Is Your Culture Open or Closed?

A sales professional was telling me recently about her work environment, which was fast becoming negative because of restructuring due to the economy. Searching for ways to explain what was happening she said, “Before we were open – sharing, conversing, bouncing ideas off each other. And then things changed. It’s like we shut down. The new arrivals were not open to ideas nor did they want to share their successes or challenges.”

  • A desire to improve was replaced with a willingness to settle
  • A belief that people could transform was replaced with the status quo
  • A desire for engagement and feedback was replaced with independence and exclusiveness
  • A sense of enjoyment was replaced with drudgery
  • And, confidence was replaced with defensiveness

John Johnson, Ph.D. refers to this as an OPEN and CLOSED environment or system. Just as our bodies reveal signs of being closed – crossing of the arms or avoiding eye-contact – so do cultures have distinguishing signs.

At the outset, we need to remember that closed cultures are fearful cultures. While it may seem initially open, this type of system fosters a suspicion of new people and new ideas to the point of intentionally limiting the discussion of new approaches and casting a cloud of doubt when a new person joins the team.  Depending on the makeup of the team members, the “keepers of the closed culture” manage (control) it with passive-aggressive behavior. If that manipulation doesn’t work it moves to more aggressive actions.

Being part of this closed culture may feel a bit “cultish.” Actually, it feels that way because a closed culture has many of the characteristics of a cult:

  • People are stifled; input and feedback are squelched
  • Possibilities are suffocated; there is a belief that there is no better way
  • Change is not tolerated; transformation is not welcomed

An open system is quite the opposite. This type of culture is alive and transformational:

  • There is a belief that individuals can improve; transformation is embraced and encouraged.
  • Not only are new ideas welcomed, but new people are welcomed, bringing with them a new perspective and therefore opening up new possibilities.
  • Discussions are lively; when everyone contributes it cultivates interdependence.
  • Because people are inspired to develop their potential, the team flourishes and the organization prospers.

Sure, an open culture requires boundaries. But, instead of “rule-keepers” enforcing a set of legal restrictions, people are guided by boundaries which value human beings, respect the process, and foster a productive community.

It’s often fluid and a bit messy. It requires leaders who will step into their role of shaping the environment by speaking the kind truth and serving the team. Dr. Johnson emphasizes, “This type of leader will learn the difference between an open and a closed culture and seek to foster the healthiest of environments.”

On the continuum of OPEN or CLOSED – how would you rate the different cultures of which you are a part?
[Systems to consider: family, work group, team, religious gatherings (local church, small group, denomination), volunteer organizations, etc.]