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The Long, Slow Death of Organisational Culture

The Long, Slow Death of Organisational Culture

The idea that culture was the best way for companies to ensure the beliefs and values of senior management were shared by their employees became extremely popular very quickly in the early 1980s. Books such as Corporate Cultures: The Rise and Rituals of Corporate Life, Theory Z: How American Management Can Meet the Japanese Challenge and In Search of Excellence kickstarted a powerful trend in research and practice. Given further credibility by John Kotter and James Heskett's Harvard-sponsored research, Corporate Culture and Performance, organisational culture became the hottest topic in management theory since Frederick Taylor first started thinking about the mechanistic organisation in the early 1900s. 

Culture gurus were everywhere, speaking at keynotes, offering consulting advice to anybody who wanted it (and a lot of people did) and generally making obscene amounts of money. If any company struggled, business magazines and newspapers would rush to blame some aspect of the culture and suggest it needed to quickly change into something else for the company to regain its feet (which kickstarted the change management boom, but let's not get started on that (too late, already have, here and here!)). But here's the thing. Companies that had been held up as the be all and end all of excellent cultures were also struggling or failing. Hewlett-Packard, one of the excellent companies named In Search of Excellence, is is the obvious No 1 contender after it very publicly fell into very hard times a decade or so after the book was published, but many others were too. So what happened?

The Decline of Organisational Culture

For me, the seminal book on organisational culture is Gideon Kunda'sEngineering Culture: Control and Commitment in a High-tech Corporation, first published in 1992. It's a masterpiece. I don't know anybody worth reading who doesn't reference this work. Buy, borrow or steal it the first chance you get. 

What Kunda discovered is that instead of creating the committed, loyal and hard-working employees aligned with corporate values and beliefs, the culture movement had instead created employees who made

“ the metaphor of drama a centrepiece of their sense of self, who question the authenticity of all beliefs and emotions, and who find irony in its various forms the dominant mode of everyday existence”

Kunda's analysis was simple. If you bought into the corporate culture, you risked becoming an unthinking corporate zombie-zealot or burning out and suffering things such as addiction, divorce or suicide. The only way of avoiding these fates was to cultivate masks and artificial personas that allowed you to act out the expected roles without believing in them, continually question the basic tenets of how you were supposed to think and feel, and ironically and sarcastically poking fun at the culture and everybody who took the culture seriously. You had to mock the culture to survive it. 

What is perhaps even more interesting is that Kunda predicted that the organisation he researched, a fully paid up advocating member of the cultural school, was on a downwards spiral. By the time his book was reprinted in 2006, the company was as dead as a doornail, unable to generate the enthusiasm or ideas that had initially underpinned its success and unable to do anything other than more of all the culture stuff that was already producing this zombie-ironist-burnout workforce. Ideas died, projects stewed, people quit, the company fell, tragically and ironically doomed by the very system it had built its success on. 

Although I don't know any seriously good management thinkers who think hard about organisational culture anymore, the problem we have is that it has stuck in the minds of nearly everybody. It's such a good metaphor. We can all talk about culture in a meaningful way without having to read theoretical research (no complexity,  VUCA or Cynefin here!). We are all able to have a competent opinion and ironically and sarcastically mock and ridicule all the things that don't work very well. It's stuck in our heads! We love it and hate it, but can't get rid of it even when we know it isn't working. Catch-22 for the modern professional!

The Irony of Culture

Let's assume we basically agree that we are stuck with organisational culture, whether we like it or not. It's too powerful a way of thinking about organisations to forget or ignore. It's with us always. I still read this on LinkedIn pretty much every day:

Culture eats strategy for breakfast

Despite its omnipresence, we know culture produces pretty much the opposite of what it was intended to produce, the game-playing, witty, sarcastic cynics sniping and snarking at supposed sacrosanct values and beliefs in order to defend themselves against the unhappy consciousness that their organisational existence is meaningless. Despite not explicitly talking about this nagging feeling that all is not right in Oz, we do, we do, try to do something about it. It's just we are so stuck in one way of thinking we can't find other better ways of working. 

We try and try to change and change our cultures and organisations when we see them disintegrating into this ironic form, to somehow reactivate the enthusiasms and efficiencies that the cultural movement initially promised, only to end up generating greater and greater levels of ambiguity, patchworks on patchworks, which merely add a layer of stress to the mix of ever-present unhappy irony.  Cultures with even more ambiguities to be ironic about! We have created organisational dystopias out of our utopian dreams and cannot find a way out. We know we must transform how we work but, lost in the despair of broken and misbegotten promises, we don't know how to start.

And then we wonder why employee engagement is at an all-time low. Fortunately, there is help at hand. 

There are a number of great writers who examine what happens when cultures become ironic. Writers such as Vico and Spengler argue it is the precursor to a great collapse, the return of the culture to a barbaric form. In organisational terms, that would be the equivalent of returning to the non-contract semi-serfdom that characterised the organisational form before Taylorism. Some contemporary commentators are already worrying about this, noting, for example, the zero-hours contracts, unpaid internships and short-term loyalty of the current employment marketplace. Writers such as Kierkegaard and Nietzsche argue it is the beginning of a great cultural transformation, with new ways of living emerging from the decaying corpse of the decadently ironic culture as it draws its last feeble breaths. In organisational terms,  this kind of thinking is characterised by the increasingly trendy notions of disruption, transformation and authenticity. 

