Cultural Glue

What comes to mind when you think about cultural glue at work?

It’s what bonds you to others, keeping you connected even when exploring different directions, and always linked by a common thread.

Paul Gentle and Louise Clifton reflected back through their experiences of professional development and traded their perspectives. Prompted by a question each morning over the course of five days, here are some ideas for how to apply just the right amount of cultural adhesive at work.

Cultural glue: What is it?

Cultural glue is invisible, yet we sense its presence and impact. It’s what connects people beyond departments, grades, or expertise. It’s created through our intent, and what we say and do: the ultimate expression of who we are as an organisation, what matters to us and our common aspirations. Layer upon layer, it builds a sense of place and belonging: our social contract with one another. Cultural glue doesn’t belong to one person, but as individuals we contribute to making or breaking it.

What makes it effective?

It works when people live and breathe it: when values and actions are aligned, and the choices we make – independently and together, on the smallest and biggest decisions – reflect these.

But the risk with glue is that it can become rigid. For cultural life to flourish in our organisations, it needs to be able to flex, to stretch, to shift with the times and with what matters to people. Our attitudes change, sometimes slowly and other times all at once. To be effective, cultural glue needs to transcend viewpoints, KPIs, and bottom lines. It needs to be founded in empathy, lived through shared aspirations and celebrated by infusing every conversation through all the connections we have with one another. This is cultural glue at its most potent.

What if culture is more like a beautifully spun web?”


How does it work on the smallest level and the biggest scale?

It is expressed through the tiniest acts: How are you? What’s on your mind today? Can I make you a coffee? Here’s something I thought you would like…

On a grand scale, cultural glue means that everyone in your organisation understands the direction of travel without this needing to be voiced. The path is clear, what we’re here to do is compelling.

How do you apply it?

Having open conversations is an important step to apply cultural glue. As people talk about what matters, it becomes more tangible and more valued. Once something is valued, people want to nurture and refine it – and find new places, in hearts and minds, for it to adhere. 

Of course the metaphor of glue can also suggest that we need to fix a fracture and it may be the case that there are some structural weaknesses in HEIs requiring reinforcement following the remarkable academic year we’ve just completed.

The work Invisible Grail is doing in universities is often focused towards building resilience and strengthening them. At the start of the 2021-22 academic year, we’re supporting executive teams in several institutions looking for new approaches to refresh how they work together.

At the end of a long period when teams have worked almost entirely online addressing urgent operational challenges, there’s now a longing to reconnect; and to do this in ways that build trust and prioritise where they need to focus energy. This involves clarifying “the behavioural norms that guide members’ interaction”, in the words of Wageman et al (2008). To do this, we need to create space and time to explore what business meetings never seem to allow for.

So, what if culture is more like a beautifully spun web? One that flexes with the conditions. A web made to measure, requiring multiple touch points and support trusses, that gently, but stubbornly, hold our world together.

Reference: Wageman, R., Nunes, D.A., Burruss, J. and R. Hackman, Senior Leadership Teams: What it Takes to Make Them Great (2008), Harvard Business Review Press.

Photo by Sharon Pittaway on Unsplash

Louise Clifton and Paul Gentle

Louise, former Director of Marketing and Paul, Academic Director at Invisible Grail respectively, co-authored this blog. The aspiration of Invisible Grail is to unlock the potential for creating better, stronger connections for everyone working in Higher Education.

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