December 14, 2022

Taming the Culture Tiger: Dr. Kate Price

Imagine if people could work at their full potential in collaborating to create novel solutions to some of the world’s biggest issues. One of the biggest challenges facing leaders of life science organizations is how to foster sustainable cultures that enable innovation and lead to both scientific and business success. 

Welcomed back to the Author Hour Podcast. I’m your host Hussein Al-Baiaty, and my next guest is my special friend, Dr. Kate Price. She’s here with me today to celebrate and talk about her new book called, Taming the Culture Tiger. Let’s get into it.

Hello, everyone. I‘m here with my good friend, Dr. Kate Price. Dr. Kate, I’m so excited to have you on the show; thank you so much for your time today. I really appreciate you coming on.

Kate Price: No problem, it’s nice to be here, Hussein.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, Dr. Kate and I have a unique story because we got to meet together back in October 2019, along with some of you remarkable, beautiful people whom I call the Scribe Family. We met on that beautiful day in October, and we all kind of started this journey of writing a book. Every single person at that table was unique and felt so, so out of place, only because I just, again, just felt surrounded by such remarkable people who are literally gold medalists to the left of me, there’s Dr. Kate to the right of me, there’s Ron who is one of those people that just lights you up.

You got Ted, who is probably one of the wisest, most techy, most interesting people I’ve ever met. Like, there was just such a beautiful collection of people sitting at a table embarking on this journey; there was Sabri, there was, there’s so many of you. I love you all, thank you, and I got to sit with you, Dr. Kate, got to learn about sort of your philosophy behind this book a little bit but here we are. 

You know, it’s now November 30th and it is, and it’s your time to put your book out in the world and share it with everyone and celebrate all this wisdom you have compounded for us about the importance of culture in our world today. Your book is titled, Taming the Culture Tiger: The Art and Science of Transforming Organizations and Accelerating Innovation. I love it, this is your… literally your life’s work. 

But before we get started. I always like to tell our audience a little bit about you, your background, and where you grew up. I know you did a ton of traveling, which led you into more of your work but let’s start at the very beginning and just share a little bit about you and who you are and where you’re from and all that good stuff. 

Kate Price: Okay, well, as you can probably hear, I’m British. So I grew up in the south of England, pretty close to London, and I trained as a clinical psychologist in the UK originally. You know, the first 12 years into where I was training and learning about all aspects of psychology, social psychology, neuropsychology, and I worked, of course, a really broad range of areas from mental health to learning disabilities, neuropsychological rehab, brain injury, I worked in prisons, so across a very broad spectrum of organizations, industries, and with people who had just very different life experiences and you know through that, my interest in how people think, what they do grew, and I also started wondering about, “Well, I’m working all the time with people who are in difficulties.” So I started to grow my interest in, “How do we prevent people from getting into these kinds of issues? 

What else plays a role in it, and what role does our environment play in that?” And I got a lot more interested in how organizations work and the contribution of our environment to our mental health and people’s wellbeing work, and then we spend such a huge proportion of our day at work. 

So I got really interested in that, and then when I moved out to the States, I had a bit of a change in my career, and I started very much working in corporations and was able to dig into that a bit deeper and look at it being a bit more proactive in the way we approach how people feel on a day-to-day basis. 

So that’s where my original interest in culture has come from and it’s one that I still find fascinating even today. So that’s a little bit about my kind of history and how I ended up in the States.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that but you also talk about, you know, you did quite a bit of traveling almost a year and a half or so sort of around the world and you found yourself, I want to share with our audience a little bit about your experience and living in Fiji, to tribal areas and sort of what you learned. 

I like the specific question because I’ve always wondered, I’ve never really understood how to approach it until I read this question and it help me just rethink how I thought about it which is, I come from a war-torn country, Iraq, right?

And so for me, it’s always like, “Why can’t people just have peace, why can’t we just talk about things?” but it’s obviously way more complicated than that, and that’s really what your book, you know, I feel like is about. It’s the power of embracing this complexity, it is messy, and it is intuitive, however, when you peel back the layer slowly, you start to understand how people work, which I love.

And the question that you sort of been after, you’re a traveler of sorts and for me, I learned something really powerful from my dad: seek knowledge and spread peace. Like, it comes from a quote, the idea of when you’re seeking something, travel, do whatever it takes to have that resolve and you know, in your question, what enables humans to live in harmony with one another?

