The Future of Culture, Part One

culture leadership organisation post-covid Apr 06, 2021
The Future of Culture, Part One

Written by Richard Claydon | image: @markusspiske


With work potentially radically changing during the COVID-19 pandemic, accompanied by genuine worries that organisational performance will be negatively impacted by the loss of behavioural coherence, senior executives are turning back to culture as a lever to keep things glued together, maintain purpose and meaning, and provide support for those struggling with their wellbeing.

Is it the right lever?

That depends.


How to Think about Culture in the post-COVID world

Culture is not something your organisation has. It's something your organisation is.

What does that mean? Settle down comfortably and I'll do my best to explain.

Organisational culture became a thing in the 1980s. It was dreamed up as an American response to Japanese competitiveness. In very simple terms, Japanese workers worked longer hours and were more loyal to their companies than American workers. They seemed to live, breathe and sleep work in a way that the American worker did not.

The reason, it seemed, was because Japanese companies had strong cultures and American companies didn't. The Japanese workers understood and shared their company's values, beliefs and norms. That wasn't the case with the American worker.

For the American worker, work in the 1970s was purely technical. He didn't have to live it or love it. He just had to do it well and take home his check. That was the psychological contract. A fair day's pay for a fair day's work. While the Japanese worker's work infused all parts of his life, the American worker left his work at work when he went home.

To become competitive, American companies determined to import the Japanese strong cultural form (with a slight American twist). It has became so popular that today, 35+ years on, it is the core theory of organisational behaviour.


Is culture something your organisation has?

American culture theorists plugged culture into mainstream management thinking. It is something an organisation has that management plans and designs. A top-down structure that guarantees behaviours aligned with organisational goals.

“Without exception, the dominance and coherence of culture proved to be an essential quality of the excellent companies”
— Tom Peters, In Search of Excellence, p75

There are two schools of thought.

  1. That there is a universally good culture that can be implemented across any organisational type, no matter its shape, size, industry, geographical setting, employee demographic etc. This thinking informs Peters and Waterman's In Search of Excellence and its 8-point structural model for culture, which underpinned much of McKinsey's consulting at the time.

  2. That there are four types of culture to pick between. Each best fits a different type of organisation. In Deal and Kennedy's Corporate Cultures the four are: work hard / play hard culture, tough-guy macho culture, bet-your-company culture, and process culture). Other theorists (e.g. Charles Handy) have produced similar models.

Once you have determined which school to follow, you have two design and delivery mechanisms.

1: The Human Resources Department

Firstly, they must ensure only the right type of person is hired. And, conversely, the wrong type of person is fired. Between those moments are opportunities to train people to better fit the culture.

Secondly, they produce documents of compliance: rules, regulations, procedures, processes, practices, etc, etc. All of which are arranged to promote and support the desired cultural form.

In recent years, we've seen this mechanism become the norm. The demand for compliance is everywhere. Psychometric tests abound. The recruitment industry is jumping to the tune of culture-fit, to the extent the hiring process is becoming dysfunctional.

2: Leaders and Senior Executives

They are charged to become role models for expected cultural behaviour. All their actions must reflect the desired cultural values, beliefs and norms. Employees seeing the leaders living the values believe the values are being treated seriously and copy their behaviours.

This method is perhaps best exemplified by the concepts of Systems Leadership and Management By Example.

It's less trendy than culture-fit because it requires higher levels of management responsibility and accountability (you can't blame bad hires for the toxic culture if it's your behaviours that are seen to be causing it). But it has the same fundamental belief of the culture being somehow managed.

I doubt there is anybody reading this that hasn't seen examples of these mechanisms in action.

It all sounds rather wonderful, doesn't it? Pick a scientifically designed culture that's been empirically proven to work by management researchers and consultants (Peters, Waterman, Deal and Kennedy researched over a hundred organisations - since augmented by thousands more case studies), implement it, and watch your company blossom before your eyes.

There's only one teeny-weeny problem. From an anthropological and sociological perspective (you know, the social sciences that actually research culture and society), the idea of a designed culture is absurd.


Is culture something your organisation is?

If culture can't be planned, then it must develop organically. It will be a dynamic, fluid and often contested. An organisational culture that is will be informed by many perspectives and interpretations.

Managers will see it through a perspective of strategic control, targeted performance and deliverable goals. Expert employees will see it through a perspective of technical challenges, creative solutions and focused activities. Developing employees will see it through a perspective of future opportunities, imposed limitations and opportunities to impress. New employees will see it through whatever perspectives they bring from their previous working existence.

That's not all. Each employee will bring with them a bunch of extra-organisational identities. Ethnic identities. Gender identities. Political identities. Family-driven identities. And many others. All of which impact and get impacted by the organisational culture.

But that's still not all. Organisational departments form their own subcultures that have different interpretations of the core culture based on their specific needs. These interpretations all get negotiated with and against those of other departments when competing for resources and influence. These dynamics impact and get impacted by the core culture.

