Donkeys, Frogs and Beavers (or why you shouldn’t try too hard to make people “fit in”)

“Culture” means a lot of things, it doesn’t have to mean conformity.

Equus africanus asinus

Equus africanus asinus

Carrots and Sticks

Proverbially there are two ways to motivate a donkey: with a carrot and a stick.

Too often performance management treats employees like donkeys. Performance pay, bonuses, promotions, secondments and training are dangled in front of people as rewards for effort, while those who “under-perform” are denied opportunities and threatened with termination.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere people have complex motivations, and their emotional and psychological needs mean that carrot-and-stick approaches can easily backfire. As a result motivation falls, people begin to think about leaving for greener pastures, and organisations quickly enter a vicious cycle where responses to underperformance actually contribute to further falls in productivity.

The way performance systems are structured means they focus on the individual in isolation. Too little attention is paid to the way the environment affects performance and there is an absence of systems thinking. As a result questions are often not asked about how excessive workload, complexities in workflow, shortcomings in policy, resourcing shortfalls or poor direction might impact an individual’s ability to reach their set goals.


Organisational culture shapes the environmental factors affecting performance. In turn, environmental factors also affect the culture, and thus how individuals perform.

Too often culture is thought of in terms of interpersonal interactions, or a shared style and ethos, separate from core management practices. This leads in turn to a focus on team building activities, dress codes (or the lack thereof), the encouraging of a certain style of speech (e.g. first names to encourage a more collegial atmosphere), the use of codes of conduct, and the design of work spaces (open plan or office, partitions or pods, funky mural?).

However, building an inclusive workplace culture that engages employees isn’t as easy as it looks.

For example, “team building” through after-work drinks or weekend recreational activities might seem great, but if part-time employees and those with family responsibilities can’t attend them they can foster in- and out-group dynamics that damage the team. These tend to affect female and older workers disproportionality, leading to unintended gender and age discrimination.

More importantly, this approach to culture means employers or managers don’t focus on the way core activities actually create workplace cultures.

Among the most important of these activities are those that subtly define acceptable risk, or shape the way we communicate at a deep level.

Pristimantis mutabilis

Pristimantis mutabilis


Most human beings have a deep-seated need for security. At work this translates into a need to know that you will keep your job and to know how to keep your job. Beyond that, it also involves feeling valued and respected, and protecting your self-esteem (which is deeply rooted in how you think others perceive you).

When people feel psychologically unsafe they focus on protective behaviours, so productivity and innovation (which requires controlled risk-taking) suffer.

Organisational culture has a big impact on psychological safety. Perhaps surprisingly, “team building” and other culture-making activities may be counter-productive, especially if they create an in-group/out-group dynamic or promote conformity. Hiring people for their cultural “fit” or promoting fitting in after you hire people creates a grave risk of outright bias, and may also undermine safety.

Fitting in isn’t just about appearing to enjoy the same pastimes and TV shows, or wearing the same clothes, or going along for a drink after work. It can also mean endorsing shared values or beliefs, and expressing oneself in the same way. If “not being a good fit” starts to seem like a reason why someone might lose their job or not get the raise or the promotion they want, they will begin (perhaps unconsciously) to conform.

They become like the mutable tree frog, a remarkable animal that will change the texture of its skin to blend in to its environment.

The cost of encouraging camouflage or fitting in can be enormous.

  • “Defensive practice” can develop, in which people follow procedure, tick boxes and never the rock boat, leading to known risks going unacknowledged and quality sinking to the bare minimum.
  • Group-think sets in, where a dominant in-group who all think alike sets the tone for everyone else. Bad ideas are never challenged, and better ideas are never aired.
  • People who feel like they don’t fit may abandon camouflage and leave. Over time this causes excessive churn (at a dollar cost to your business). It also contributes to the emergence of a monoculture, in which those who remain become increasingly alike, exacerbating group think and diminishing creativity.

Castor Canadensis (or maybe castor fiber)

Castor Canadensis (or maybe castor fiber)


Beavers are famous for building dams. This behaviour marks them out as “ecological engineers”, species that re-shape their environment to meet their own needs.

Rather than encouraging people to be like frogs, who camouflage themselves to fit in, organisations will benefit from encouraging individuals to be like beavers, re-shaping the business around them to take advantage of their full potential.

Ecological engineers in the workplace contribute to the creative “tension” that helps to drive innovation and adaptation to external change. Fostering diversity also preserves dissenting voices that may help avert disaster by calling out misconduct or raising doubts about strategy. It also ensures that organisational cultures adapt to the needs of different people, making it more likely that you will attract and keep people with diverse experiences and perspectives, constantly increasing the other benefits you get from that breadth.

