Episode 3 – What is Culture, Anyway?

On Episode 3 of Up Right & Better, we’ll have Dara Blumenthal on the podcast today. We get to talk about her research and how it relates to the culture work she does today and what it actually means to do strategy in a company.

Dr. Dara Blumenthal is a scholar of identity and embodiment who is passionate about humanizing the workplace. She is the head of Strategy and Culture at Live Grey, where she specializes in cultivating more authentic and emotionally intelligent cultures by weaving together group dynamics, interpersonal coaching, and organization design. 

In our conversation, we discuss what culture really is in the context of the organization, why sense making is key to work, and how to go about understanding and creating culture in your organization.

Kristen : Hello and welcome to Up Right and Better, where CEOs, experts and thought leaders challenge conventional business wisdom to help you scale your company up and to the right and up and better. I’m your host, Kristen Gallagher. I’m so excited to have Dara Blumenthal on the podcast today. I’ve admired her work and her articles for quite some time and I think you’ll see why very soon. We get to talk about her research and how it relates to the culture work she does today and what it actually means to do strategy in a company. Let me tell you a bit about her.

Dr. Dara Blumenthal is a scholar of identity and embodiment who is passionate about humanizing the workplace. She is the head of Strategy and Culture at Live Grey, where she specializes in cultivating more authentic and emotionally intelligent cultures by weaving together group dynamics, interpersonal coaching and organization design. After teaching University for five years, Dara became a member of Undercurrent, designing and implementing people systems for GE and American Express. Dara holds a PhD in Sociology, a Master’s in Critical Theory and a Bachelor’s in Sound and Embodiment, is a Usui Reiki master, a published author and has spoken internationally. Her monograph is entitled Little Vast Rooms of Undoing and she writes regularly on culture, organization design, and everyday life on Medium.com.

Welcome Dara, how are you?

Dara Blumenthal: I’m doing great, how are you?

Kristen : I’m doing wonderfully. Thank you so much for being on the podcast today. Could we start by hearing a little bit about you? I know that you started your own company and you recently, several months ago, turned your talents to Live in Grey, but love to hear it from you.

Dara Blumenthal: Sure. So, I did start my own company. I was on my own for a year with a project called Nature of Work. Before that, I was working at a sort of radical organization design firm called Undercurrent, which met a sort of tragic end. On the other side of starting the company, which is where I’m at now, is I’ve basically joined forces with one of my most favorite clients Live in the Grey, and I work full time with Live Grey now doing strategy and culture.

Kristen : Very cool. What does that mean, strategy and culture?

Dara Blumenthal: Well, a couple things. The most simple way to think about them is that I work on organizational strategy, I assist with strategy all around, so I work with the sales team to work on sales strategy, I do strategy kind of generally inside of the organization and I, at the same time, work on and think about our culture. I also do both of those types of work out in the field or out in the world with clients within their organizations. The thing that’s really, really interesting and exciting to me is really bringing strategy and culture into closed conversation. So thinking of them in this sort of yin and yang way, where they aren’t on opposite ends of the spectrum, but they’re actually very, very closely related and they support each other. So, I’m doing a lot of hand movements that you can’t see, but it’s like they balance each other out in the most ideal circumstances. So really trying to work on bringing those things together.

Kristen : Wow, that’s fascinating. It strikes me that you are, as you said, a big puzzle solver that, let’s say it could be sales strategy one day, going to a new market, or the next day team dynamics. So I know that you come from a very academic and I guess by that I mean a rigorous background that looks at cultural studies very seriously. I think that that might be pretty different. It’s at least in my experience different from many of the OD, Organizational Development and Design community members that I know, not that that’s a negative or a positive, but I think there is something that you bring from a rigorous background. What does it mean to activate a lens of cultural studies in a company? How does that translate for you?

Dara Blumenthal: Sure. I’ll just respond to a couple things. One is that people always think that my education or my PhD is in Organizational Psychology or OD and it isn’t.

Kristen : Right, but it’s Sociology, right?

Dara Blumenthal: Right. Exactly.

Kristen : Okay.

