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HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!

HBR says, "You Can't Fix Culture!" Well, duh!

The cover of HBR's April 2016 issue. Big, bold and bright orange. You Can't Fix Culture! An article explaining how culture emerges from good business practice. It's not something you can impose. Or design. Or change from the top. It just happens. 

This challenges conventional thinking about culture. And about time. But it doesn't go far enough. 

It only looks at how a few CEOs have launched new initiatives that are more strategically purposeful than the standard cultural model. A new culture will then supposedly emerge from the new purposeful direction. It's a shift. But not much of one. It's still about designing culture. Just from a different direction. 

It's not widely known, but there is a bunch of research that predicted what HBR is now saying.  Some of it written a quarter of a century ago. Shows how the culture model is decaying. Illustrates the environmental conditions of a failing culture. And the characters who live in it. 

But those that write for HBR rarely read this type of research. Because it isn't "serious" enough. Isn't manager-centric enough. Is too critical. Too challenging. 

But, hey, HBR has made a strong claim. So let's take this opportunity to talk about this research. On a public forum full of professional people. See if it strikes a chord. Because it's too important not to extend the argument. Make it deeper and richer. Try and put out there. 

The Rise and Fall of Cultural Thinking

The strong culture movement took root in the early 1980s. It was full of grand ideas. How to make sure your employees shared the company's values. Were committed to its goals. Lived its mission. It promised loyal, hard-working and enthusiastic employees. 

The grammar of strong culture was powerful. It was religious in its fervour. Founders were described in godlike terms. The organisation developed rites and rituals. Those spreading the message were called gurus. Critics talked of cult-like devotion and brainwashing practises. 

It was mythological in structure. Managers were heroes. Performing great deeds (35% growth, 23% cost saving!!!). Overcoming monstrous challenges. These tales spread through the organisation. Didn't matter how accurate they were. Just that they resonated. Providing heroic goals to aim for. 

This type of thought was everywhere. For years and years. Whatever business publication you opened, you'd be told that an organisation was doing well because of its great culture. Or failing because of its bad culture. 

But it ate itself.

Culture became the ultimate solution. The organisation is doing well. Get the journalists and researchers into study your culture. Export it to others. Don't think. Just copy. 

And the ultimate problem. The organisation is doing badly. Change, change, change. Don't think. Just change. To another culture. Any other culture. As long as it's not this one. 

Our thinking declined. Culture wasn't about culture anymore. It was everything. All parts of organisational life became cultural. It ate strategy for breakfast. And lunch. And dinner. Then a late-night snack. 

Where Are We Now?

To paraphrase from Disney's The Incredibles, "when everything is about culture, then nothing is." What we have now is a grotesque parody of the strong culture movement. A decadent shell of aesthetic meaninglessness. 

Firstly, the great cultural institutions of the 1980s fell. Atari. Ha! Kodak. Gone! HP. In a state of permanent anxiety. 

Secondly, many supposedly godlike CEOs are shown to be flawed humans. Weak, selfish and corrupt. The Enron fiasco. Offshore accounts. Not caring about society. 

Thirdly, leaders and managers have been shown to have feet of clay. 86% of us think there is a leadership crisis. 75% that the boss is the worse thing about our job. 

Fourthly, the grammar has changed. We talk about purpose. Alignment. Engagement. The powerful imagery of gods, heroes and monsters replaced by flat, technical terms.

Fifthly, we have developed a weak culture model. We sell open offices, hipster design and foosball tables as culture. It's not culture. It's lifestyle. Aestheticism. Decadence. 

Sixthly, we have a gap between how culture works (habits into rituals, one best way of doing things, criticism = resistance) and how we need to work (innovate, create, disrupt). 

Deep inside, we know the model doesn't convince. We need to escape from it. Find a different way of thinking about organisation. That frees us from this obsolete mode of thought. 

The Reality of Organisational Culture

What, then, does an organisational culture in today's world look like. 

In environmental terms, it's pretty simple. There's a gap between the espoused culture and the organisational reality. What leaders say the culture is and what employees experience do not align. 

Instead of an accepted one best way of doing things, there is uncertainty. Contradiction. Paradox. Which produces anxiety. Stress. Confusion. 

We don't know how to fix this. Because culture has no meaning anymore, we can't think our way out of the problem. We have no environmental solution. So we teach people to cope instead. 

Business coaches train leaders. Organisational psychologists train managers. Change agents train the staff. And HR panics about negativity. 

