Culture starts with you

Industry Discussion

What does the creative and innovation industry have to say?
Discovering the culture problem
Anyone interacting with other people is part of a culture. Culture essentially "surrounds us all the time" (Schein, 1985). But being surrounded constantly by culture doesn't mean being aware of our role in it or of the assumptions we are making about it.

Assumptions are important because they guide our behaviours yet remain at the deepest level of culture according to Edgar Schein's popular "three levels of culture" model. Assumptions remain unsaid, unless someone asks. Asking direct questions to employees and leaders felt like the best way to start painting a picture of what the problem might be.
One of the reasons I chose to research culture is because I was inspired by my last work experience in Dubai. My amazingly talented colleagues and friends back there would have feedback to give their companies but would not speak up for several reasons. They would talk to friends and family about their concerns confidentially instead. I believe it was because they did not know how to approach the subject with their line managers.

Upon reflection, I have noticed that the concept of culture is new to me. I know this because I clearly remember writing a power point presentation about the culture of the company with my line manager almost two years ago. I remember presenting our idea to the executive board. We brainstormed and ideated a culture based on "Good". "Good people, good clients, good work" and so forth. Our colleagues never saw that presentation and had zero input in it. Interestingly, after we presented those slides to management, we did not see that content again ourselves. It disappeared probably because they were just words we had ideated in an isolated manner.

I thought it would be a good idea to speak to those colleagues who never saw the culture presentation and ask them what the issues are. I not only spoke to them but also to friends and ex-colleagues I would confide in and listen to while working in Dubai.

I also thought that speaking to my previous managers would add a valuable perspective to my research. All of my previous managers hold CEO or Director positions in the industry but not all of them were enjoyable to work with if I'm honest. Nonetheless, I remain friends with all of them because their personalities were not the same in and outside the office. I saw this project as my opportunity to ask questions I could not have thought of before and unearth issues that I could not verbalise in the past.
Ask the heads of most agencies in Dubai about what their biggest challenges are and, often, the answer will be hiring and then retaining talent.
(El-Ghazzar, 2016)
Dubai is the second major city of the United Arab Emirates a newly industrialised country, (like Korea, Singapore and Hong Kong) where possibilities are endless but the skilled talent pool in our industry is very small both from the agency and client side. There is a shortage of specific skills in the industries that are growing the most (banking, services...etc) or require highly skilled professionals (Manpower, 2008).

Csikszentmihalyi (2008) has a theory on happiness that is based on matching high skills with complex challenges, its called the 'Flow' theory. He says that when an individual has low skills and faces low levels of challenge, he will feel apathy. If the challenges become higher, he will feel worry and anxiety. If the skills instead become sharper but the challenges remain low, the individual will face boredom.

What I takeaway is that challenges are not very high in Dubai within the creative industry, because the pressure to perform well is not there from an agency or client side. This in turn breeds feelings of apathy, boredom, worry and anxiety and limits the possibility to feel arousal, control, relaxation and flow (which is the state Csikszentmihalyi links to happiness at work). I identified lack of flow in the individuals I spoke to and in my personal experience - it was apathy and boredom at work that helped me look for a new challenge at Hyper Island.
Csikszentmihalyi (2008) believes the secret to happiness is achieving flow,
where an individual meets a complex challenge with her high skills.
What are the issues?
Thoughts from the front line
I reached out to friends and ex colleagues: Dareen Abdullah, Leila Benhassan and a third source that would prefer to remain anonymous. These three professionals have not worked together ever and come from three different Arabic speaking countries. They all work in the creative industry in Dubai.

People who work in Account Management interact and look after the interests of both the client and the agency's internal teams and therefore are less biased to one side or other. Their perspective of the cultural problems in the industry are holistic and I remember their opinions being reflective when I lived in Dubai.
Dareen Abdullah
Account Director
Account Manager
Leila Benhassan
Account Director
Based on their knowledge of the industry in Dubai and their collective experience, this panel of professionals identified the following hindering qualities of the industry as:

• "Unexperienced" professionals
• "Lack of confidence" in some individuals
• "Ego" in some individuals
• Lack of processes in some of the places they've either worked in or have been in contact with
• Lack of communication between teams
• Letting a pressing deadline define the quality of the work
• Not having enough grit to iterate and do things well
• Micromanagement

Alberto Bustani, Head of Business at SpiderFrogs (who was my client when I was working at an advertising agency) added that "language barriers" and "cultural differences" are extra complexities of culture in a city like Dubai. He is originally from Mexico and runs a team of four people all of which come from different backgrounds.