Obviously there are limits. There will usually be a need to impose standards on grooming, dress and behaviour, but when setting standards ask yourself why a particular way of dressing or talking should be “inappropriate”. That word is over-used, as people can rarely explain how it applies in ways that don’t amount to saying other people should fit in. To avoid excessive and unjustified restriction that strangles diversity, apply a principle that people should be able to set their own personal style unless clear evidence exists that their choices harm the organisation

Individual influence on the organisation is also limited by the need for direction and authority in complex systems. Expected standards of professional conduct should make clear when and how people may express their point of view, and that when the time for talk is over, managers have the right to expect that their directions will be followed.

Despite these limits, there are a lot of things you can do to turn employees into change agents, and most are elements of the internal culture you choose to create.

Constructive Dialogue

Perhaps the most important element of an inclusive culture is how people talk to each other. This goes beyond common courtesy, or the choice of formal or informal forms of address. At heart it is about setting “rules of the game” for disagreement and debate.

When the rules are known, observed and reinforced they create safe spaces for different (especially minority) views to be aired, and help ensure that the benefits of diversity are captured in the decision-making process. They matter most in formal contexts like meetings, workshops and performance discussions.

Managers can establish an “ethics of dialogue”, and reinforce it by their example. Key elements of these rules of the game include:

  • An insistence that everyone has a chance to air their point of view, including a rule that once someone starts to talk they are allowed to finish (especially important in ensuring that women and minorities are not drowned out by those whose social privilege makes them likely to unconsciously talk over others);
  • A rule that nobody may repeat a point made by others (so that those who originate an idea are acknowledged and thus encouraged to contribute again, which also encourages people to build on ideas rather than go round in circles);
  • A practice of encouraging those with the least organisational power or social privilege talk first;
  • The use of “I” statements and a focus on consequences, to minimise the impact of criticism and ensure dialogue is practical (for example “I feel that the proposed marketing strategy will alienate our existing older demographic” rather than “Jim’s idea is bad”);
  • Leading discussion by setting goals with a practical focus, so that everyone is kept to task and meetings have a clear purpose (and thus a clear end-point). Discussion leaders can ensure dialogue is useful, and safe, by insisting contributions focus on how to achieve the goal, rather than criticising others or airing grievances about them (this should be done in private, controlled settings); and,
  • Using discussions as opportunities to reinforce organisational codes of practice, by identifying forms of expressions that are disrespectful or exclusive. Asking participants to re-frame their point or find a different way to express themselves sends a clear message that respectful, inclusive standards matter and will be maintained in everyday interaction.

Encouraging constructive, respectful and inclusive forms of dialogue in formal and informal settings is an important form of leadership. It has to be done every day, as it will take time for people to gain confidence that you will protect them, and for those with unconscious forms of behaviour to adjust. It will pay enormous dividends in time as you retain your diverse workforce, explore more creative responses to your shared challenges, and manage serious risks.

Managing Risk

Defensive practice and conformity largely arise from employees feeling that they cannot identify or control risks, especially risks to their standing in the organisation, future employment and access to opportunity.

Minimising or eliminating this fear is essential. Constructive dialogue is one way to do this, as is the adoption of explicit career management methodologies.

It is also important to help employees identify and manage the risks inherent in things they do for you, such as implementing change or undertaking projects. Anything worth doing that is intended to realise organisational benefits will have an element of risk. Avoiding change and innovation can seem safe for employees, since doing business as usual and sticking to established procedure helps them avoid blame. But this has enormous down sides for any organisation, since a failure to innovate or adapt in a constantly changing world is bound to lead to serious problems.

Managers and strategic leaders must therefore:

  • Identify and clearly articulate the benefits and known risks of any change process, and explicitly accept the consequences of failure for themselves (which also allows leaders to accept the benefits of success);
  • Separate the rewards people will get from innovating and risk taking from the actual outcome (so that what is judged is their contribution to the effort); and,
  • Clearly identify the extent to which employees are expected to innovate and work with them to develop techniques (such as the application of project management methodologies) that are used to manage or minimise inherent risk and maximise expected benefits (a professional development approach).

These steps create a safe place for employees within a culture of acceptable risk. They are clearly an important element of leadership, so managers have to get comfortable doing them. By explicitly identifying risks you send a message that controlled risk-taking is part of success, and that failure is an option. Without the possibility of failure nothing new can be tried, but of course only within identified limits. Helping people to quantify the risks you are prepared to take, and develop the skills to manage processes so that downsides can be managed gives them the confidence to experiment.

Everyday Culture

Culture is sometimes described as “the way we do things around here”. Adopting techniques to foster inclusive, constructive dialogue, and to encourage controlled risk taking will create culture people want to be part and can flourish in while delivering the benefits of creative and innovation.

How you manage people will make all the difference. Don’t treat them crudely like donkeys, and don’t encourage them to act like mutable tree frogs and try to “fit in”. Instead you should inspire them to be like beavers, to transform their environment to bring out everyone’s best and to help people work together more effectively to achieve organisational goals.

Identifying each person’s contribution to innovation (especially as they gain experience and confidence in their roles) and linking this to professional development opportunities over time will encourage an adaptive innovation culture, provided they know you always have their back.

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