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How the Cave Digger Inspires Improving Corporate Culture

When I heard about how New Mexico artist, Ra Paulette, is shaping underground spaces, I was immediately struck by the similarities to shaping corporate culture.

Paulette has spent over 25 years carving intricate masterpieces, working alone and using only hand tools, in the hopes that those who experience them will find “… at least a moment, or length of time, in which they had a deeper feeling and deeper understanding of themselves and life.”

Watch the video

So, what does Paulette’s mindset about cave digging have to do with improving corporate culture?

As it turns out, quite a bit…

“I want to create a space that’s transformative. That’s a big goal.”

From the video, there is no doubt that Paulette has exceeded his big goals with each space. He has single-handedly created what has been described as underground wonderlands and works of art. I haven’t even seen them in person, yet I was immediately inspired.

While it may seem impossible or naive to transform a dark corporate environment into a positively transformative place, this goal is within reach. Leaders who recognize that providing great physical, intellectual, and emotional spaces can have a huge impact on corporate culture and employee engagement, run some of the most successful companies.

(See Top 100 Compassionate Leaders list.)

“I see this as an environmental project. I’m trying to open up people’s feelings.”

“Leave your feelings at the door” is advice to not bring your personal life into the workplace. While there are definitely reasons for maintaining privacy, separating our feelings may not always be that easy, or even be sound advice. Emotional intelligence plays a huge role in how individuals interact. What shapes a corporate culture that is based on trust, is how we interact one-on-one and our ability to be transparent about how we feel.

“Sometimes I feel like an archeologist, uncovering what is already there.”

I believe that there are two basic human impulses. The first is the instinct is to acquire and protect what is yours. It is an inward looking philosophy. The second arises from the fact that humans are social animals and naturally seek cooperation. The challenge is to acknowledge the first, but to encourage the second. If you dig deeply enough, even the most toxic leaders and most disgruntled team members, with the exception of a few, can show basic kindness and receptivity. Helping others to be more compassionate in the workplace builds trust which, in turn, builds a more positive corporate culture.

“It’s pretty down and dirty work.”

Paulette didn’t simply wave a magic want to create his breathtaking masterpieces. He painstakingly dug, discarded, scraped, chiseled, and carved until he felt that he had accomplished his vision. Transforming corporate culture takes one conversation at a time over months of awareness, training, and one-on-one coaching. It’s work that people must be committed to doing.

“I’ve taken all the thing’s I’ve learned in all the other caves over the years.”

If you’ve worked long enough with many different people and in multiple places, you get a sense of the different environments and how people learn to interact in them. Those of us who are passionate about it recognize the importance of hands-on experience in cultivating a special corporate culture and have a good sense of behaviors that can change.

“It’s the process. I’m having the time of my life. Most of the wonder is in the making of the caves.”

Paulette often makes the point that he does this grueling work simply because he loves it. “When you’re doing you’re doing something you love, and are drawn to it, you want to do it all the time.”

I’m sure I’m not the only coach who simply loves what they do. I am drawn to the wonder of how the process can transform both immediately and over time. But, more importantly, coaches strive to make the transformations we are a part of enjoyable for all participants.

No two of Paulette’s caves are alike; they differ in size, composition, and design.

No two work environments are alike. Taking the time to explore and understand the dynamics of each, provides the opportunity to shape the culture based on individual needs, while using the same, basic coaching tools.

He didn’t try to transform a space that presented barriers.

Picking a spot that lent itself to the potential of Paulette’s vision was critical. He spent a lot of time searching for the right natural canvas. In one case, he started digging, but soon realized that solid rock blocked his way forward, so he made the decision to stop work and to move on to a different hill. Sometimes, in any organization, you will encounter obstacles that will frustrate any efforts at making a cultural shift. The key is to recognize when these obstacles are immovable and to make the decision to move on.

The fear of someone else getting hurt keeps him honest.

Paulette ensures that the curvature of each arch he creates is well within the range of safety. He prioritizes structural integrity over aesthetics for fear of someone getting hurt. Even though he had gotten pretty far on his penultimate labor of love, the day a rock the size of a jeep came crashing down on a spot he had just walked away from, he immediately shut down the cave. Many thought that his spirit and enthusiasm would be crushed, but a few days later, he was already looking for a new site. He still had more in him!

My personal fear is the degradation of the human spirit. Reflecting on when I might have inadvertently, or with unconscious bias, said something insensitive keeps me honest. I am far from perfect, but I strive for greater personal awareness.

When a culture suppresses the voices of incredible individual and collaborative talent, we all lose. I’ve seen and felt what it’s like to feel hurt at work and the outcome serves no-one well.

There are a few key differences though…

Paulette works strictly alone.

Except for the company of his dog, his one faithful companion, Paulette works alone and prefers it that way. However, shaping corporate culture cannot be done single-handedly. Specific individuals can model compassionate leadership. But by its very nature, making a long-lasting impact on corporate culture takes the coordinated work of many, especially those at the top.

He walked away when his clients had a different vision.

Some of his commissioned projects, while still incredibly beautiful, remain unfinished. When Paulette felt that he could not freely realize his vision for their space, he walked away, unwilling to compromise.

I think that one thing that we can’t compromise on when shaping corporate cultures is the key element, trust. However, I do think that it’s important for key stakeholders to paint a shared vision of the culture they want to achieve and lay out the roadmap to accomplish that vision.

Let’s keep on scraping and shaping!

It’s hard to say whether Paulette’s yet to be revealed “Magnum Opus” is a loftier goal than trying to shift some corporate cultures, but if a single man with a purpose can accomplish so much by “simply” shaping and scraping, imagine what we can all achieve together! Let’s do it!

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