Like, I love that because instead of saying, “Why can’t something just be?” You ask, “What are the circumstances, what are the things that can provide this peaceful environment so that people can act and be successful?” So it just changes the frame of the question, and I love that. It seems like you’ve been on this journey, seeking that question in different environments, and I really appreciate that. 

Can you sort of talk to us about your experience in living in Fiji and what that was like and what that taught you?

Isolated Introspection

Kate Price: Yeah, sure. I mean, it was a very unique experience, right? I was on a very remote Fijian island, with no running water, no electricity, living, you know, alongside a Fijian tribe and just watching the difference in culture and the way they interact together. It’s very much more community based, it’s a very small island. So they’re very much reliant on each other in the way they think and act.

It’s still, you know, quite a patriarchal culture, so there was a lot of hierarchy within the tribe, but the way they worked together as a community, which is very different to what I was used to in the western world, began to intrigue me more about how have humans lived together over the years. 

What interferes with that process, what supports that process, and then looking back into kind of the more evolutionary psychology of how we would have behaved when we did function more as a tribe, as hunters and gatherers, we had to rely on different leaders and different situations who held the knowledge. So you know, leading and following wasn’t hierarchical in the past. 

It tended to be that we followed whoever had the knowledge about what we needed at that moment. So leadership would change. So, if you went out as a hunting party, one person might have the skills in that area and would lead, but if you were moving to new grounds for the winter, it would be somebody else who remembered the way and would lead the group in that circumstance as well.

So it’s a much more adaptive strategy than we tend to see in organizations these days. You know, then leaders were chosen for their knowledge in an area, and they weren’t always the leader. It kind of it moved; it changed. People adapted to those situations, whereas now, we tend more see leaders put in place. We don’t always have a lot of say in who our leaders are.

You know, they might have knowledge in one area, but with the complexity of the world today, they can’t possibly hold the knowledge about everything that they’re in charge of. So it’s a very different circumstance. So some of those things intrigued me, and I wanted to think about, “Well, what are the lessons that we learned from our own history from the way we’ve evolved as humans?”

Because actually, our brains haven’t changed a great deal in that period of time, even though the world around us is moving very fast.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, it’s so powerful, and I just love that you sort of got out of your own comfort zone, right? Because that’s a sign of seeking change but also there’s a line of courage that goes along with that, right? Going on to a remote island where there are no things that make you comfortable, right? The lifestyle, the streets, the signs, everything. The language, you’re taking yourself completely, removing yourself from one culture and embedding yourself into another in order to further understand your own and realize that there is more than one way to do something, and I just appreciate that about you because that shows that you adapt in that way to see your work in reality. You had to face your own fears and your own sort of understanding of courage in all these things, which I think is beautiful. In your extensive work over the years, how have you come to define culture, and why should leaders care about this idea of culture, to begin with?

Defining Culture

Kate Price: I think it is the simplest level, right? Culture is the accumulation of all the small things that we do every day, right? It’s what people think, it’s what they say, it’s how they act every day; those things come together to build up the environment that we’re in, and that really is what creates the culture. 

So the larger the system you’re in, the more people who are involved in doing that, and then leaders have an outsized influence on it as well because they set the tone for how people will think and act in an organization. So if you’ve got an atmosphere of blame within an organization, you may get a lot of people who become very fearful, and they care not to speak up in that kind of world. 

Then you set a culture where people feel they’re not able to speak up. Whereas, if you do the opposite and you give permission for people to speak up and kind of enable them to do so, you can define a culture that really enables it, and people will start to feel safe and comfortable in that environment and behave in certain ways because they feel they’ve got permission to. They feel safe; they feel connected to other people.

So the culture really does come from these kinds of small things. It’s the way we think and feel on a daily basis and what we feel able to do and how the people around us interact with us and act towards us as well that kind of build culture. It’s often seen as one level, people now are saying, “Oh yes, the culture’s really important,” But often, they don’t really understand why. 

Surface level like people want to say, “Yeah, we’re doing something about the culture, we recognize it’s important.” We often see the investment fall away very quickly when more strategic or business priorities come along, and I think what people maybe misunderstand is that people are what drive organizations. They are what actually create the business success, the end results, and culture’s a huge part of that. 

If the culture doesn’t enable people to work at their best, then your business success is inevitably limited, right? People under stress, their brains aren’t functioning as well as they could be. So again, they’re not able to use their higher cognitive functions, their decision-making process is affected. That ability to think and work creatively are affected and especially in the organizations I work in, which tend to be life science organizations with a lot of scientists, they’re using their higher cognitive capacities all the time. 

