Challenging Dumb Cultural Norms

Colin Ellis
3 min readAug 30, 2023
Get yourself out of the maze of ‘this is how we’ve always done it’

It happened again last week. Twice.

During separate culture workshops, people complained about the number of emails they received and the number of meetings they had to attend.

My response to this complaint almost always invokes silence.

‘Why don’t you stop doing these things to yourselves, then? Instead of complaining, why don’t you challenge the prevailing cultural norms and do something different instead?’

Sometimes there’s one person that says, ‘well, you can’t can you?’, but most people look at each other as if to say, ‘wait, can we do that?’

The answer is, ‘yes you can and yes you should’.

Teams and organisations that have high engagement and continually achieve their targets don’t do dumb things like back-to-back meetings or are continually overwhelmed by the number of emails in their inbox. They take action to change it and free up time to do the things that they’re actually paid/want to do.

They:

  • Draw up communication charters to determine which communication mechanism (phone, email, Teams chat etc.) is used for each piece of communication
  • Stop copying people into emails
  • Keep the content of emails focused only on the knowledge people need to know or the actions they need to take
  • Get their IT department to change the default meeting length to 20 minutes and to remove the Microsoft Teams default from being added into every interaction (so they can decide what is the best way to engage)
  • They set up rules to divert time wasting emails straight to trash
  • Focus on fewer, higher quality meetings
  • Have competitions to see who can have the fewest meetings in a week
  • Turn off email notifications to prevent constant distractions
  • Add email use and meeting etiquette to their culture inductions.

And the great news is, it doesn’t take many committed people to enact this change. If enough people want to change something (in my experience about 20%) and then make what they do easy to follow (provide instructions, run a short lunch and learn session etc.), then people will follow suit.

When organisations like yours bring people together for my culture workshops we make agreements on the day as to what we’ll immediately do differently. These are simple decisions that will transform the way work gets done. One organisation halved the number of emails that it sent in two weeks. It’s really not that hard, but people have to want to change it.

Anyone can challenge inefficient or destructive cultural norms. You don’t need permission. You just need to get started, share what you’re doing and why and help people to do the same.

When you realise that you can change one thing, you’ll open the door to continual cultural improvement, and work and life in general will become easier and better for everyone. Who doesn’t want that?

It’s easy to be a bystander and conform to dumb cultural norms. But it’s smarter to challenge them and reclaim your productive time.

What action are you going to take?

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Colin Ellis

Best-selling Author of Culture Fix | Keynote Speaker | Facilitator | Devoted Dad | Evertonian | Whisky Lover | Likes to laugh, a lot www.colindellis.com