And still not all. People cross cultural boundaries in their organisational and extra-organisational relationships. One moment they may be aligned with managerial goals and targets. The next discussing family v work commitments with other young mothers. A moment after debating which proposed technical solution might be the most innovative v most risky. And a moment after still pushing for openings for others with the same ethnicity. The rounding it off by alleviating some cross-departmental tension by translating different perspectives across domains.

Had enough? I'm still not quite there yet. There are other external interpretations. The media, customers, suppliers, competitors, local communities and others all impact how the culture is interpreted.

Absolutely every perspective, interpretation and identity impacts and gets impacted by the organisational culture. The culture is ever-changing, dynamic and fluid reflected in every organisational artefact and everything anybody involved with it says and does.

What role does this leave for managers and leaders who can no longer trust in their planning and designing? Well, at the most extreme, cultural evolutions left purely to their own devices are anarchic. This patently can't be allowed to take place in an organisational sense. There must be a deliberate attempt to cultivate development. Pruning off dead branches. Freeing blooming ideas from choking binds. Nourishing healthy growth.

“The gardening metaphor is deliberate - the concept of human culture originates with the cultivating gardener.”

To keep the culture healthy and forward-looking, leaders and managers must become strategic scanners, peering at the horizon to discover new paths to travel - and never being satisfied that the journey has ended. Their relationship with employees needs to reflect this realisation - that the novel ideas that prevent decline and decay and maintain a healthy maturity can come from anywhere, even (or perhaps usually) from the most cynical, ironic and troublesome of employees.


These Crazy, Complex Times Of Ours

We are now living in a world in which the idea that an organisation has a culture has been dominant for 30 years. Anybody who's studied an MBA in the last three decades will have been heavily influenced by the strong has culture perspective. It twines around organisational behaviour, leadership, strategy and change modules.

The first generation of these students is now running many big organisations. They'll be in their early fifties to late sixties. The people working for them will also have been heavily influenced by these ideas. Senior and middle-level managers following the same playbook.

Their expectations of behaviour are simple. Be loyal, fully commit and work hard. Align your behaviours to those demanded by the culture. Fit in. If you don't, then woe betide you. We'll either put you on a compliance-focused training course. Or fire your ass.

This (mis)understanding of culture has some unfortunate consequences. Especially in the idea that human performance is inherently tied to personality. You know the score. If your psychometric test suggests you fit the culture, you're in. If not, you're out or marginalised in some sideways angled department with no hope of promotion.

This conceptual understanding of humanity gets extended beyond organisational walls. You either culturally fit because of the 'right' attitude or personality or you don't. If you don't, well, that's tough. We can't train your inherent 'badness' out of you. If we can, we'll get rid of you. If we can't, then do our best to forget you. Either way, you are permanently marginalised.

The expectation of total loyalty to a belief system is also highly problematic. With so many people socialised into needing to fully believe in a system in a society made up of multiple contradictory and competing ideas and boundaries produces unresolvable tensions. Those who don't buy-in to 'your' system are seen as lacking, anywhere between a fool and a traitor.

The notion that well-intentioned power generates conflict-free, highly-aligned culture is also wrong-headed. It risks all critique and creativity being deemed illegitimate, negative and worthy of punishment. It freezes cultures into fearful, anxious things, shorn of the dynamism and vitality that used to flow through them.

People have begun to recognise this. We see the rise of cultures of innovation and creativity that celebrate diversity. But they are just as absurd as any other designed culture.

Innovation and creativity are supposedly kickstarted by funky and playful environments. We all know of the cool techie company around the corner with their brightly coloured walls, slides, ball pits, foosball tables and craft beer on tap. But these are decadent and infantilised attempts to force creative thinking into being, completely alien to the fuzzy, messy, contradictory and often conflict-laden processes of creation and innovation.

They might look fun, but they are managerialised fun, which is anything but. They ironically make symbols of rebelliousness and anti-capitalist cool a type of compliance, thereby eliminating the quest for creativity in the process.

Diversity is even more ironic. You can't manage diversity through centralised policies and training courses. If we all respond the same compliance-driven way to diverse thoughts, ideas and people, it kind of defeats the purpose. It's delivered the very anti-PC vehemence it was hoping to destroy.

Far better to allow everything diverse to mingle and mediate in a cultural neutral environment. And just see what happens.


Last Few Words

It doesn't take too much to put two and two together here and make five. The promise of a utopia of happy, loyal employees living productive lives in culturally meaningful organisations hasn't materialised. And the extension of these cultural ideas into the social and political institutions is creating great social divides. We are getting split into the 'good' and the 'bad'. Those who seen as able to contribute. And those who aren't and never will be.

It's time we grew up and stopped thinking of culture as something we can design, impose and control. Stopped believing that we can capture the degree to which people innately fit or don't fit. Stopped regarding criticisms, complaints and opposing points of view as illegitimate, resistant negativity and started seeing them as vital elements of vibrant and necessary cultural dynamism.

If we can, our working and non-working lives might just start getting better.