He believes that since Dubai is a hub for international people, professionals join companies with an existing working style and a lifestyle associated to it that may or may not be a good fit for the company. He advises that if these topics are not discussed openly, they may develop into misunderstandings at work. He describes himself as an extrovert and thinks this trait has helped him address issues at work before they become a problem.

Alberto Bustani
Head of Business at SpiderFrogs Dubai
Added to the complexities a growing market has, the above professionals have to navigate a very peculiar demographic situation: 80% of the close to 3 million people in Dubai are expatriates (Werden et al., 2015). This means that 80% of the population is unlikely to have the same set of life experiences, skill level, communicational style, body language, set of assumptions, way of thinking...etc

From the above evidence, it is possible to say that the cultural challenge in Dubai sits beyond the office walls and exists in the community.
Who should address the issue?
The responsibility of being happy
Online survey I sent out. Still gathering responses here:
I gathered 16 anonymous responses in total through an online survey, where eleven responses came from Europe, two from Latin America and two from Asia. It was good to learn from the survey that more than 50% of people said they were happy at work. Four were not and two explicitly "did not care" about work.

When asked "who is to blame if a person is unhappy at work?" people said either the individual or management - the rest said it depends or both are to "blame". I used the keyword "blame" in the question deliberately since it is a "shame-related" word (Brown, 2010) and is indicative of a non-vulnerable culture. I wanted to see if someone would react to the word and ask me about it. Only one person did.

It was interesting to find that more people thought the individual was to blame if he wasn't happy at work. One self-declared happy employee from Latin America gave context to his answer and said that even if the "main reason for unhappiness at work tends to be management, if we're talking about blame, the individual is to blame." He went on to say "My happiness in a job is my responsibility".

People think the individual is to blame if he/she is not happy at work
People think it depends or that the blame is shared among a group
People think management is to blame
Most participants of the online survey found individuals to be responsible for their own happiness at work. If this was the case, why are leaders consistently asked to increase employee engagement? Maybe it's not in their hands.
could individuals change anything?
Unhappiest and powerless
I interviewed face-to-face and sent out questions via email to industry leaders regarding what could "an individual with zero power in the organisation do to influence his own happiness". I wanted to know if they felt anything could be done from an employee perspective to affect employee dissatisfaction. I used the word "power" deliberately as well to see what the participants would comment back. Power was understood as "influence", the term "zero power" was challenged and overall most leaders had a solid suggestion about what could the individual do. Many things!
"There is no such thing as a person with zero power in an organisation"
I asked Paula Jago, based in London, what could an individual do if he/she was unhappy at work. She told me that if the employee is "frustrated by having 'zero power', they should look for another job" because power comes with responsibility, and "having zero power does not necessarily lead to someone being unhappy" (Jago, P.). Paula is based in the UK and is Chief Operating Officer in the Creative-Technology Industry. She has spent 20 years building high performance teams and hiring talented individuals.

When asked the same question, two leaders replied that there is "no such thing as a person with zero power", otherwise why would they be at work? What value would they be adding? (Adrien, P and Hamdan, G.)
"If you have a bad boss, go over him, if the next person on the totem poll won't listen, go above him/her, if you get to the top and your voice still isn't being heard (or worse you can't even get an audience with the top), then you owe it to yourself to walk away."
— Anonymous industry leader on the board of Directors at a global digital agency in Dubai
To know what a powerless employee could do to be happy at work, I reached out to one of my most memorable professional leaders. Ghazwan Hamdan, Founder and Creative Director of Maek Design. Ghaz was my Creative Director at Isobar and his leadership style was transformational, which is why I probably see him as a mentor. I learnt from him how important it is to always strive for clarity, to be vulnerable as a leader and about industry hurdles I would encounter as a creative in the Middle East.

I asked him what happens when a person is unhappy at work and has no power within the organisation. He did not understand how power is related to happiness, probably because that is in essence how he sees the world. He also explained that with zero power in an organisation, would someone "still be at work"? Ghaz's ultimate advice to the person I described was that "it's ok to have no power at work, but you must have value. Thats what we're here for, to add value to a team or a project or a place" (Hamdan, G.).

Ghazwan Hamdan
Global Creative Director, Founder of Maek Design
Daniel Fogg, CEO Buffalo Grid
Steve Simpson and Christine Mohammed, Team Leaders at the Google Digital Garage
There was one industry leader who saw the connection between power and happiness quickly. Daniel Fogg, CEO of Buffalo Grid see's power as influence. He explained that influence is "usually done through ideas, which tend to be expressed in words". His advice to an unhappy employee with no power would be to come up with and use "internal marketing" to communicate his ideas with "words people can remember. Memorable ideas will change behaviours, which in turn get this person influence and therefore power" (Fogg, D.).

