How crisis, challenge and cause catalyse organisational culture.

During 2012, I was privileged to spend a day walking around the city of Jerusalem with a Jewish woman by the name of Rachel. She was an archaeologist, which meant that the day was fascinating to say the least! We explored ruins, looked at old walls and ended the day by looking at artifacts that were discovered from all over the country.

One of the most significant moments of the day was when we were walking through the old city. The old city is surrounded by walls with four entrance points, one on each side. Within those walls there are four quarters, which are not separated by any physical barrier but are predominantly occupied by one of the main religions; Christian, Jew, Muslim and Armenian.

Rachel spoke to me about the tension that often exists between those groups. She explained me that it is ‘very difficult to live here’ due to the fact that those groups never engage with each other, talk about their differences or find ways in which to exist peacefully. As she spoke, I thought how similar that was in organisations. It can be ‘very difficult to work here’ due to the fact that we don’t engage around how to leverage on our differences and work together. Instead, differences can so often get in the way and divide us.

I realised in that citizens in Jerusalem live in PROXIMITY to each other, rather than living in COMMUNITY with each other.

In the same way, many employees work in proximity to each other, rather than in community. The health of organisational culture is influenced by the quality of relationships between those that work there. We need community. Not in the sense that everyone is best friends, but in the sense that we leverage on our differences and work in a connected way toward common goals.

So how do we move people from proximity to community? As I wrestled with that question, three ‘organising signals’ which catalyse community became evident; Crisis, Challenge and Cause. Each of these is underpinned by values, which determine the sustainability of that community.


In 2004, I was living in proximity with thousands of other people on the island of Koh Phi Phi, Thailand. Then the tsunami hit. Crisis brought us out of proximity into community. We now had a common goal; to survive the experience, help the injured and get home safely. The underlying value of a crisis driven community is survival. Organisations can rally people, through crisis, to work in community. This may be getting out of a tough situation, or a ‘if we don’t, this will happen’ consequence. The challenge is what happens when the first ferry comes around the corner? People abandon community and fend for themselves. Whilst a crisis driven community does rally together, the underlying value of survival will have people looking at ways of ‘getting off the island’, which compromises sustainability.


This is healthier organising signal. Think about the community that is generated through, for example, a running race like the comrade’s marathon. There are many stories of people supporting each other to cross the line. The underlying value of a challenge driven community is ambition, drive, and the need to reach a compelling goal. Whilst this is a more sustainable community than a crisis driven community, it does require the need for ongoing challenges which in turn can create high levels of activity stress and burn out, compromising sustainability.  


A cause driven community is the most sustainable of all. Think about how people give freely of themselves to organisations such as Greenpeace, or how people identify themselves with their faith, some even wearing uniforms tin doing so. When people are aligned around a common belief, they will rally, work together and contribute their talents and skills at every opportunity.

So how do we leverage on this to foster a healthy organisational culture?

  1. Recognise the power of organising signals to shift people about of proximity and into community.
  2. Analyse if your organisation is a crisis, challenge or cause driven organisation. What do you tend to draw from in order to rally people to work together in more productive ways?
  3. Consider the power of cause to create a healthy culture. How can you align your people around a compelling reason why your gosls should be achieved? Whats the bigger picture. There are many options here. I remember working with a manufacturing company who produced rivets. The MD at the time could not wrap his head around the idea of a powerful why behind what they do. Then during a subsequent meeting, he pulled out a picture of the Titanic. He then explained to us how the titanic went down due to low grade rivets, which meant sheets of metal ripped open that should have been held together. His realisation was that his rivets are used, in one of his clients, to hold seatbelts to a car frame and play a role in the safety of passengers. There were countless more examples. In another organisation, the foundation which they have created does considerable work, leveraging off the core offerings of the company, to make a dent in the South African landscape. Sustainability, CSI, Purposeful work all combine to bring purpose to our work.

In Summary

Organisational culture relies on community. Pause for a moment and look around you. Are we working in proximity to each other or in community? Regardless of the answer, the next step is to begin the journey to cultivate an even strong community. It really doesn’t need to be ‘hard to work here’.

We would love to hear from you and have a conversation about building community within your organisation.

Written by Travis Gale

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