Fabric’s ‘Stuff We Don’t Talk About’ Fireside chat series invites quietly bad ass practitioners to share their experience in intimate, candid, off-the-record settings. Stay up to date on future talks here.
Larissa Conte is a coach, culture designer, and rites of passage guide. Her driving passion is designing systems to activate and develop the creative potential in individuals and groups. She’s worked with clients spanning startups and the Fortune 100 to nonprofits in a diverse array of industries — tech, health and science, b2b, food & beverage, education, finance, media, retail, design, fitness, and consulting.
Here are the anonymized notes from Thursday’s talk, with specifics removed, and published after review from Larissa. They represent a variety of views from Larissa and myself.
Why This Matters to Larissa
Larissa: “I’m madly in love with human beings as a species. We’re living in perhaps the most complex times we’ve faced. I realized in my career very quickly that if we don’t figure out how to be with each other it literally doesn’t matter what our skills are with anything else. That will always be the ceiling on our collective capacity.”
Why This Is Hard
The times we’re living in, and the businesses we’re in that are changing quickly, are rife with uncertainty. So we’re in an uncertainty carnival, assaulting us. How do we stay centered amidst this? That’s our personal challenge. We’re really good at sensing the house on fire, but gradual, tiny changes accumulating are hard to catch. We have to build our sensing muscles. Everything in our education builds our thinking muscles. That’s super powerful. But our body is also super powerful. And when they work together, it’s like ultra super power.
[Good shitty versus bad shitty] Growth is uncomfortable, and uncertain. And humans love being comfortable and certain. Our ego loves it. We love knowing what’s going to happen. We love being right and looking good. Which is a type of control. The ego loves that.
Understanding When to Stop Being Something
How do we need to stop working if we need to go to the next level? Growth and change are terrifying, but in many so many ways we are like any other being that sheds its skin. Snakes and their skin, crabs molting. We get to these points where who we’ve been being has become too small — and we need to let go of that pattern to open to our next evolution. We need to recognize this as individuals, but also as main power-holders in an organization.
As organizations, what do we need to stop being, given our strategic goal? What do we need to keep being, i.e. what is our essence, so what’s been working? Some things work across phases of evolution, and serve that. And there are things that stop serving us through different phases. And when we don’t mark those thresholds, or the moment, or the reflection, or the shedding, we keep doing shit we shouldn’t do.
What Culture Feels Like
[Question from Larissa] What does good culture feel like in an organization? [Answers from group] Flow. Creativity. Banter. Humor. Absence of fear. Playfulness. Support. Timelessness. Contributing. Authenticity, without the that loadedness to it [L: So you mean like actual authenticity? (laughs)] Purpose. Warmth. [L:] I can feel you start to internalize these words in your bodies. I can see you smiling more. That’s what good culture feels like.
Larissa: “My favorite metric, is being able to fucking smile a lot more. And hugging. They’re open to actually hugging. Loving each other is a very important part of our work. Not loving our work, but actually loving each other.”
What does bad culture feels like? People aren’t speaking the truth (there are constrictions in their throats). People are exhausted. Overworked. We have loose relational ties. Isolation is a type of tension. Lack of joy is a type of tension. There are all these things that are early signals that you can sense in your own self, team, and other organizational scales. If you can sense them, then those tensions get to be creativity playgrounds.
[On organizational grief] “I could hear the silent voices of those past employees. I could sense this cavernous space. There was such a heaviness in their hearts. One of the things I do is model the patterns of energy and love in an organization.”
Our bodies are amazingly wise. So this (points to her body) is an organism. And this (points to everyone at Fabric, representing an organization) is an organism. And our body when we’re in good culture, feels flexible. Feels alive. Bright. Inspired. Creative, turned on, connected, clear, trusting. The opposite: fear, tight, stress (points to shoulders), constricted. Mechanical, heavy, downtrodden, hopeless. That’s how it feels. So you’re trying to feel hope and connection.
We can practice building our sensing by tuning into our own bodies. We can’t sense a bigger body (i.e. organization) effectively if we’re not taking care of our own bodies. So if we’re eating like shit, or sleep-deprived, if we don’t exercise, or we’re chronically dehydrated, we’re not going to be good at sensing what’s going on in our team, or relationships, or marriage, or family because our sensing muscles aren’t getting a good workout. Stopping working to take care of this is where our creative fuel comes from. Which is completely counter to our mechanistic view of labor and organizations. You need to come to work with at least 80% fuel. Awareness and self-care is literally the number one thing for not feeling like shit at work. It feels indulgent because we have a martyr culture. This is one of the biggest shifts: what if you took impeccable care of yourself, and worked less, so that when you work, you’re like a fucking jedi?