Christine Mohammed, Team Leader at Google, co-worker and a digital expert with years of experience in marketing and lean methodology is of the opinion that it is very hard for employee's to affect the culture around them. That it might be doable from a smaller team perspective where there's a mid-weight leader but not at an organisational level. She believes that if a company has a "broken or poor culture", it's very difficult for an individual in that workplace to "turn it around". She believes that "it's a lot easier for change to come from the top, because if the leadership is paying you to do something you're measured against" that measurement is what will ultimately "change people's behaviour."

Steve Simpson, another Team Leader at Google, co-worker and a digital expert for almost two decades, thinks that if individuals are unhappy about something they should speak up - but what happens next "will depend on who they work for". Steve has managed 1.5M pounds of marketing budgets and became partner and Digital Director at a law firm without having a legal background. He's approachable and always has time to teach and listen. As a leader he has an "open door policy where people can tell me their worries".

Steve tells me of a situation where his team did something to change the culture. His subordinates complained about being bullied by Steve's direct manager at the time. Steve says he "drew the line and made an official complaint to HR" about his own manager. "Some people see it as banter in the office" but "the problem with bullying is that two-faced attitudes develop". He is of the opinion that culture is modelled at management level and that an organisational culture will copy the nature of how management behaves. Its worth saying that my interview with him started with a discussion on ethics and values - a topic that remained constant throughout my conversation with him.

The topic of bullying also came up during the surveys, where someone left an interesting quote: "A quirky and fun workplace is great - I like a relaxed work setting and jokes help - as long as its not at the expense of someone else though - that happened a lot at my last work."

I think things would change if we all got in a room and talked about how we all perceive each other... talk about the elephant in the room which is that sometimes people wear their titles up their sleeves.

Things would change if we were honest about how we think a person works [then that person] would realise he comes across that way.
Rachel Mwakule
Junior Designer at Digitas LBi Dubai
Some of the leaders (the youngest and more entrepreneurial ones) do not perceive powerlessness in an organisation as an obstacle for individuals to change their unhappiness at work (some don't even acknowledge powerlessness as a thing). They would encourage their subordinates to speak up if there was an issue in the culture that is making them unhappy.

On the other hand, the professionals with the most years of experience warned that change is either not possible at organisational level or that it will depend on the type of manager making the final decisions. Could this be a manifestation of 'learned helplessness'?
the ideal scenario
What makes people happy at work?
Feeling motivated to go to work and engaged with what we're doing seems to be the key to happiness at work. The question would be in turn: under what circumstances are employee's happy at work?

Daniel H. Pink author of the best-selling book "Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us" proposes that there is more to being engaged and feeling motivation for our work than getting paid. He admits there is a biological drive (which prompts us to eat or sleep for example) and an external drive (which could be the reward of a salary at the end of the month) - but he proposes a third one: intrinsic motivation, composed of autonomy, mastery and purpose (Pink, D. 2010).

In my survey and conversations with different creative professionals I asked them "to identify when were they at their happiest at work". The answers can be sorted under Daniel Pink's 'purpose, mastery and autonomy'. Also, two themes jumped out of the answers: a need to feel valued and a need to make an impact in the world.
People want to add value to the world and their teams. They want to feel integrated and interact with their leaders.

I'm am at my happiest when...
"we see the actual changes that we want in real world"

- anonymous survey participant

People like to do things well and to see others perform at their best too.

I'm at my happiest when...
"everyone cares to do his particular part in the job perfectly, it gets amazingly done and group achievements make people happy working together."

- anonymous survey participant

People like to feel trusted.

I was at my happiest when...
"I was given a task/responsibility and had the autonomy to figure out how to deliver that, did a good job and it was a success."

- anonymous survey participant

Perceiving the work done as meaningful (purpose) and feeling valued (autonomy) by the team gives people a sense of happiness at work. Having a "united" (survey, 2016) team who shares inside and outside the office is crucial too.

Perceiving the work done well (mastery) adds to the individual's sense of mastery and purpose, creating intrinsic motivation to work harder (Pink, 2010).

