Or as a child in Ireland. I expected decorations that celebrate both the sacred and secular expressions of the season in homes and shared spaces. There are some, but minimal at best. I expected…I’m not really sure how to describe it, but it seems like one could easily miss the fact that it’s Christmas. In the centre of Old Town there were a few booths selling mulled wine and other Portuguese treats (very delicious); there was even a large tent set up with an ice skating rink! Live Christmas music was played on some evenings, with a small number of people partaking in the offerings, but again, it didn’t feel like a community coming together to celebrate. 

Now, to be fair, we are on the outside looking in. We don’t know what happens in the privacy of people’s homes, or in the churches scattered throughout this area. 

My expectations for this season, in this location, were fully based on my own experiences throughout life. I didn’t have any conversations with locals about their traditions. Except at an Irish pub. It was raining on the evening before Christmas Eve – where else would an Irish born woman go on such a rainy day? The Guiness and warm Irish Whisky was a true tonic for the deep cold that comes with the rain and incredibly high humidity here during those days. The pub owner had planned to celebrate with patrons throughout the season from Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day, until the announcement of additional restrictions being enforced to curtail the spread of the new COVID variant. The plug was pulled, so to speak, on their ability to facilitate the festivities of locals and tourists alike. 

Once more, how realistic were my expectations? Is what I was observing ‘normal’ for this area, or had people already dialled back their public seasonal celebrations in response to a global pandemic?

So, what does all this have to do with Blog #100, January 2022, inspiration, and insight? I entered this season with expectations, not expectancy. I had preconceived ideas of what ‘it’ would be like. While the expectations of time with our European family were greatly surpassed, I didn’t take time to really research the ‘norms’, nor learn of the Portuguese people’s personal experiences around the season. 

I have also observed the same thinking around the focus of my current research. I entered expecting to learn about how to lead a hybrid team, I entered thinking only of that one aspect of leadership. I’ve learned that those expectations need to be readjusted. Instead, I’m learning to look much deeper as I read, listen, watch, inquire, reflect, and experience life in a context that is so different from my norm. 

I have been in leadership roles most of my life in various industries ranging from not for profit, to government, to for profit, to education. In education we are often asked, ‘What is your philosophy of teaching’. A very important question indeed. However, in all my leadership roles in business, I have never been asked that question. Why do I lead as I do? Why do I make the decisions I do? Why do I value my team members as I do? It’s a big one! I’m learning that we are living in an age where the focus is on ‘how to…’, and not on ‘why?’. Yes, the current environment is new and ever morphing…and it will continue to do so. Many books and articles have now been published on how to lead hybrid teams, or lead in this unknown context, but are we stopping to ask ‘why‘? Are we stopping to consider what belief system of humanity is informing why we are making the decisions we are? What happens when the next ‘pandemic’ comes along, do we come up with another new list of how to’s, or do we pause and consider the ‘why’?

As we enter 2022, let me encourage you to truly hit pause and intentionally make time to think through your leadership foundations. In his book, Virtual Leadership, author Bart Banfield states, “The search for answers always begins with a question.” He further observes that, “Production and performance quickly replace inquiry…”

That being said, what is your philosophy of leadership? How does it play out in how you lead the valuable individuals under your care…no matter if they are hybrid, remote, co-located, or whatever? Who are you as a person, as a leader? What competencies do you bring to the table, and how do your personality traits inform how you lead? 

I am re-learning that only when we are able to answer these questions can we then move on to how we practice our leadership. The ‘how to’s take on more meaning and effectiveness when they are informed by your philosophy and personhood.

This is the direction of my research…stay tuned as I continue, with great expectancy, to learn.

Monchique, Portugal