Have you had the experience of riding a busy elevator to the upper floor of an office block? At each stop the doors open, and you have a momentary glimpse into a different world. At each stop it happens again and again.
The impression we form in an instant each time the lift doors open is also an opportunity to reflect on how profoundly culture is encoded into the environments - or we might even say the ecologies - that we inhabit.
The experience of glimpsing an unfamiliar space is not a rational experience of solely observing the layout of chairs and tables, walls and fittings. It is an intuitive human experience that prompts immediate feelings, judgements and just the very edges of understanding of the 'culture' of the place behind the doors.
How rapidly the culture is imputed, in just a few seconds.
What is 'culture'? There are lots of definitions, and one of these is simply "the way things are done around here" - a mix of behaviours, etiquettes and expectations that exist within any organisation, shaping activity from moment to moment.
And in any moment that activity is true to itself.
You have no doubt found yourself in a place where you are drawn into a vibrant social setting and greeted by a smiling concierge, making you feel immediately comfortable and welcome. However enter another level in the same building and you may find yourself instinctively standing up straight, feeling a little bit intimidated and getting ready to use your best grammar as you tentatively approach the front desk. While at other locations you stand around awkwardly, hoping someone will come and help.
The feeling is immediate – enough to pick up in the seconds it takes for elevator doors to open and close.
Most remarkable of all, is what happens when you actually move into the space, and become part of its culture.
How long before it becomes the new normal, and below your perception threshold? The living environment becomes a backdrop, and while others catch glimpses through elevator doors, you're part of the ecology, with none of the strong reactions of a visitor or outside observer.
Does no longer noticing mean the force of the environment and the normalising impact of context is any less influential on yourself and your peers? Or even stronger for its very invisibility?
Try an experiment next time you are in your office… go into the quiet corner of the office and make some noise (if you can bear doing it) and see what happens. Without anyone saying a word, you might notice it immediately - the sense of transgression around the ways of this place.
If you can somehow become an observer of your own culture like an outside in an elevator, and if you can prompt some of your team to do the same, a new opportunity opens up: to win back the story and write it with intent.
This post is part of Amicus Strategy's 2019 series exploring how changes in the environment can be used to shape organisational culture. Click here to express interest in our Touchline toolkit and our event in April.