Dara Blumenthal: So, you’re exactly right, it’s in Sociology and I have a rich background in cultural studies. I taught cultural studies at University and so I sort of come to this work, as you were bringing to light, from a different discipline, from a different set of understanding systems. I can talk about that in two ways. To really speak to this question of activating a lens of cultural studies, is that you kind of … so a couple things. You don’t take anything for granted. To whatever extent possible, you question everything. And sort of everything in the field or in the scene, everything that exists inside of or alongside of or among the area of study, in this case organizations, everything can be considered a sort of input into the understanding into the sense making of that place. So that’s everything from the way that the space is designed to the conversations that people have to the way that people physically move through it, take up space to the words that you see around the office. So it’s sort of like all of these different pieces can actually be input into this way of making sense of the system that’s at play and that’s brought to life, that’s enlivened from the people there.

Kristen : Right, right. And I see that manifested in my work all the time, that, from a learning and development perspective, there are a lot of assumptions that can get made and your job is to come in and question everything and make sure that we are actually solving problems that are A, the right problems, well, I should say A, problems at all, B, the right problems, and C, engaging with the people that need to be part of that. So I kind of want to ask you two follow-up questions at the same time, so I’m just going to pick one and then we’ll come back to the other one. So, you wrote a book, Little Vast Rooms of Undoing, and on the surface maybe it’s not the same work that you do right now, and I’ll just read for the listeners a quick synopsis. So, public toilets are places where individual identity is put to the test through experiences of fear, anxiety, shame and embarrassment, yet also places where we shore up, confirm and check the status of our gendered identities. So, where did you come up with this idea and how does that inform your concept of sense-making in culture?

Dara Blumenthal: Yeah, so, this project was born, funnily enough, of the workplace. It was a … so basically it was my first real job out of college. I worked in an institution, I worked at NYU Law and I just started noticing all of this really strange sort of behavior in the public toilet spaces and coming from … I had just completed a degree in sound and embodiment, so super, super interested in the senses, the way that we use our senses to literally make sense, to make meaning and to make knowledge of our experiences and to create our identities, which are inherently material and physical. We are bodies and we have bodies so when we … so I’m interested in those sorts of things and I come into this workplace and I notice everyone is kind of like weird, it’s an office almost entirely made up of women and we spend most of our lives together the majority of every day and yet everyone is so weird in these spaces and so, I started talking to people about it and asking questions and everyone seemed to have something to say. So I knew that it was a really viable, scholarly project and that my research wouldn’t be too hard because everyone wanted to tell me something.

So, what’s really interesting, which I’ll try to connect is that even though these are like these taboo spaces and that there’s a huge amount of socializing that goes into becoming an adult human that enables us to be out in the world which is through training our bodies to use these spaces, so even though they’re taboo and after we become kind of inculcated into the normalized system of, “Well, I’m a woman, I use the Women’s restroom” or “I’m a male and I use the Men’s room” and we don’t really go back and question any of that and so we’re stuck with these patterns from early, early childhood that we just continue out through most of our lives usually without question. And yet, everyone wanted to say something about it. Everyone had so many thoughts and feelings and stories and things to share about these really taboo spaces that we don’t spend that much time actually talking or thinking about in our society and so there is just this really interesting juxtaposition between this desire to actually talk about them but there being no space to do that.

So that was super cool and I would say like in many ways … so the book is, put most simply it’s a theory of the way that we construct identity and that work continues to be at the heart of the sort of work that I do and the way that I think about what I’m doing which is how we fundamentally relate to ourselves and to others. What are the emotional systems and patterns at work that perpetuate that sense of self or free that sense of self to emerge or become differently? And how does our everyday lives work in that system? So, it’s sort of three things. It’s identity embodiment, so we can think about emotion as something which is … you know we call them feelings because we feel them, so it’s a physical, material reality of the self, so the self, the body emotional pattern and this sort of both time-bound and at once continuous experience of everyday life.

Kristen : Oh my gosh, there’s so much in there and again I want to ask multiple follow-up questions, but I’m going to stick with the original one. So, using that example or even thinking about how that identity embodiment happens at work and how it happens with other identities, other people, how does cultural sense-making matter, I should say why does it matter in regards to a company culture?

