Stories and anecdotes are a soft indicator of the culture

In her monthly column for #ZigZagHR, employee recognition expert Nathalie Arteel shares some tips on how you can use recognition as a basis for a positive corporate culture and personal happiness. This time, she got up extra early to have a conversation over Teams with Frederik Anseel, who is a Professor of Management at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, on the other side of the world in Australia. She spoke with him about organisational culture, recognition and rituals.

“If you wake up every morning with a blue sky, a shining sun and a view of the ocean, it's difficult to be pessimistic or downcast. That really makes a difference to how you feel,” says Frederik Anseel about his stay in Australia.

That blue sky, shining sun and a great view are not always present on the work floor, however… “If you feel like what you do every day at work goes unseen and unrecognised, it's difficult to get up in the morning,” Frederik Anseel wrote last year in an opinion piece in the paper De Tijd. This is despite the fact that feeling like we mean something to others really goes to the core of our being.


Nathalie Arteel: “Making people feel they matter and embedding this in the organisational culture is what drives me. How do you see that? What's your view of the basis of a good organisational culture?”

Frederik Anseel: “I don't believe there's a recipe for a good culture. I see culture as an indirect result of the actions you take. Culture is a complex play of various factors that are intangible. It's impalpable.”

“My point has always been: how do you search for structure in an authentic way that's believable? I have a highly sensitive radar for content and authenticity and when people are doing something in a process-oriented manner like a technique or recipe. You have to mean what you do. Many people feel that very quickly and, to my mind, that can't be replaced.

What I do often see, though, is that the culture and values are defined top-down, with the idea that these will then flow through and everyone will pursue the same values. The notion that everyone has to pursue the same values is dogmatic and paternalistic.”

“I'm a proponent – and my investigations often involve this – of freedom and autonomy to create a structure in which people have that freedom and autonomy within a larger whole. Indeed, I find that you can only tell whether that's worked in a culture afterwards.”

Nathalie Arteel: “Where do you start with building a culture?”

Frederik Anseel “I don't know whether there's any kind of place to start. I think it begins with paying more attention to who you're getting into the organisation and the potential negative and positive consequences of that. When you look at how much attention, analysis and procurement goes towards investing in a new building, while investing in an employee's long-term career is similar in nature and often make that decision very quickly by a gut feeling…

I believe that good people are looking for good people and that talent also attracts talent. That's where it begins, and then it's about what individual behaviour you recognise, identify and reward or what you act again.”

Stories and anecdotes

Nathalie Arteel: “What does work in your opinion?”

Frederik Anseel: “Stories and anecdotes about events – the good and the bad – in the organisation. For example, why someone is seen as an example to the company. The good stories, as well as the bad ones, tell themselves and people keep repeating them.

What you often see in toxic cultures and environments is that once you've been working there for six months, you start to hear stories like: watch out for that person, I've heard this and that. This is gossiping, but they're still the stories that define what happens in an organisation. These kinds of stories and anecdotes – the negative ones, but certainly also the positive ones – are a soft indicator of the culture.

The problem is – and this is what I often talk about with managers – that many managers have a poor view of what's happening and what's being said on the work floor. The information coming to them is being filtered.

Many managers are therefore steering based on incomplete information. They think they have a good culture and everything is going well, but there's a lot of disguised unease, frustration and conflict that never reaches them. Sometimes because they cut themselves off from it and don't want to listen too. Then people learn that there's no point in talking about it.

“I think organisations need to support middle management more, because so much, if not everything, depends on the relationship that managers build up with people. I believe it's a great gift to managers if you give them the time and space to learn how to see their people and pay attention to them. Attention is an important aspect of recognition to me: I see you, I hear you, I make time for you. That makes the employee better, that makes you better as a manager and that makes the relationship better.”


Nathalie Arteel: “How do you view the role of rituals? What rituals can companies maintain to further integrate recognition into the culture?”

Frederik Anseel: “Rituals are very interesting. A ritual is a ritual because a group of people have been doing something for a long time and no longer question it. It creates a shared, collective meaning. To my mind, it's difficult to introduce rituals. That then feels artificial and people don't have an emotional connection to it.

Rituals are best carried out at important moments. A birth, baptism, first communion, solemn communion, marriage and a funeral are important moments that the Church had rituals for. These days, many people are looking for that meaning in a different way, which is the case in organisations too. One ritual we're missing is when someone leaves the organisation.

“You don't have to invent a ritual for drinking tea or coffee together every Friday. That's not going to make much difference. It's about important moments that are disruptive and drastic for people. If you can create something through that, which people derive a collective meaning from, then that's highly valuable.”

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