It’s essential for them to be innovative and to think about things in the way that they do. It’s incredibly important. So if you put those people under stress, you’re really limiting their ability to achieve. So thinking about the culture and supporting people to do their best work in the most effective way and really understanding, as humans, “Well, how do our brains work, how do we engage with other people, what environment is going to best enable us to work at our best and perform in an optimal manner?”

Those things are incredibly important to businesses if you want to run them effectively, and I think you know, more and more as well, we’re seeing the importance of culture and how people feel in their own wellbeing in organizations and people are voting with their feet, right? If the culture doesn’t suit them now, people are much more willing to leave a job than they ever have been in the past.

So companies who don’t put their focus into theirs or don’t have leaders who understand the importance of the environment are going to be seeing high turnovers and losing people, not able to keep their best employees, not encouraging people to work well together. It’s going to have huge impact I think in the world.

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Very huge. I think it’s safe to say that those decisions around creating a culture and helping develop it in a way that’s really impactful just matters. It just does; we see it every day, and we see it happening in our world right now. When we emphasize our economic towards just purely materialistic, purely profit-driven, you know, no matter if you’re a tech giant like Facebook or if you are an Amazon, whatever it is, you always see this underlying, you know, the treatment of employees.

Whether they’re manufacturing, whether they’re tech online service, or whatever it is, it just seems that how we feel about a company and its reputation today, in some ways and especially in the modern world, your reputation as a company can sway one way or another if someone wants to work for you, if someone wants to leave work for you. There’s a lot of comfort today in saying, “You know what? I don’t agree with this leadership. I don’t agree with how things are doing, going and there needs to be an improvement.”

And so there are people who step in and try to make those improvements and help those leaders make those changes, which is someone like you that goes in and helps them, whether they’re small research organizations or companies that just require some sort of innate insightfulness that can help them navigate, because transformation especially in culture, in a workplace, just seems so complex, so difficult, right? 

Because you have to navigate so much of human behavior, and I believe this is where your work comes in. Can you talk to us a little bit about why do we, as humans, I guess, resist this idea of change? When we know it’s good for us, right? We don’t want to change our diet, but we know it’s good for us, we don’t want to exercise, but we know it’s good for us. We don’t want to, you know this idea. 

You mentioned in your book how our brains and beliefs limit this change is kind of interesting to me, but you go in and try to help the leader identify these things but can you talk about that a little bit, this idea of resisting change?

Resisting Change

Kate Price: Yeah, there are a few different things. I mean, I think as humans, we tend to resist change not because we don’t want to change but because often, we don’t know what the change is going to mean for us, right? So if you have a leader in an organization who sets out his vision, the first thing that people hear is, “Oh, there’s going to be a change. I don’t really know what means for me?” How is it going to affect me? Would it affect my job? Am I at risk in some way? 

So when people don’t really understand the impact it will have on them, they’re much more likely to resist the change and not engage with it well. Generally, when we were in that kind of circumstance, what it’s doing is producing a stress response in our body at an evolutionary level. It is literally the equivalent of, you know, seeing a tiger walk into the room and thinking we’re about to be eaten, right? 

Should we run away? Do we freeze in fear? What do we do? That is actually the response happening in our body as it kicks off our adrenalin. Again, it comes up, it affects the way that we can think. So we lose our ability really to think rationally in those situations, and now, we’re just responding to an emotion, which is why people tend to then build up this immediate resistance in their brain to it. 

Once the resistance is in there, it is actually quite hard to overcome. So if we could think about ways in which we could introduce ideas to people without causing that fear and stress first, they’d get used to the idea, and then when it’s presented as an actual change, that would be a very different process because people would already have had time to think about what it means for them. 

They’d understand it. They’d have heard the concept before, and they’d know just a little bit more about it. They’d have more understanding of it, so it doesn’t cause that same fearful reaction as when we hear about something new for the first time, and like I would refer to that as neuropsychological priming. In order to do that more effectively, you almost don’t want to get buy-in for your idea. 

You want to work on it before you need buy-in, right? Buy-in is almost a little bit too late in the process. If you need that, it means you’ve already got some resistance to it. So if you can use people’s memories and the way that they build representations of concepts and ideas and use that kind of neurological knowledge in order to help them think through concepts and ideas first with no threat to them, then they’ll very readily accept change. 

Often, we find when we introduce some of these ideas around culture in this way, we actually have people coming to us asking, “Hey, you know we’re really interested in this. Are we able to put it into practice?” So then, there’s never any need to kind of force an idea or a change on somebody because they are already wanting it for themselves. Now, that is a very different process to creating resistance and overcoming it.

