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Authenticity and the End of Organisational Culture

Authenticity and the End of Organisational Culture

The last great development in organisational theory was that of the strong culture movement, originating in the seventies, developed in the eighties, dominating in the nineties and still, despite a decline, highly relevant today (just note how many job adverts you read talking about the great organisational culture and how interviews check to see if you're a fit for it).  There have, however, been increasing amounts of critique about the tenets of strong culture theory that are hugely impacting the market today, resulting in the rise of concepts such as authenticity, emotional intelligence and purpose. 

In simple terms, the development proceeded like this:

  1. There was a surge of interest around the idea that organisations with a strong culture would be populated by loyal, hard-working and enthusiastic employees. 
  2. It became apparent that such cultures actually produced (a) employees who saw no meaning in these cultural values, finding them absurd and (b) employees who became so emotionally bound to the culture they broke under its pressures.
  3. The above was explained by the idea that such cultures produced "fake emotions", resulting in either existential meaninglessness or psychological breakdown as employees lost touch with their "authentic emotions".
  4. There was a surge of interest around the idea that organisations allowing authentic emotions would be populated by loyal, hard-working and enthusiastic employees.

Although this is simplistic, the rise/decline/rise pattern repeats not just through organisational life but throughout human endeavour. As Chuck Palahniuk eloquently puts it:

There are only patterns, patterns on top of patterns, patterns that affect other patterns. Patterns hidden by patterns. Patterns within patterns. If you watch close, history does nothing but repeat itself.

The loss of faith in culture and the rise of interest in authenticity has already happened outside the organisational realm, emerging out of the philosophies of absurdism and existentialism in the mid-to-late nineteenth century. We are impoverished and risk folly if we fail to learn from patterns that preceded us (especially in a "science" as young as organisational theory).

In this article, I will examine the development of authenticity in organisations as paralleling the historical development of authenticity in philosophy, examining how organisational life as absurd, the limitations of authenticity as a response to the absurd and the possible solutions to such limitations. I hope you find it of interest and of some value.

The Absurd Organisation

The rise of authenticity followed the emergence of the philosophy of absurdism, which examines the fundamental disharmony between the individual's search for meaning and the meaninglessness of the universe. Although the interest in the meaninglessness of strong organisational culture only gained explicit traction in the last couple of decades, the idea that organisational life is absurd has a rich and diverse history, comprising many disciplines of management thought and practice. For example:

  • In 1969, Laurence J Peter noted that "anything that works will be used in progressively more challenging applications until it fails", and that employees rise to their particular level of incompetence. In 2010, the Ig Nobel Prize was awarded to three Italian researchers who, taking the Peter Principle seriously, proved that the best way to improve efficiency in an organisation is to promote people randomly rather than on perceived merit or ability. 
  • In 1981, Archibald Putt (a pseudonym) suggested that ""Technology is dominated by two types of people:  those who understand what they do not manage and those who manage what they do not understand" and "every technical hierarchy, in time, develops a competence inversion." This informs Scott Adam's best-selling work, The Dilbert Principle.
  • Kurt Lewin's foundational model of organisational change, which has been used to underpin nearly all subsequent step-based models of change, does not exist and has been erroneously cited for over half a century (which is perhaps why so many change initiatives fail). 
  • The Myers-Briggs Type Indicator personality assessment tool employed by multiple organisations worldwide to inform decisions on hiring and promoting employees (and, apparently, 89 Fortune 100 companies and the US military), was written by two people with no psychological training, is based on discredited Jungian theories and is regarded by the mainstream psychological community as totally meaningless.
  • As discussed by Penny Osbourne in this article, the practices of project management very often directly contribute to the project failing, crushing creativity and innovation and sucking up all the energy and motivation of those involved. 
  • Just as organisations are screaming out for maverick thinkers and creative rebels capable of making a significant competitive difference, the recruitment industry fully invests in screening technologies that "weeds out" such candidates before their CVs are even read and their qualities considered. 

