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An Ironic Perspective on the World of Work

Organisational Culture (and why it's dying)

Organisational Culture (and why it's dying)

Organisation life has beliefs, routines, and rituals that make it cultural. We can measure it. Describe it. Even change it. I don't think anybody would deny that organisational culture is everywhere. Unavoidably part of our everyday reality. 

But this is a benign interpretation. So benign as to be meaningless. It has no power to motivate. It's just a measurement of practice. Yet a whole industry has arisen around it.

We know there is a gap between what management wants to happen and what is actually happening. The classic definition of irony. So, we look at espoused organisational values. See where they differ from how things happen in reality. Then try to close the gap. It's a big thing. That's why words like "alignment" are so trendy.  

But this is not where the real irony lies. No, the real, bitter irony lies in the lost promise of culture. And how we've found nothing to replace it. Which is why everyone is so cynical, sarcastic, anxious and disengaged. 

The Promise of Organisational Culture

The above benign interpretation is completely different than the original concept of organisational culture. This promised long-lasting meaning at work. It would produce loyal and hard-working employees. Great engagement. Fantastic enthusiasm. Wonderful lives. 

The culture movement emerged from promises made in the name of the high-tech way of life. We would see a new era, new work organisations, a new man and woman. Huge profits, futuristic innovation, humane working environments. And happy, productive workers. 

Cultural gurus used powerful images of love, marriage, family, even religion. They promised strong and long-lasting connections between employers and employees.  Enthusiastic, committed, energetic and hard-working employees driving the company.  Into the 21st Century and beyond!

We would find genuine meaning at work. Use it as an escape from the rapidly fragmenting meanings of society. Become emotionally and psychologically healthier as a result. 

This didn't happen. Instead, we experienced a great divide. We had leaders and cultural gurus developing ways to impose certain cultural ideals. Which didn't produce the expected reality. But they wouldn't or couldn't see it. Employees mocked and ridiculed the culture as a coping method. You had to laugh or you'd cry. 

The promises of the cultural model broke down in the face of all this irony, mockery and ridicule. But it is such a powerful metaphor we haven't moved beyond it. We still think culture makes meaning. We still try to close these gaps. Which is stopping us from addressing what we've actually created. 

The Decline of Organisational Culture

Organisational culture is dying. But it's worse than that. We have produced something completely different. A dark beast that crept up on as unseen. Something that is harmful. Nihilistic. Futureless. But we don't examine because it's too easy to continue thinking about culture. And assuming we can use culture to fix the problems of culture. That is the real, bitter irony we are facing. 

There are no long-lasting cultural connections between organisations and employees. Organisational and employee relations are now just a system of exchange. Employers and employees contract with each other on a temporary, limited basis.  Hence the dramatic rise of the recruitment industry. 

Loyalty is no more than the maximisation of efficiency, productivity, profit and income. If you can't contribute to that, and immediately, then you have no worth. Too great a risk and too much lost time to train anybody. Contractors ahoy!

With no long-term cultural meaning, employees experience great cynicism and anxiety. Studies suggest an 85% employees disengagement rate. They are sarcastic about management initiatives. They want to find something meaningful to do. So we try to change or do something new. However, 66% of change fails. 90% of start-ups fail. So, they have little chance of escape. Trapped in a dystopian reality. 

Thanks to this, organisational psychologists are everywhere. Coaching and soothing. Guiding us down complex, anxious paths. And the pharmaceutical industry booms on the never-ending anxiety of the workplace. We are emotional and psychological wrecks. 

So, no long-term loyalties. Massive disengagement. Never-ending anxiety and cynicism. Reliant on high-risk escape routes. After years of investment in cultural solutions. Yay! 

Millennials: A New Hope

One theory of culture suggests it is cyclical. When a culture declines, we expect a rise in cynicism, irony and the quest for money. When it rises, passion, creative expression and innocent enthusiasm. 

The millennial generation has this new cultural mindset. 

  • They believe that their passion and energy can develop a better way to work.
  • They attempt to develop new ways of working that are quick, easy and admin-free.
  • They desire a deeper meaning to life than that offered by traditional cultural values.

Generation X has only experienced the organisational culture movement. It can't look beyond it. For Xers, the passion of the Millennial seems unrealistic and naive. For the uncharitable, it might look like lazy, unproductive, self-obsession. 

But however naive or unrealistic, there is revived energy and passion. A rejection of the old ways. Which is a lot better to work with than the jaded reactions to a declining culture. So, take a chance. Listen. Think. Help. Maybe the new energy will result in something wonderful. 

For many of us, it sure as hell can't be any worse.

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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. 

His innovative research is highly regarded by world-leaders in management and leadership. 

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