Voice Over - In Which We Tackle Organisational Culture

I am studying to build a workshop on the topic of how to change organisational culture. My research is stirring the soup pot of my personal pet theories on how to shift people’s thinking at the macro level. Frankly, I haven’t dug this deep since I worked for a lobbyist in Washington DC. As I researched, I started to realise how much of what I ‘believe’ is based on assumptions, myths, experiential associations, and past social science that have very little to do with modern understanding of group behavioural dynamics. Like letting go of Vitamin C for colds, I struggle to relinquish a whole bunch of debunked notions.

Let’s just start with the basic assumption that every organisation has a culture. Now, it is mad as easy to find business literature touting the headline: “Organisational Culture, Why It Matters, How You Can Change It”. You’ll read this in every publication from Forbes to FastCompany. An example from the Harvard Business Review, “While there is universal agreement that (1) it exists, and (2) that it plays a crucial role in shaping behavior in organizations, there is little consensus on what organizational culture actually is, never mind how it influences behavior and whether it is something leaders can change.”

While this phrase sticks in my craw at a number of levels, let’s just start with why is there universal agreement? Like who thought that was a good idea and taught it in every Econ, BusMgmt, Public Admin, and Sociology class for the past 30 years. Also, just because we agree universally doesn’t mean we know what the hell we are talking about. We universally agreed it was a good idea to pop VitC like drug addled, snot filled lunatics too but now we know better. We know better because someone challenged the headline: “We all know Vit C is good for colds, what are the best sources?”

All right. Let’s go basic and just agree first on a definition of culture, leaving aside ‘organisational culture’ for the moment…. And…. Yeah. We immediately begin to surface part of the problem. Merriam Webster has six separate definitions of culture ranging from “the customary beliefs, social forms, and material traits of a racial, religious, or social group” to “expert care and training”. Browsing around I found references to making art, growing bacteria, and the “integrated pattern of human knowledge and belief.” Someone worked really hard on the Wikipedia entry and came up with “Culture is considered a central concept in anthropology, encompassing the range of phenomena that are transmitted through social learning in human societies.” Whoa.

Getting back to org culture, the cleanest definition I found was with a return to good ole’ M-W entry 1b “the set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution or organization”. Okay, this is something I can begin to wrap my head around. What we’re saying is that yes there is a single organisation culture, and what it consists of is anything to which we can all agree. So. Take everyone at my current company. We’ve got roughly 1400 people in my division, maybe 3 thousand some odd in New Zealand, 20K if we look globally. Honestly, do you think there is even one single thing… EVEN ONE… that all 20 thousand agree with. I’m not entirely certain we could get them all to agree the sky is up. It’s possible that the phrase ‘organisational culture’ isn’t really a good way to even think about any group of humans over a very small number…. Say 10.

Why do we assume organisations have a culture? Because it’s easy (which is usually the right answer when we’ve got a very simplistic and universal assumption BTW). If we say that there is A culture singular, then we can devise a strategy singular to manipulate that culture. We have a target. We have a single description of the current state and – if we are a ninja forward thinking organisation – we have a description of the desired future state. We can make a project, design training, comms and engagement programmes, roll out the new culture in a pre-packaged “Go Be This!” format. In other words, this is lazy thinking and project minimalism designed to prevent scope creep. It is also more hopeful and cheaper than the alternative which would be to say, “We have about 4 dozen distinct subcultures, and we’ll need to craft a 3 to 5 year plan for each of them.”

Recommendation To change ‘organisational culture’, you have to first acknowledge that it is not a singular beast. You must equip yourself and your leaders to target a multiplicity of subgroups each with a unique strategy and programme of work.

Culture is what happens when managers leave the room – doing what’s right in the absence of authority.” ~ Vala Afshar

Karen ToastComment