Dara Blumenthal: I can answer this a couple different ways. One, the sort of like the easiest way to answer it is like this idea of having a strong culture that  you either fit in or you don’t fit in is really quickly becoming outdated or outmoded and replaced by the reality that organizations actually have to continuously shift and change in relation to the people that bring them to life, that enliven them. So, we’re really shifting all the way from this sort of black and white world to this more grey becoming world where the people itself are the ones who are actually directing the culture and enlivening that culture everyday. So culture is something that is fundamentally co-constructed and it’s something that happens at multiple scales all the time. It happens sort of at the individual, at the team and at the organizational level every single day. And it’s really, really easy to get stuck in patterns that either aren’t serving the people or ultimately aren’t serving the organization. And this is where the strategy and culture conversation becomes really interesting to me which I was talking about earlier.

So that’s like one, I mean, quite simply millennials are the largest generation in the US workforce, they demand more of organizations not less, so millennials want more leadership, they want to have a greater impact, they want to feel more connected, they want to be more developed. So they actually want more from this fundamental experience of being a person right now in our society of still having these systems of labor and they want to use these systems of labor to actually develop themselves fundamentally. So it’s a very different conversation. And the sort of academic answer is that my theory of identity is that there is no self that necessarily precedes any interaction, but rather that self emerges in interaction. And so that, if we’re all working together in this way, we can enable the best selves to continuously emerge and grow in that way.

Kristen : That’s fascinating. It, just to simplify drastically, makes me think of some commentary that I’ve gotten on my own self over the course of my entire life that I am actually a huge introvert, but that I can sort of “turn on” the extroversion so there is a different self that I can use in different ways. And that changes the environment and the environment changes the self. That’s fascinating. So, just to go down a quick rabbit trail, you mentioned that millennials demand more of organizations not less. And I’ve sort of had this theory … I am, full disclosure, a millennial myself, but have had this sort of ongoing mental theory that it’s not that millennials maybe demand more per se, but it’s that they are more vocal. I wonder what you think about that and why do you think millennials demand more?

Dara Blumenthal: Yeah, so I would agree. I think that this … so I’ve been reading this book Why Should Anyone Work Here? And they have a pretty nice way of talking about it which is this idea of the Organization Man, if you can think about … so the image that came to mind for me was Mad Men and how all of those characters are kind of like trying to mimic or replicate one another. You can think about the advertising guys and then you can think about the creatives and how different they are and how they really fit into this idea or stereotype of what it means to be a person at this company doing this job. And that’s sort of Organization Man or Organization Woman or Person. That doesn’t really exist anymore. And I think in the instances that people are trying to replicate that idea of something, to live into an idea which is very ego-driven, I think people get called out on it and it feels really inauthentic. And so authenticity is a big conversation.

I walk around New York City and I see ads all over the place, like I saw a Mail Chimp ad the other day that was about being yourself. Like this idea of authenticity is really, really permeating our at least Western consciousness in this really, really specific way that I think at once is … so I think in the recent past we’ve been super, super individuated as people, as identities, so individuated “I am a man” “I am a woman”, I follow this life path or that life path. And my body’s very sealed and I only make connections or I only have friends in these sorts of ways and these are the things that we do. So very, very black and white. And I think in some ways we’re kind of reaching the limit of that individuation in the way that we construct self and that we live our daily lives because we are so increasingly connected at least digitally and I believe that people are starting to crave that deeper sort of connection in everyday life.

And the way to do that is to continually release this intense boundary that keeps you individuated and I think this is why we see such a huge increase in things like yoga and meditation and Buddhism that’s entering our consciousness and then things like juicing and people changing up their diets and this whole self-care and you take your health into your own hands is like a big sort of transition that I think we’re all going to where we’re sort of taking things into our own … we’re questioning these existent and long-standing narratives and understanding how we can actually forge a new way.

Kristen : I can agree with that. That makes a lot of sense to me. And it, for me, begs the question, that I wonder if we are reaching that as you called it the limit of individuation, are we reaching that because of the very technology that we are making? So if you think Tinder, you think Facebook, Twitter, even Uber and Lyft, these cause us to have to interact with other people. But it’s almost a paradox, because even as I say that, the data is coming in that we are more alone than ever before. We are not actually communicating in traditional ways with each other. And I wonder how that might play out in company culture?

Dara Blumenthal: So one way that I think about it is that in some ways we reach an extreme as a society before things really start to change. We can see this I think in our politics right now. I think that … this might be like, I don’t know how you’ll feel about this answer, but I wonder if people are becoming aware of their own loneliness for the first time because they don’t have the regular human interaction that propped up or assuaged that feeling to a certain extent. And so that’s like an interesting … I’m answering a question with a question, but that’s a question that I have is that is it that the technology actually creates an awareness to our own human experience that we were able to ignore more easily before because we had to interact with people?