So, what will avoid this return to barbarism and instead produce hopeful transformations out of cultures drowning in irony. Well, irony, of course. I'll explain.

The Irony of Ironic Cultures

Pay attention. This is where it gets tricky.

Most of the irony generated in an ironic culture is of a limited kind. It can be:

  1. Mocking: Purely about the sarcasm, poking fun at those taking the culture and organisation far too seriously 
  2. Superior: When somebody thinks that if only somebody would listen to his solutions, all the wrongs of the world would be righted (not recognising that his perspective is just as likely to be ironically attacked as the one he's attacking)
  3. Machiavellian: Used to further one's self-interest purely for power's sake, when you don't believe in what you're saying but say it anyway as it will curry favour with the powerful. 

Types of Organisational Irony 

Some, however, treat the irony ironically, calling the game on all the above (what Kierkegaard calls mastered irony).

Mastered irony:

  1. Respects those who takes their beliefs seriously, even though it refuses to be constrained by them.
  2. Doesn't have the definitive solution to any organisational problem, but is committed to searching for the best solutions possible given current knowledge and the immediate situation.
  3. Calls out the limited irony of the self-interested organisational politician.

Rather than trying to transform the culture through ironic means, a master ironist transforms himself into the best possible person he can be. While he perceives the cultural and organisational issues with complete clarity, he does not get seduced by mocking laughter, naively assume he is clever enough to solve complex problems without help, or be tricked into following political manipulations of the wannabe powerful. Instead, he becomes a vital force for transformational possibility. 

He injects creativity, enthusiasm, hope and energy into the collapsing culture, opening up space in which serious conversations about what the future might look like can emerge. His modus operandi is to get people to critically reflect on how they might live and exist now and in the future. From this reflection, problems are deeply addressed, enthusiasms reflame, ideas germinate, and a new and better culture hopefully emerges. 

The New Enthusiasms of Authenticity, Disruption and Engagement

Hopefully, the above section had some clarity. If it did, you will be able to predict this one.

While very few people are explicitly talking about the rise of organisational irony as a driving force for current trends in management thinking, its tendrils are everywhere. For example, current trends in popular management thought address authenticity, disruption and employee engagement. All can be linked to the problems and solutions of the ironic organisational culture. 

1: Authentic Leadership: The idea of authentic leadership emerges from the loss of faith in organisational culture. Kierkegaard is the foundational thinker behind the idea of living authentically and the writer who fist suggested we need to use individual irony to combat cultural irony. Authenticity and irony are inextricably linked. Kierkegaard argues that you live authentically when you reject the external absurdities of your culture and turn your gaze inwards. To effectively do that, you employ Socratic questioning, with the goal of asking yourself ongoing and vexing questions so you can live an examined life. To keep that internal conversation alive, you need irony as to temper your current enthusiasms, to find the foolishness in them, whenever you feel you are getting too hot and bothered to properly reflect. Without irony, you begin to take yourself too seriously, think yourself too clever and the chance of authentic existence is lost from your grasp.

2: Disruption: Concepts such as disruption and transformation are opened up when people begin to look seriously at the ironies of our current working condition. The absurdity of the traditional way of doing things is broken down and attacked with the This is the space in which we can experiment and play with new ways of being and doing at work and see where they take us.  We are not sure where we will end up, but if we continue to keep our ironic eye sharp when absurdity threatens to overwhelm us, the journey will be one worth travelling. 

3: Engagement: If you are into engagement, look away, as I'm going to be mean. In its current form, engagement is little more than culture wrapped up in different phrases, the ironically tricky repackaging of a form already known to be broken. Despite employing trendy words such as purpose and meaning, the promise of engagement is the same as the promise of culture; to align the companies' values and beliefs with those of the employees and to produce a loyal, committed and hard-working workforce as a result. That's why there is still such a strong focus on culture fit interviews. We risk moving from a tragedy into a farce. Don't get me wrong. I'd love for employee engagement levels to soar, but I'm not holding my breath given where the thinking currently seems to be headed. 

What is the solution? Well, as somebody trying to employ irony myself, it would be remiss of me to give one. I can but help people think, but not for a second suppose I have the answer for your organisation. But I can perhaps help you find somebody who might. 

To find the answers pertinent to the requirements specific to their organisations, leaders need to embrace Mintzberg's call to look for Managers, Not MBAs. Mintzberg argues we should pay close attention to the practical expertise in our industry and avoid assuming that, just because somebody has an MBA, their management skills are transferable across industries and departments. Because we focus so much on the skills of leadership and management, the practitioner skills that are vital for an industry's wellbeing have been relegated to side-thoughts. Practitioners are treated as experts in their field, sure, but unable to be much help in the serious business of managing and leading organisations. These skilled industry experts are often the guys that are most mocking and ridiculing our deadly serious management and cultural practices. They have something important to say. So let's follow Mintzberg's lead and start taking them seriously.

You might find that 90% of them offer nothing but limited irony; mocking the culture, offering naive solutions or back-stabbing colleagues in Machiavellian power plays. But one in ten will be the transformation thinker you need, offering reflective insights specific to your company's position in its industry that can help you build something new and competitively powerful, an organisation full of enthusiastic, efficient and hard-working employees, just like the culture movement promised. Knowing who that is will be priceless. 

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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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