What does “culture” mean to you?
Is it some sort of “excellence” in the arts like a night out at the opera? Is it the traits associated with a historic period like Roman culture? Or is it what we take to be the characteristic behaviours and beliefs of an ethnic group or country?
When I was at school in New Zealand putting on an upper class English accent and saying something like “I say old boy” somehow described England; but so did the phrase “whinging poms”.
In politics today we see increasing fragmentation and intolerance with populist leaders like Trump, Putin and Erdoğan appealing to their voters with dreams of returning to a golden age in their countries’ history: Make America Great Again.
Is there any truth in these simplistic ideas of common culture? No – well almost none. And where there is some truth it normally only exists/existed for a very small percentage of the populations being described in a specific time and place: So while many may continue to aspire to the “American dream” of prosperity and upward mobility very few achieve it.
And of the few that do succeed what percentage live the dream imagined by those aspiring to get there?
Put simply; culture is complicated.
The same is true for organisational culture. There is limited consensus on a number of aspects including what it is, how it influences behaviour, whether it can be changed and if so then what the key factors are that affect it.
I guess this shouldn’t be a surprise since each of us is complex; we’re only aware of about 5% of what’s going on in our mind and while some of our non-conscious or unconscious mental activity like involuntary control of heart beat doesn’t affect our behaviour other factors such as repressed memories certainly do affect behaviour – unconsciously.
So when a number of us work together in organisations our unconscious minds communicate unconsciously creating more complexity.
And when you include the impact of the other organisational factors that affect culture such as purpose (or lack of), values, organisational design, physical setting, clothing / uniform, as well as the non-organisational factors such as families, friends, other groups and wider society you get true complexity.
When engaged with effectively this complexity and the unconscious activity behind it can generate amazing results. It can also generate devastating results that affect both organisational performance and people’s quality of life.
As a result, considerable effort has been put into trying to understand culture and how / if it can be changed. As part of this drive models of varying complexity have been developed to help understand and work with culture.
I have developed a simple model to help people understand where their organisations are in terms of culture and where they might aspire to be.
The model is based primarily on the level of trust within an organisation and includes aspects of the thinking of Melanie Klein, Abraham Maslow, Douglas McGregor and Frederic Laloux.
It is a two pole spectrum from “survival” to “evolution” as illustrated below.
Most organisations operate nearer the survival end of the spectrum which has a number of common attributes: they are more hierarchical and rely on authority and control to get things done. Since decision making is concentrated with relatively few people at the top of the hierarchy these organisations tend to struggle with the increasing complexity and ambiguity of our world, often reacting relatively slowly. They also tend to struggle with high levels of employee disengagement.
While they may be slower to react they can be very efficient, with well-developed processes and systems to maximise productivity and minimise variability.
These organisations may have values but they are typically not lived, with the prime motivator being financial success.
Organisations at the evolutionary end of the spectrum are characterised by high levels of trust and have more in common with self-organising natural evolution since initiative is often bottom up and there is little or no centralised authority imposed on the system.
Hierarchies are typically flattened in favour of self-governing teams and centralised administrations are significantly reduced and exist to support the teams.
Since there is no centralised decision making, mechanisms are required to maintain a common purpose and culture as well as manage conflict and the generation / implementation of bottom up ideas.
These organisations tend to live their values and share a common purpose.
While the vast majority of organisations operate nearer the survival end of the spectrum there is increasing interest in the evolution end of the spectrum, with an increasing number of organisations adopting the principles to some degree.
Organisational culture is undoubtedly complex and has a significant impact on performance. While this complexity has resulted in many transformational programs failing to deliver desired results it is clear that culture can be evolved given the right conditions – in many respects the same sorts of conditions that give rise to successful human relationships: a determination to make it work, a willingness to take responsibility for our contribution to the culture and an understanding that it takes time.
This blog is the final in a series of three on the key areas of organisation development that was introduced in an earlier blog.
What do you think? I would welcome feedback; is this sort of simple model useful, where are the holes in the thinking and