The culture of ‘we’ and how to get there

What does it feel like to make an inclusive community – a “we culture” – in businesses or organisations? At the RSM Leadership Summit in October, real-life experience from a CEO whose business in the midst of the process of building one were backed up by insights from RSM faculty members, and the process of gaining trust was expertly illustrated with satire.

Story by Justine Whittern

Photos by Michelle Muus

The study of creating a “we culture” is a thriving research area with findings being used to guide organisations as they integrate it. Why? It’s easy to overlook the real people at the core of the organisation when all activity is focused on processes, efficiency or downsizing, said Dirk van Dierendonck, professor of human resource management in RSM’s Department of Organisation and Personnel Management. The way these people feel can influence business success.

Five principles

Prof. Van Dierendonck proposed five key principles that create a feeling of inclusiveness for people at the centre of operations. The five themes were echoed and illustrated by subsequent speakers.

The first of the five principles is that doing something great gives a positive mood, he said – it makes people better at negotiations and feel more social. Happy people can be more creative problem-solvers. Conversely, depressed people are more likely to identify faults just when organisations need them to be looking for possibilities.

Cultural shift

Stefano Rosso is CEO of international fashion conglomerate OTB, a great example of the transition from “me” to “we”. The organisation is undergoing a cultural shift as it transfers the spirit of its founder Renzo Rosso into a set of principles based on four values – courage, evolution, excellence and respect – to use as it undergoes succession.

Stefano Rosso told how the lack of ambience in OTB’s old headquarters made their work less effective when people worked long days in a windowless environment. But new buildings produced an immediate reaction – he experienced how a better working environment and a better lifestyle improved results.

Motivate through empowerment

A sense of empowerment and being allowed to use skills is the strongest driving factor for personal performance, said Prof. Van Dierendonck, explaining the second of his principles. Most employees need only for their leader or organisational culture to give autonomy – provided the right skills are present. Later in the day the final speaker, RSM Professor of Organisational Behaviour Daan van Knippenberg, explained proactive people need a shared purpose, shared leadership and responsibility, as well as coaching and development. ‘Engage people and help them with challenges but keep them in the driver’s seat,’ he said. ‘Outsource your thinking and create a sense of psychological ownership. Give people the choice of how to do things.’

Common objectives

It’s particularly important for higher-level managers to encourage and empower younger workers in lower positions, said Stefano Rosso, because making a difference comes most naturally to the young. He recommended a common objective and strategy. ‘We shape the frame, but inside the frame, people can move freely,’ he said.

‘Organisations exist to do something you can’t do alone,’ said Prof. Van Knippenberg. The key to effective leadership is uniting people towards a purpose but it must be based on values. Companies that cannot clearly formulate, define or articulate that purpose face a challenge to convincingly communicate what they are doing and why they are doing it.

Lead with humility

Effective leadership comes with a sense of humility, said Prof. Van Dierendonck, explaining his third principle. Research shows that the effectiveness of humility increases the higher up in the organisation you go. Effective leaders are strong and confident in themselves, and know what they can and cannot do. Those in higher positions should know that they are no more important than others lower down the ladder.

Rosso concluded that leaders use “we” when they are taking the organisation forward, but “I” when taking responsibility for difficult situations, and even though he aimed for that style of leadership, he realised he was not approachable, something he admitted he was hoping to improve with coaching. Prof. Van Dierendonck said Rosso’s example illustrated how people project “how leaders should be” on to their own leaders. ‘You’re approachable, but they don’t see that.’

People need people

According to Prof. Van Dierendonck’s fourth principle, an organisation is a culture in which people do things together, and enhancing the sense of connectedness keeps them motivated. A study of work stress and perceived social support shows the lower the stress, the more job satisfaction.

But it must be based on values, according to Prof. Van Knippenberg. Companies that are unable to clearly formulate, define or articulate that purpose are challenged to communicate convincingly “what we are doing”, and “why we are doing it”. ‘Sharing your values helps you build connections. This dialogue – a conversation in which you share why your company exists and why it’s important – is how you create the buy-ins,’ he explained.

Build on respect

Last in his list of five principles for developing a “we culture”, Prof. Van Dierendonck suggested that building on respect could easily come first in the list. ‘Who doesn’t want to be respected?’ he asked.

Should higher-level business leaders do more listening? The higher up you go as a manager, the more you should stop talking and start listening, according to Prof. Van Dierendonck. Rosso said it can be difficult to listen to negative feedback, but added: ‘What you think doesn’t count much anymore. You have to be good in taking what they think and driving it to where you want.’

Intrinsic discipline

Cabaret performer, satirist and writer Freek de Jonge led the final plenary session and explained the requirement for basic trust and intrinsic discipline. He used his absurdist and anecdotal style to throw new light on the issues of getting from “me” to “we”, and illustrated the issues of trust, concentration and focus. 

In one of his wryly observed anecdotes, De Jonge pointed out the relationship between people and organisations relied on trust. ‘When you’re focused there’s no conflict between reality and fantasy, and no obstacle from convention and feasibility, and no difference between theory and practice. We have to make choices in life because we’re not living in paradise. Basic trust, discipline and focus are what we need to get from “me” to “we”.’

Big dreams

De Jonge explained selling the idea wasn’t needed. People need to be aware why they need to know how to build a “we culture”. ‘You have to feel psychologically safe and have basic trust,’ he said.

It’s clear that changing from a “me” model to a “we” model can’t be done in a day. But satirist De Jonge told the audience not to be afraid of big dreams, or of what people think. ’How vain the art of planning!’ he said, and gave another piece of his cryptic wisdom: ‘Surprises usually arrive at the right time, and the expected is often too early or too late.’

This year’s RSM Leadership Summit included break-out sessions led by RSM faculty members. Get the full picture with more in-depth details, videos, photos, comment and analysis. 


This article was first published in RSM Outlook winter 2016 – RSM’s alumni and corporate relations magazine. You can download RSM Outlook here.

Business-Society Management , Companies , Faculty & Research , Organisation and personnel management , RSM Outlook , 2016 Winter RSM Outlook