The change will happen much more quickly in those circumstances because people are engaged and willing to participate. It is just a very different process, and I think if organizations could have some of that learning and some of that understanding around the way humans think and why we react to things in the way that we do, they’d be able to design processes for change much more effectively. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I love that so much. I mean, you go to the depths of these things, but it is really poetic, you know? It’s science in how you approach these things, but it is also this idea of fluctuation. You understand the dynamics and how to introduce something, where to reduce the friction, and where to increase the anticipation. It is sort of an orchestrated idea because it sounds like it’s not only doable because you coach, you help people do this; it is something that has worked. 

It is starting to work, and you see it throughout these organizations so you bring it about through this process of what I feel you call a corporate synthesis. Could you briefly describe what that is and how these organizations start to implement some of these tactics? 

Kate Price: I guess corporate synthesis really is just about looking at the system as a whole rather than looking at one isolated part and trying to make a change in it. I think in order to put a solution into place or put a strategy in place, for them to work effectively, they need to be simple, right? They need to be possible for people to implement. It is like a diet. It needs to be very simple for people actually to implement it and stick with it. 

But just because the solution is simple doesn’t mean you don’t need to understand all the complexity, the lies behind it. In fact, I would say in order to design a simple solution, it is absolutely essential to understand the complexity of the whole system. So that means really, you have to think about the individuals in the system. You have to think about how they think, what their past experiences are, and why they react to things in the way they do now. 

You have to think about their actual neurology and how you want them to be working in a system. You need to look at how they interact with other people. How is your organization set up for teams to interact? What about the cross-functional processes? So you are thinking about not just interpersonal relationships but also team dynamics. Beyond that, you are thinking about, “Well, how do the different layers and levels in the hierarchy interact?” 

How is communication structured throughout your organization and then even beyond outside the organization, you really need to consider, “Well, what’s the society and culture I am living in? How have people grown up? Are there embedded attitudes and things that we just accept as normal?” And then if you are a global company, of course, that gets even more complex because you’d be interacting with people from a lot of different places who have different attitudes, different belief systems to you. 

So thinking about how all of those interconnect is very important when you think about designing any kind of change in your organization and how people will respond to it. So I guess that’s really what corporate synthesis is; it’s the understanding that you need to consider all aspects, not just of how humans behave but how they then relate to the processes, procedures, and systems that you have in place in your company and also the aims and goals of your company. 

Are they aligned with that? It’s really about accepting complexity and then using that to develop solutions that could be effective and work and are simple enough for people to implement on a day to day basis in their work. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, I love that so much, and you wove this through your book, and it is really powerful. You talk about how this idea of culture is day-to-day actions, it is the really simple sort of minutia like things you don’t necessarily think about, but when you do and you become intentional about them, then there is that switch. It becomes a lot more clear, the light becomes a little bit more brighter. 

I just love how you weave these really simple tactics, things that are manageable, and you can implement them, but they are very, very minute. They are very small, and those small changes obviously add up to bigger shifts in the culture, which I found is really powerful. So tell me a little bit about a story when you went into an organization and you found the leader, and they’re struggling through X, Y, and Z. 

You help them through it, you kind of got them through the other side and you went through this transformation, what was your favorite part of that? Can you tell me a little bit of a story that involves these kinds of changes, but what’s been your favorite part of that experience? 

Kate Price: I think often I start by working with one leader in an organization, right? Really helping them understand themselves and why culture is such an important aspect, and how they need to be involved in actually leading it. It is not something you can hand off to HR; everyone has to be involved and the leader particularly, and I think they have to develop this level of self-awareness in order to do that. 

So one of the things I really like, and of course, it relates to my work as a psychologist, is I love watching the transformation that those leaders as they really kind of come to understand the power of it and if they start putting some of the things into play in the organization and start just behaving in different ways. Yeah, it could be very simple things like just the way they interact with their team or just stopping to reflect in what they’re doing. 

But they see the power of doing that and realize how much easier it makes their life and their job as a leader. That is always something that is very nice to watch but then as they move that forward into kind of bringing their team into alignment and then taking on the big challenge of culture change. In large organizations, it’s a big challenge, although it shouldn’t really take too much of people’s time on a day-to-day basis because as you say, it is those simple small things that people are doing. 

It shouldn’t feel or be an overwhelming task, you know? It should be something that any leader can do easily alongside their job. If it’s bigger than that, you’re probably doing something wrong, right? Because small steps tend to lead to bigger changes, but I think my favorite piece is as it starts to kind of go out into the wider organization, it is the fact that people kind of reach out and say, “Wow, you know, I am really interested in this.” 