How do we gather data points over time? Sunny, sunny, sunny, sunny, cloudy, rainy, blizzard — that’s when to definitely ask what’s going on. Ideally catch it at cloudy and totally intervene at blizzard. Tracking changes uncovers what’s weighing on people, and what’s blocking that personal and organizational flow. Then you can figure out how to unblock the flow. What’s shifting now is organizations are seeing the hidden cost of those blockages on different scales. Unattended blockages are where attrition happens, that’s when people quit.
[On being a sensitive and empathetic person in this arena] Be comfortable and clear in your own boundaries. People who are highly sensitive usually get pushed. Our business is structured to promote dominators. Most people who work with culture are feelers, and more sensitive. I used to be super conflict-avoidant. I had to learn boundaries. When we are all are comfortable with our boundaries, we can push against each other, and that opens up opportunities to have conversations with each other. For our own dignity, we need to muscle up sometimes. In culture, it’s easy to point to dominators in an accusing way, but the person who is caving is creating just as much of that dynamic. The other consequence of a caver taking it for awhile ultimately turns into supernova of resentment pushback. As a caver, take accountability and address the issue with others. Come from a point of view of compassion, and try to teach them. Ask for awareness, allyship, help, and support.
[How to do this in group situations] Naming the dynamic, using questions, and coming from a place of possibility. Just say what’s happening, out in the open. “It feels a little strained in here.” “Feels like we’re having a lot of fun, but we’re not getting anywhere.” Just be the Greek chorus of the group. Just name the dynamic and see what happens. Then all of the group has shared awareness, and you’re throwing agency possibility to the group. I use questions to nudge all the time. Look at the highjacking mechanism, and think of a question that points the group towards that. Sounding like an idiot, and being comfortable here, is a very helpful thing here.
One way to interject: ask for a retrospective. Ask what the main tensions are that are preventing our best work from coming out. Talking about what a good day of work looks like. Talking about the challenges that are preventing that. It all comes out.
[How do you break apart this for people who are skeptical?] One of the convincing techniques I use is this energy conversation. “How many days per week are you performing at 75% of your capacity or better?” When people are like “zero,” why would you spend more hours working at a shitty level of productivity versus taking care of yourself? It makes it easy to start these conversations.
Culture in Teams
[On the impact of new people joining the team] One of the ways we maintain cultural integrity is through creating dynamic tension with paradox. And one of those paradox lines is tradition vs innovation. Too much tradition makes organizations stale. Too much innovation is chaos. We need to create systems to put those two in structural, active tension. Often feedback and input of new members vs learning and explanation. Onboarding processes are good for this.
Onboarding is so important because welcoming and belonging is so important for culture. What do they need to feel welcome, ready, connected? Where’s the whitespace to play, and also the mechanisms for feedback and learning?
There are all these interconnected scales. There’s you. Then there’s your dept. Then the organization. Then customers. And you can feel where things start to tighten. Then you focus there.
Historically we think about organizations very mechanically, starting with how people are taught in business schools. Is there more to sensing these things when it’s more nuanced and less obvious? There are a couple different indicators. What do we have accountability over as individuals, versus the organization?
Founders and Their Organizations
How have I been showing up as a founder that has been safe, or abusing my power, or unconscious bias of my power, or not making space for other people’s voices? What do I want to stop doing, and what roles do I want to invite into the organization?
We can have the nicest values on the wall, or the best kombucha on tap. But we often don’t do what we say as companies. We do what our leaders do, and what we’re rewarded and recognized for.
Organizations are just extensions of their founders. That’s obvious at 5 people. It’s much less obvious, in the cause and effect, and attribution, at 500 people, but the culture’s still the same. It’s deep imprinting. The way your co-founders are as humans are imprinted across the whole body. Let’s say there’s a co-founder who is very uncomfortable at feedback. You’re going to have a company that’s shitty at feedback. Or a cofounder who’s super focused at getting shit done, and not self-care, you’re going to have that company culture. I know one founder who hates conflict. So every point of tension in the company becomes this cordoned off black box of avoidance. If you have a cofounder who cares about mindfulness, and equanimity, that’s going to be part of your culture. We behaviorally pattern off of those in power. If you get to know the pattern-setters in an organization, you can use that as a snapshot to look for cultural elements that are more hidden in the organization.
[On supporting our leaders] Being a co-founder is a profoundly humbling path, because your own shadow is externalized outside of you in the organizational body, constantly coming back in your face. It’s scary as fuck to look at how we’ve been, because we have shame from not knowing these things. But how would we have known? So we have to hold our founders with love and support when they do step into this vulnerability. Because they’re also fragile and fallible.