The panic about negativity is the reason we can't think properly about culture anymore. Reflect on what we've created. Because critique is interpreted as negativity. And negativity is bad. So, it's panic, change. Panic, change. Panic, change.

We can't go on like this. So I'd like to suggest a different way of looking at things. A way that embraces negativity. Because a negative reaction to a negative situation is a often a positive. 

The Five Types of Employee of Contemporary Organisational Culture

We have got into the habit at looking at personality types. I don't think they are very helpful. The types are merely a collection of traits that are pretty unstable and rarely predict long-term behaviour.

We need to look at people's reactions to culture and change. More as character-types than personality traits. A way that puts a completely different perspective on things. And there seem to be five. The zealot. The old guard. The bewildered. The basket case. And the buffoon. 

The Zealot: Still truly, truly believes in culture. Often inhabits HR departments. Takes things incredibly seriously. Imposes cultural norms everywhere. If they have any power, punishes those that criticise. Often called first adopters during culture change.

The Old Guard: Has had enough of all the culture and leadership BS. Sees culture change as a broken process aimed at fixing a broken model.  Has lost all enthusiasm. Resists anything that might directly affect the job. Thinks management are complicit in creating a horrible environment. Or incompetent 

The Bewildered: Struggles to understand the ambiguity, uncertainty and contradictions of the workplace. Needs lots of time to adapt to new ways. Looking for meaningful work. Can't quite understand why things don't quite feel right. Does his best to get on with things, but often confused and in need of help.

The Basket-Case: Struggles to deal with the ambiguity, uncertainty and contradictions of the workplace. Craves certainty. Panics when faced with ambiguity. Is always anxious. Fearful. Stressed. Can even develop psychological illness.

The Buffoon: Understands and deals with the ambiguity, uncertainty and contradictions of the workplace. Through humour and wit. Jokes. Sarcasm. Mockery. Ridicule. Clowning about. The classic coping devices of somebody constantly under ambiguous and psychologically stressful conditions. 

Negativity Is Not Negativity

Of these five reactions, only one is psychologically healthy. A useful attribute for the innovative organisation. It's not the first. It's the last. 

The first two follow "one best way" thinking. Need structure. Something to believe in. Something to follow. Not a useful attribute in a fragmented , fast changing environment.

The next two result in a breakdown of performance. At either a technical or emotional level. They require a lot of hand-holding. A lot of extra resources. Increased time and increased effort. 

The last is vital. The buffoon pokes fun, but remains happy. He critiques, but performs. He sees the gap between expectation and reality. Appreciates the absurdity. Lives in it. Thrives in it. 

I use the term buffoon because of the 3Bs. The bewildered, basket-cases & buffoons. Some mnemonic alliteration. But it is a little more complex than that. 

The buffoon is a catch-all term for a range of different characters:

  • The ironist, who reveals incongruity
  • The jester, who speaks truth to power
  • The wit, who finds quick answers 
  • The clown, who releases psychological tension through humour
  • The harlequin, who nimbly solves problems

There are 2,500 years of evidence that the buffoon character-set emerges during cultural end times. Transformational times. The times organisations find themselves in now. 

But management thought is so narrow it doesn't know this. Perceives these vital characters as resistors. Sees humour as a lack of seriousness. Their clownish masks as inauthentic. It's so shortsighted. So lacking in historical depth. 

It's stopping companies identifying the people who are most capable of seeing where organisational problems lie. Can most cope with them. Can remain committed and critical without psychological discomfort. Can point out what is really going on. 

We dream of good organisations. Collaborative environments run by effective managers and inspiring leaders. But refuse to appreciate that this needs a reboot of perceptions. Requires us to embrace a certain type of critical thought. Realise that those who can provide insights aren't just those in powerful positions. But those who can see humour in adversity. Possibility in incongruency. And can help us work towards something better. 

HBR has opened the door to this new type of thinking. But, by only looking at CEO directives, failed to push it open wide enough. It's up to those of us merrily coping with incongruity to swing it open the rest of the way.

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Friday, 29 May 2020

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The Ironic Manager seriously rethinks how organisations work at the most fundamental level and offers a variety of solutions for businesses struggling to cope with the ambiguity and stresses inherent to contemporary organisational conditions of constant change.

Richard has been helping businesses and people deal with leadership, management, communication, technology and change for over twenty years through his training, coaching, speaking and consulting services. 

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Over twenty years helping people managing change understand why resistance happens and develop quality vital communication skills that aid successful business transformation.


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