Why Questioning Authority is a Clue About Great Culture

How can you spot a great organizational culture? Lots of companies talk a great game about culture, but how can you tell whether their walk lines up with their talk? Adam Fridman, founder of organizational development research firm ProHabits says, “Our research has pinpointed three aspects of a great culture: alignment behind purpose, values that support that purpose, and habits that bring those values to life. It can be difficult to look at an organization and tell for certain whether it has these three ingredients of a great culture but we think success leaves clues. One of the most powerful clues of a great culture is simply this: questioning authority.”

What makes questioning authority such a powerful and meaningful clue of an outstanding culture?

Great Cultures Meet People’s Needs

Great cultures are those that meet the needs of their people. But what are the specific needs that great cultures fulfill and what do they have to do with questioning authority?

One way to answer this question is to look at it from the perspective of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. At the most basic level, people have physical needs: they need to be paid a decent wage so that they can afford shelter, heating, food, water and other basic necessities of life. Yet, just meeting these low-level needs isn’t enough to bring out the best in your people.

Employees also have higher-level psychological needs for belonging and the need to accomplish something meaningful. Meeting these is especially important as more companies rely on their workers not just for physical labor, but for bringing their best thinking and creativity to the more intellectually challenging work required in the digital age.

“Becoming a 4th Industrial Revolution-ready company is an ongoing process that stretches across every element in our value chain,” says Trevor Belcher, Executive Vice President of Scientel Solutions. “We need our employees to perform at the highest level whilst embracing the future world of work. We support their efforts through internal cross-functional project teams that identify and fulfill employee needs during our transformation."

When these needs are met, self-actualization - the feeling that the work one does is not just important and meaningful, but something the individual is uniquely suited to do - is possible. And self-actualization, according to Maslow, enables an employee to do their best work.

Questioning Indicates Safety

Another key need identified by Maslow is the need for safety. Questioning authority is a sign of a culture where people’s need to feel emotionally safe and valued as individuals is being met. In an emotionally safe workplace, people feel empowered to ask tough questions, rather than fearing that their questioning might result in negative consequences.

Asking questions sounds easy in theory, but in reality it’s quite difficult. Every time an employee asks a question, they’re taking risks: risking the anger of their superiors, or the loss of their coworkers’ respect for them. They must trust that their questions will be heard, understood and carefully considered, rather than ignored, belittled or punished.

It’s this perception of risk that makes questioning a very powerful indicator of culture. Recent research by Google underscores the importance of this aspect of safety when it comes to effective teams. Google found that psychological safety - the need to feel that the team is a safe place to take interpersonal risks - was one of the key components of a high-performing team. According to the research, teams where employees felt safe floating new ideas, asking questions or holding opposing points of view were more effective than those where employees felt less safe.

Questions Have Impact

Other dynamics that Google found critical to high-performing teams included purpose and impact. Members of the most effective teams typically feel a sense of purpose or meaning related to either the work itself, or its output and feel that the work they do is impactful within the team and more broadly. When employees are comfortable questioning authority, it is a clue that they are engaged with the purpose of the organization or project, and feel they can have an impact.

"We feel very strongly that each employee needs to know our purpose and to know they impact that purpose everyday,” says Jennifer Smith, President and CEO of Innovative Office Solutions. “We strive to create an environment where their questions can have impact on their work and on the company. We do this by encouraging employees to voice their questions and opinions and making sure they receive corresponding answers and see those results."

Companies that want to build great cultures must create an environment where individuals feel safe to make an impact, both through their own work and their ability to impact the work of others. Questioning authority is a clue of an organizational culture where people feel safe, valued and able to make a unique and impactful contribution to the organization. As such, it’s powerful indicator of a great culture.

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