Recently I had the privilege of attending a culture workshop at work co-facilitated by the brilliant Trevor Hough.
Culture workshops are generally a binary experience for employees. Either you like it or view it as a waste of time. I’m inherently overly optimistic and generally a glass half full type of guy and thoroughly enjoy culture workshops. If attendees are fully immersed and honest it’s a magical experience, but in most cases employees grind through the actual sessions as a chore. This in all likelihood stems from the view employee opinions are overlooked and the true cynic will argue it’s a witch hunt to unpack what employees think about management. I was however suitably impressed by Trevor’s pragmatic approach, clearly sculptured over years of experience as an Organisational Development specialist.
Having just finished reading Sapiens by Yuval Noah Harari, I was left thinking about the fairy tale of the genie in the bottle. Sapiens looks at the possible reasons why we as a species have come to rule the planet. He hypothesizes that it is our unique ability to organise in large social groups that has allowed us to do so. No other species is able to organise in large groups in complex ways, as far as we know.
If we pitted 5 humans against 5 chimps, Yuval’s money and mine would be on the chimps. However if we increased that number to 500, humans would win hands down. Harari, with substantial research data, postulates that what allows us to organise in this way is our ability to imagine. We are a species of meaning makers, of storytellers and believers. Unlike other species, we as Homo sapiens believe in myths.
We believe in gods, we believe in companies, we believe in human rights, and probably our biggest belief is the money. None of these exist in objective reality. However they bring thousands, even millions of people together under a single belief system. You could not get a chimp to hand over his bunch of bananas on the promise that the piece of paper you just gave him would buy him many more bananas in the future.
It is because we take these belief systems as “truths” that allows us to organise in large complex groups. We are coded to join together with others who believe in the same “truths” by complex neuro-chemical discharges. It is this that (that) allows us to flourish as large complex groups.
Culture functions in the same way. Cultures are belief systems that allow groups of people to function together and feel a sense of community; they could be viewed as the glue that binds us. So long as the majority of the group believes in the same things, they are bound together.
Corporate culture is no different. Corporations are a very new phenomenon in the evolutionary life span of humans. They, like so much else we believe in, are imaginal entities. Take Apple: you cannot see it as an objective entity. Yes you can see its products, you can see its advertising campaigns and you can see the people who work for it, however you cannot see it. Companies are a construction made up by legal minds to create limited liability for people who started them. Companies are in fact legally seen as fictitious people.
The people who join these companies buy into the powerful belief of its existence, as we all do. Buying into the belief of the organisation existing we bring our own interpretations and desires of what that organisation will give us in return. These can include remuneration, career development, security and respect. We might refer to this as the psychological contract. It happens in all organisations. Take religions: in return for our belief, prayers and specific behaviors we are promised eternal life.
This might sound quite depressing, however we need to remember that it is exactly because of our belief systems that we have come to dominate the other species on the planet. Chimps or baboons don’t use iPhones or congregate in their millions to celebrate Independence Day.
So what does this mean for us in terms of corporate culture, and what use does understanding it have?
In order for any belief system to have power it needs to be believed by the majority of that group. In other words for the belief system to have power the genie needs to remain in the bottle. There will always be outliers, however it is the majority that hold the group together. So if we take it as a given that corporate culture is a belief system, we then need to ensure that how we articulate the culture is believed by the majority of employees.
Too often in my work as an Organisational Development consultant I have come across companies and consultancies that undertake work on culture as an exercise in describing aspirations or creating spin. What is aspirational is not always what the majority of employees experience on a day-to-day basis. So when the culture slides or glossy pamphlets are rolled out everyone nods their heads, then have a good chuckle around the water fountain. They silently collude with what is said for numerous reasons. Often out of fear of being ejected from the group. The old story of the emperor without clothes comes to mind. Whatever the reason, the story has lost its power and people no longer believe it.The genie is out the bottle.
In organisations that thrive, what is said about culture and what is believed, match pretty accurately. People literally have drunk the kool aid. The power of the belief is that people pull together and feel a personal connection to the organization. As happens in nations and armies, buying into a belief produces amazing collaborative results. It is what makes us human. It can also be what allows us to commit atrocities.
Milgram in his 1960s experiments showed us the dark side of such believing, and it is something we have seen repeatedly over history. We have seen it in Nazi Germany in the belief of the Aryan race, in South Africa with white supremacy and it happened with bankers in the sub-prime crisis. In all these cases the majority bought into a belief and committed heinous acts in its name.
This therefore makes the process of culture articulation and culture assessment a complex and serious business that I don’t believe should be sentimental or smell of spin. The role of those that attempt to articulate such important beliefs is very similar to that of anthropologists. Experts in building trust, observing and understanding context, but importantly have enough personal distance from the belief system. Organizational consultants real value add is in understanding the power that resides in culture, both in driving performance and increasing engagement, but also in the destructive shadow side.
It is an interesting question whether it is the role of these “anthropologists” to speak another “truth” to those in power, and it is also interesting what the consequences of revealing might be. It is a complex position in that by revealing the different aspects of belief systems, as consultants we bash up against personal and social defenses of members of the system. We then place ourselves in the position of being ejected by the system.
I believe that whatever road we take is paradoxically grounded in our own personal beliefs of values and ethics. This is further complicated by those consulting in the financial services sector where the regulator is beginning to take a stronger interest in corporate culture.
Whatever road we take as organizational consultants, we should understand the power of the genie.