“This has made a real difference in how I work with my team and how I feel at work. I’m really glad that we are doing this, this kind of work.” Often these are people that I’ve never had any contact with, so I can see the development and the effort that those leaders have put into the transformations in their organization and the real impact that that has on potentially thousands of people depending on the size of the organization. It is that kind of ripple effect of something and how it kind of comes into being in the world. 

I think that is what I enjoy the most and that transformation is where people start to really understand that they’ve got to consider individuals in everything they do. You know, people are responsible for everything that happens, right? If you don’t put people first then or even consider them and their reactions, then what’s likely to happen in your organization, and probably this is something that you have some experience of. 

Because I know at Scribe, you have a CEO who very much thinks about what if you put people first, great transformations can happen, right? If you keep people always present at the front of your mind in everything you’re doing. You know, that leads to great things, and I think you know, a lot of leaders get caught up in the technical details of their job or thinking about strategy and feeling like maybe they are wasting their time if they are thinking about people or other things because it is not what’s expected in the traditional leadership world. 

But the world is changing so fast that I think those leaders that really come to an understanding of how important people and culture are, you know, are going to be way ahead because it is what the world is demanding now. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Yeah, definitely. When that idea of switching from just focusing on the customer and the customer, although that is a very valuable and important part of leading a company, right? With the experience of the customers, the money, the financials, the analytics, the future, all of these things are almost in a way removed from thinking about the individuals that are working to upkeep all of these things. 

It is better to sort of think about how you can help these individuals create such a great experience coming to work, or working from home, or wherever it may be that they have this bond, this structure in place that helps all these components and the result is improved profits, improved customer service, improved analytics, improved, right? 

So it’s an internal job, and then it becomes external, which I love because I think that’s very important to define, which you also talk about developing yourself as a leader, as a person. You know, really thinking things through, thinking of yourself, thinking about all of these tactics and ways to improve yourself, which then helps your relationships, helps your communication. 

People want to work with you; those fears and those threads of insecurities can be pulled away so that people can really flourish. I just appreciate that you define it so well throughout your book and your experience and stories. I’m just grateful that we got to sit around this table and meet one another and embark on these journeys of writing books, and here we are. I’m so excited for you because I know this book is necessary for those people who are really wanting to make the change. 

I feel like in the last couple of years, people are really interested especially individuals in leadership positions to make those changes, and I am just so grateful that you took the time, the energy, and the resources to put into backing up your wisdom and experiences with all of these amazing stories to help these individuals to perform better, to lead their employees and their colleagues in a beautiful way. So congratulations to you, I think it’s so profound. I am just so excited for you to book, Dr. Kate. 

Kate Price: Thanks, Hussein. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Can you tell? 

Kate Price: Yes. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: So, if there was one thing you hope that people take away from reading your book, what would that be? 

Kate Price: The knowledge that it’s useful to understand how people think and behave and then it can make your life easier, your job easier, your business success easier… if you’ve got that kind of understanding of the psychology behind why people do it. So instead of seeing people as obstacles to your success, be able to see them as people who really want to help you on your journey. 

But understanding how you can engage them effectively to do that and just to be aware that it’s a journey you have to go on yourself as well if you want to lead successful culture change, you’ve really got to be willing to kind of go through some transformations yourself, really understand yourself at a deep level so that other people can understand you and connect with you. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: I love that. It’s so powerful. Dr. Kate, I learned so much today. Thank you for sharing your stories and your experiences with us today. The book is called, Taming the Culture Tiger: The Art and Science of Transforming Organizations and Accelerating Innovation. If you are out there, go get this book right now. It is very important to you, and I know you’ll pick something up along the way. Besides checking out the book, where can people find you, Dr. Kate? 

Kate Price: Well, people can connect with me through my website at drkateprice.com, or they can find me on LinkedIn as well, just Dr. Kate Price on LinkedIn. 

Hussein Al-Baiaty: Thank you so much for joining me today Dr. Kate. Shout out to my Scribe family, I love you all wherever you’re listening. Thanks again for cheering all of us on and having this audacity to stay connected and to really create a cool bond that I am so grateful to be a part of. I just honor our friendships and grateful to have met you all but Dr. Kate, especially, thank you so much for coming on the show today. 

Go out there and get the book, everyone. Thanks for joining me on this episode, have a great rest of your afternoon. Goodbye.