Even going meta doesn't help conquer absurdity. As this article illustrates, research into management and organisations has become so obsessed with proving its academic rigour to other more traditional disciplines, it has lost its ability to meaningfully communicate insights to the very people it is supposed to be helping. If Unfluencers such as Jim MurrayPhil Friedman and John Vaughan are to be believed, turning to LinkedIn for insights is equally useless, as its technologies and editorial processes mean articles that could genuinely make a difference get lost in the meaningless, self-promoting memes of the chosen few. Even if you only read the anointed, you can still end up looking absurd by liking quotes from fictitious janitors called Socrates when you think you are reading a quote from the Greek philosopher Socrates. 

Hopefully, this brief list convinces you as to the validity of taking organisational absurdity seriously, not just as a response to strong culture, but as an ongoing and core element of organisational existence. If not, there's more; much, much more! If it is just confirming your current perception of organisation, then you will probably have already started taking authenticity seriously. 

The Rise of Authenticity

As interest in strong culture declines, interest in authenticity in leadership, management and organisation rises.  Organisational culture was assumed to impart the values and morals of the organisation into its employees, only to be found wanting. Employees were taking the piss out of cultural practices or collapsing under the weight of emotional demands. Management literature began to explore cynicism and sarcasm as forms of cultural resistance, the idea that acting out the "fake emotions" demanded by organisations caused deep psychological distress (including loss of self-awareness, nervous breakdowns and even suicide) and began to explore how organisations could tap into passion, genuine emotion and commitment.

Authenticity seemed the answer. Authenticity is being true to one's own personality, spirit, or character and the rejection of externally imparted cultural values and morals that informed the design of organisations under the strong culture school.  The authentic employee would be driven by internal motivations and desires, bringing his "true self" to the organisational table, being the loyal, hard-working and committed employee that the strong culture movement envisioned. Following this turn of direction, we can see why there has been interest in the idea that introverts are good managers (introverts, by definition, look inwards), comprehend the surge of research on emotional intelligence, and understand why the entrepreneurial spirit is held in such acclaim (as it creates its own purpose with values emanating from it rather than external sources constraining it).

There are, however, a number of issues to overcome that have accompanied authenticity since it emerged from the philosophies of absurdism and existentialism. The concept of authenticity that currently dominates management literature portrays an authentic leader as a hyper-flexible character, taking cues from external audits of his behaviour, guided by a super high EQ, energetically emergent in self-development, and sensitive to and ready to learn from others. Whilst this paints a compelling and desirable picture, it does not begin to capture the complexity surrounding the issue of "how to live authentically" that swirls around non-organisational work on the subject. The fluffy picture eliminates the central problems of authenticity of having no moral constraints when creating meaning and the existential demand for ongoing experiences that accompanies such a philosophy. So, what perils does this turn towards authenticity bring with it?

  • Authenticity in its purest form risks the user becoming a junky for experience, needing a new fix on a regular basis. To quash this unquenchable desire, an authentic leader is likely to be infatuated by new organisational forms, changes, concepts, ideas, practices, processes and systems, introducing them in a never-ending procession of fads and follies, no matter the cost to others in the organisation. The authentic leader will not worry if others in the organisation find this process meaningless, as long as it has meaning for him. 
  • The authentic leader risks falling into nihilism. With no external moral code helping him determine between ethical and non-ethical positions, every decision and option is of equal value. There is no possibility of determining the value of one direction over another. With nothing having intrinsic value, everything becomes possible and, once tried and used up, meaningless. Launched on a spiral of never-ending experiential decision making, the authentic leader risks collapsing into nihilistic despair (it's worth reading Peter Fleming's work on authenticity if this interests you). 
  • With no ethical position to guide organisational decision making, all kinds of corrupt practices and activities are seen as permissible. There is a wealth of evidence of hedonistic lifestyles being supported by ethically dubious business practices, or leaders turning blind eyes to blatantly fraudulent activities because they were making so much money. No matter how charmingly authentic such a leader may seem, if he has an "anything goes" mentality, then black clouds and storms are likely to follow (again, Fleming's work on corruption is worth reading).  
  • Finally, in terms of organisational building, we have the problem of transmitting one's authenticity into the organisational cultural environment. As indicated earlier, authenticity is anathema to culture, drawing from internal not external values. If the leader is authentic, he cannot expect his employees to blindly and non-authentically follow his values. But he simultaneously demands that they do, because how else can his passionate vision succeed! Hence, perhaps, the "culture fit" interviews and psychological testing that are increasingly dominant in the HR industry, being somewhat desperate and often clumsy attempts to grapple with the complexity of authentic culture being an oxymoron and struggling to find enough people with the diverse skillets required to keep an organisation healthy that can mesh with the authentic values of the leader!