Kristen : I feel good about that answer. It doesn’t necessarily close the conversation and that’s good. But it makes me think about as we, in a way, lose this regular human interaction like to zoom way out, gathering at the Grange Hall or having a neighborhood picnic, those sorts of things. And I feel in a way that the companies are replacing that with the obligatory happy hour and the kegs on tap and the ping pong tables, which actually reminds me of a Medium article that you wrote called Where Do Perks End and Where Does Culture Begin? And you actually mentioned, and this has been my long-standing feeling as well, that the cultural attributes are not perks, necessarily. They are not tangible objects “like a ping pong table or a calendar of events, but they are the intangible and unseen ways in which people use these things.” So I wonder if companies almost unknowingly are trying to replace that and it becomes this artificial “culture.” Because so many times I have to have the conversation with my clients or people in general that adding in the ping pong table does not make your office welcoming, does not make it fun, necessarily.

Dara Blumenthal: Yeah. So, one thing is that we … so my company Live in the Grey, a big part of our business is that we do offsites and we do offsites that are geared towards creating connections and they’re outside of the city. So no matter where someone is based, we use one of our properties and we make it happen outside of the city because it releases some barriers, it drops the guard a little bit and actually enables people to be a little bit more human and to be a little bit more open to that connection. That doesn’t really happen in the superficial way, in the happy hour, in the mandatory event, in the ping pong game. The way that I’ve started to think about this recently and I’m going to do a little bit of a … not a thought experiment but just play with this idea a little bit. So there are a couple of distinctions I like to make in order to try to invite a new way of thinking and one of my favorites is the distinction between form and content. So, it’s a dialectic and ideally we like form and content to emerge and to be interrelated or entangled. But it’s nice to start with separating them and seeing how they come together.

So in this case, organizations focused on objects or these really superficial things that they believe is culture. Like “Oh, well twice a year we get together and we do XYZ and we talk about culture.” Talking about culture, which is like a content or creating a culture event, the content isn’t necessarily the most powerful way to do this. So the idea that I’ve been playing with is how do we bake or grow culture into the form of an organization? So you can take it really simply and think about okay, in your one on one, instead of thinking about the things that you’re talking about, think about your tone of voice, think about the actual words you’re choosing to construct your sentences, think about your body language, think about how you feel. So really coming into the form of the event rather than what the content focuses on. So you can think about at a meeting, what is the structure of a meeting, who is speaking, who’s making sure more voices are being heard, are more voices being heard? So really thinking about the form or the format of something rather than just the content, which is where I think most people stop.

Kristen : Right. I think I love that. I teach two various types of coaching classes to mid level and senior level managers and we spend a lot of time on the one on one and I haven’t before necessarily connected it to say the embodiment of your culture as a company, but we talk about that form and I love the direction that you’re taking it. So I appreciate your thoughts on this and I feel like we could continue this conversation for quite some time, or at least I would want to and have tons more questions. But that being said, do you have any other closing thoughts before we end for the day?

Dara Blumenthal: Sure, I’ll just add that I think fundamentally, culture starts with the individual and that everyone to a certain extent has the ability to start questioning or start looking at things differently. That could be questioning your own behavior, that could be questioning the way you respond to someone, that could be questioning why do we hold a meeting this way? So really starting that or creating that invitation to begin to think differently about not only your role, but also how you can start to shape the culture differently.

Kristen : Right. Wonderful. Thank you so much. Dara, if people wanted to learn more about you or Live in the Grey, where would they go?

Dara Blumenthal: Sure, you can learn about Live in the Grey, which is LiveGrey.co and you can find me on Medium, I have a bunch of articles up there. I’m on the other social media, but that’s a good place to start.

Kristen : That’s all for today. Thanks so much for listening to me, your host, Kristen Gallagher and to Up Right and Better, the podcast that shows you how to take your company up and to the right and up and better. Got questions? Email us at Hello@UpRightAndBetter.com or tweet us @UpRightBetter and you can read the transcript of this episode, see extended resources and learn more about our guest at UpRightAndBetter.com.