It is not impossible to imagine a workplace that focuses, measures and rewards these three aspects of work. However, such a place is hard to find and "happiness and work do not go hand in hand" (Bradberry, 2015) remains a universal assumed truth. Could this be because work is not made to yield intrinsic motivation to human beings, but rather to generate profit margins?
the ideal leader
What kind of leader do employees want?
Once the ideal work scenario was described, the survey asked participants to describe their ideal leader. What qualities should she have? What qualities have they identified in the past? The answers varied greatly but none of them required an authoritarian leader. The answers were clustered under four themes:

1. Vulnerable
Defined by Brene Brown (contemporary vulnerability researcher), vulnerability is basically "uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure" (Schawbel, 2013).

2. Emotionally intelligent
Emotional intelligence is term coined by Daniel Goleman in 1991, defines the "ability to identify and manage your own emotions and the emotions of others".

3. Uncertainty acceptant
Geert Hofstede (1991) coined the term "uncertainty avoidance" to describe the measures taken by a country to avoid uncertainty and ambiguity. High levels include an excess of rules and stress, while low levels include calm and collected people with not that many rules in place. In the context of culture, a leader with low uncertainty avoidance or 'uncertainty acceptance' will use few rules and a calm and collected attitude to guide her team.

4. With a growth mindset
Carol Dweck (2014) coined the term Growth Mindset in 2014. This mindset "thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities" (Popova, 2014).
Quotes from the survey
Vulnerability (Brown, 2010)
Quotes from the survey:

• "Open to feedback"

• "Tolerant"

• A good leader is the "oil that make the gears to work smoothly without you noticing him"

• "Doesn't feel like "work" when working together."

• "Humble" / "Doesn't care about titles"

• "She realises that happy and committed employees are going to make the company successful - not the other way around"
Emotional Intelligence (Goleman, 1998)
Quotes from the survey:

• "Has a vision"

• "Knows how to deliver feedback"

• "Someone empathetic, who knows your strength and works with you on your weaknesses"

• "Constantly asks himself: how can we do this better?"

• "Always asks everybody how are they today"

• "A good leader is a person that understand your needs and cares about your life because if your life is full of happiness you will work harder and better."

• "Good communication skills"

• "Social"

• "Sabe diferenciar el momento que atraviesa el equipo, de tal manera que es capaz de motivar a su gente a dar el máximo en escenarios demandantes y sabe cuando "aflojar la correa" cuando se atraviesa un momento de tranquilidad." / "Understands what phase the team is undergoing. Is able to motivate people to give their best under demanding circumstances and knows when to " loosen the belt " under more relaxed situations"

• Empathetic

Uncertainty Acceptance (Hofstede, 1991)
"Uncertainty acceptance" (Hofstede, 1991) is similar to a component of Goleman's description of emotional intelligence: self regulation, where the authors agree that if something unexpected happens, the reaction of the leader will be proportional and calm.

Quotes from the survey:

  • "A good leader is balanced and can see the "grey", representing management, staff and client's needs

  • "Open to change"

  • "Listens well, gives everyone space to speak their opinion on things but gives suggestions and makes decisions when it's needed."
Growth Mindset (Dweck, 2014)
Quotes from the survey:

• "Someone who lets you do your thing with trust and pushes you beyond your comfort zone"

• "Motivating"

• "Someone who cares about the team and works to empower them (to reach company goals)"

• Gives "freedom" to reach for their objectives the best way the team chooses

• Gives responsibility and doesn't micromanage, to allow team to "grow"

• "A good leader has an optimistic view on other people."

• "She helps people realise their personal passions and purposes as part of their work as she knows that one of the most important rewards for work is self actualisation"

• "One that recognises your role in team, supports your goals"

• "She gives people trust, time and space to realise their ideas, e.g. Gmail was a result of an employees individual side project"

• "To me, a good leader inspires me to be do better and creates the space in which I can do that."

Final thoughts on the industry discussion
Frustrating issues at work can be as out of our control as a persons country of origin, their ego levels or their professional skill set. Whether this is the main source of an individual's unhappiness at work or not doesn't matter, because the consensus is that the unhappy individual is responsible to change his reality.

Most employees and leaders recognise that being happy at work is crucial, unfortunately the occasions where employees felt a sense of purpose, mastery and/or autonomy are scarce - and maybe for that reason: memorable.

If employees were to change the reality around them and create happy work places where purpose, autonomy and mastery are king - they will need a vulnerable, emotionally intelligent, accepting of change leader with a growth mindset.

What I propose and will test instead is whether or not we can we all cultivate these qualities individually and help each other (peer to peer) design culture together. Previous research has shown that putting all hopes on the leader is a recipe for disaster (Pfeffer, 2015) anyway, so maybe its time we all give vulnerability, emotional intelligence, change and growth mindset a shot.
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