As the above suggests, while authenticity seems like a wonderful solution to all our problems, it comes with a few attendant issues of its own, which can have some pretty far-reaching consequences. 

Possible Solutions

So, what do we do? Are we risking an organisational apocalypse, in which moral-free idealism, couched in authentic charm, undermines all useful organisational forms with nothing meaningful to replace them? As authenticity is a well-developed philosophical concept, can we learn from its suggested solutions and stave off or even prevent the predicted decline? Let's hope so, as authentic living has got to be worth pursuing. 

Here are three potential solutions:

Solution 1: The traditional fix for the problem of authenticity being unencumbered by morality is a religious one, as discussed by Kierkegaard.  It is driven by the assumption that there is a perfectly moral yet unknowable god that will eventually sit in judgment of our actions (a leap of faith). It is unauthentic to try and comprehend such a god, as that involves the external, but it authentic to evaluate one's internal values and related actions assuming such a morally perfect creature does exist.  Such a solution is already swirling around organisational practice, with the rebirth of religiosity in many national cultures informing organisational decisions and the rise of spirituality as a subject of serious debate in organisational thought.

Solution 2: The second solution is for the authentic leader to be guided by a utopian construct that aligns with his principles, allowing him to position his chosen action against the action that a perfect organisation or society would demand. This was posited by thinkers pre-dating the notion of authenticity, such as Plato, Thomas More and Jonathan Swift and is closely aligned to Nietzsche's concept of authenticity. The ethical is determined in the construction of the utopian construct. Any subsequent action is moral if it aligns with the development of such a perfect cultural, societal or organisational form, even if said form is forever unachievable. It is problematic for true authenticity for, unless the leader develops the vision himself, he is being constrained by some form of external value. It does, however, guard against nihilistic despair and is thus a common solution. In current organisational thought, such a form is most closely presented via Laloux's Teal Organisation. 

Solution 3: To fully embrace the negativity of irony as a counter-weight against the hot enthusiasm of positive thought. In this solution, every possible action is internally evaluated as possibly absurd via a multitude of lenses before a decision to act is made. If the action can be made absurd through ironic interrogation (i.e. a supposedly ethical action that actually brings harm,  such as Socrates' example of returning something borrowed being seen as morally good but absurd if you'd borrowed an axe and were returning it to a madman frothing with rage) then you would not pursue it. If it wasn't absurd and was consistent with the ongoing project of living an authentically examined life, then you could pursue it. This kind of thinking informs things such as innovation teams, in which possible actions are evaluated via multiple lenses of contemporary organisational practice (is it socially intelligent, emotionally intelligent, aligned with organisational goals, sustainable, corporately responsible, accepting diversity, truly innovative etc, etc?). 

I'm not suggesting any of the above is easy or that I have a definitive answer (indeed, we should probably swing between all the solutions). I just think that if we are serious about being authentic, then we should also be serious about organisational absurdity, and be addressing key questions around the concepts before they begin to turn. The worse thing we can do is be as uncritical about authenticity as were were about strong culture (and other enthusiasms that preceded them) as our history, described as C.S. Lewis, tells us the following:

Terrific energy is expended - civilizations are built up - excellent institutions devised; but each time something goes wrong. Some fatal flaw always brings the selfish and the cruel people to the top and it all slides back into misery and ruin.

 We are currently in the enthusiastic energy stage, passionately trying to develop excellent institutions that are disruptively agile and authentically purposeful, but perhaps (as always) failing to plan for the inevitable disappointment that lurks around the corner. Let's start thinking about these fatal flaws and address them before they begin to overwhelm us. 

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