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10 Steps Towards a Thriving Organizational Culture

Now that RVC has a formal Co-Executive Director structure, that tends to be what people focus on. While our Co-EDs are an important part of the picture, the truth of what makes RVC tick is far more complex. RVC is a liberatory, leaderful, self-managing organization where power is distributed in natural hierarchies. We intentionally focus on building a rich organizational culture that centers joy and wellness. Understanding the nuances of culture-building can help groups shift from a narrow focus on organizational structure to a more holistic understanding of how we can relate to one another from a place of deep equity. 

Building RVC’s organizational culture involved learning from our organizational and individual ancestors, what worked well for us, and from the dominant culture  around us. We wove those threads into our culture’s tapestry. And we continue to be weavers as we grow.

We invite you to weave the following elements into your cultural fabric: 

  1. Talk about your emotions in the workplace. Humans are not machines. Emotions impact our decisions, our relationships, and how we do the work. Work relationships are still relationships, which means emotions are involved. We have to acknowledge that. Talking openly about our emotions helps normalize the role they play, but this doesn’t mean your coworkers are your therapists. It does mean we should be mindful of when emotions are overtaking us, know how to tend to those emotions, be able to acknowledge them openly, and not expect other people to process your feelings for you.
  1. Embrace loving accountability. Accountability can be weaponized, and used as a way to police BIPOC bodies, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Accountability is making conscious commitments and following through on them. Accountability builds trust, ensuring your colleagues know they can rely on you, through thick and thin. Invite yourself and your colleagues into deep loving accountability, and the work will be richer.
  1. Regularly give and receive the gift of feedback. We learn and grow our entire lives, and feedback is the fertilizer that fuels our flourishment. Learn how to give feedback well, and orient towards that magical 4:1 ratio of positive:critical feedback. Achieving that balanced mix of feedback, and ensuring what we share is authentic, specific, and actionable, goes a long way in shifting from feedback feeling like a burden to feedback being something we rejoice in receiving.
  1. De-triangulate. We’ve all triangulated. We’re mad at someone, and we go complain to a third person about it, instead of talking to someone directly. While both venting and getting coached by others is important when we’re in conflict, we have to make sure we close the loop. We have to go back and speak directly to the person we’re in conflict with, if we care about maintaining a strong, trusting relationship with them. Here’s one key way to interrupt the cycle of triangulation: when someone says something negative about someone else, ask them, “Have you told them this directly?” If they have not, ask, “How can I support you in talking to them directly?” You can coach them, roleplay with them, or simply be an accountability buddy in ensuring they actually follow through on the difficult conversation. Just don’t let that drama languish unaddressed.
  1. Don’t hold knowledge hostage. Information helps us make better decisions and look at issues from new perspectives. Build better ways to communicate proactively.  Encourage board and staff and community members to talk to each other directly. “[W]ithin Black liberation movements, knowledge both belongs to the community and is the community’s responsibility to pass on to the next generation—thus the adage ‘each one teach one’,” as Dax-Devlon Ross so wisely points out. 
  1. Step into your power. We’ve all been harmed by abuses of power, whether in our personal lives, our family history, or in our society. Often this creates a negative or ambivalent reaction to power; we want to relinquish or share power everywhere possible. But that can cause harm too. Making a decision well requires time, information gathering, deep thought, and the emotional labor of taking responsibility for the consequences of that decision. Don’t unconsciously heap all of that on the people around you. Take responsibility for your own power, and learn how to do so from a liberatory power stance.
  1. Take supervision seriously. A key piece of growth is getting regular coaching and support from someone you trust. While supervision has a racist history, the concept itself can be transformational. Meeting weekly with someone committed to your learning, who helps you see feedback trends and stuck places that you might be missing and holds you accountable to your commitments, can help you grow. It’s important to be challenged and pushed outside of our comfort zones, and it makes such a difference to not be alone in the struggle.
  1. Embed wellness into every aspect of your organization. In the American cultural context, we romanticize “the grind,” and celebrate people who work 24/7. Moving away from white supremacy culture that centers perfectionism and urgency is hard. And it can’t just happen at the individual level. Set strategic priorities that fit your budget realities, so that you can afford the staffing necessary to accomplish your goals without forcing people to work overtime to meet your organizational goals. Make sure your HR policies support wellness, like allowing wellness/mental health days, providing generous paid vacation time, and giving wellness funds. Ensure everyone is modeling healthy workplace practices, like taking long vacations and not working on weekends. Supervisors can and should play a key role in supporting staff wellness. Remember Bayo Akomolafe: “The times are urgent; let us slow down.
  1. Know what’s yours and what’s not yours. This is useful when you feel yourself having a difficult emotional reaction to something, and it’s so important structurally. Get really clear on which roles/responsibilities are yours, and which are someone else’s. Know how decisions are made in your organization, and who is responsible for what realms of decision-making. Also, get clear on what’s an individual’s responsibility versus what is a systemic dynamic. Gaining this clarity helps us set healthy boundaries, prioritize, not fall into false urgency, and not overfunction. While we always need to be flexible and support our colleagues, it’s easy to overextend, leading to underfunctioning, confusing role overlaps, tension, and burnout. 
  1. Play more! We take ourselves too seriously. One way we do that is centering professionalism as the “right” way to be in the workplace. But we were all children first, and our hearts still crave silliness. Give the gift of laughter, and don’t be afraid to weave in some playfulness – especially when things are hard. At RVC, we have regular required funtimes, the group chat during staff meetings is on fire, and our gif game is strong.

How can you invite all of this into your workplace? It doesn’t need to be heavy-handed. Maybe at a monthly staff meeting, you can spend time talking about one item on this list, and brainstorm ways that your organization can shift in that direction.  We weave together the threads of our organizational culture every day. We don’t need to make giant structural changes in order to shift our culture – smaller, consistent steps can make a huge difference. However, if you want to build out a larger learning arc for your organization, here’s an overview of the topics that RVC has found useful in doing a deeper dive.

RVC’s blog is a place where RVC staff, present and past, have a chance to learn in public, share in our collective wisdom, and advocate for wide-spread change in our organizations and our sector, sometimes in collaboration with our community of thought partners!

Ananda Valenzuela, formerly the Interim Executive Director of RVC, is an independent consultant engaged in professional interim executive director work and organizational development facilitation, with a particular focus on equitable self-management and liberatory practices. Learn more at their website.