Many executives expect: ‘I set the course, you manage the project, they deliver the work.’ But reality feels more like: ‘I expect results, you promise me a deadline, they’re late again.’ How do different subcultures understand each other?
[ Listen to the audio version, read by David Hodes]
In our second of three parts on culture, I want to dig deeper into the dynamics that inform what we see and feel on the surface. As we discovered in the first article, every organisation has a unique culture, generated from how its people adapt to external drivers and build internal coherence. But given that every culture is unique, can we discern certain archetypes within cultures that provide insights to help build our adaptability to changing markets and bind us internally into a more coherent shared vision?
Ed Schein, on whom I draw heavily in this article, notes three major archetypes—the executive, the engineer, and the operator. The executive subculture focuses primarily on financial survival and growth—the equivalent of being in a perpetual war with competitors.
Strategy guru Michael Porter claimed organisations could only compete on two dimensions—cost and differentiation. As the executive, you get to choose which dimension, and then you’re in a constant war with competitors. It’s hard to trust anyone when you’re leading a ‘war’, so the higher you go in the executive ranks, the more you become the lone hero. You appear in total control, but you cannot get reliable data from below because your subordinates tell you what they think you want to hear. Thus, you increasingly find yourself backing your own judgment, which becomes more and more authoritarian if left unchecked. People increasingly become a necessary evil and not a source of intrinsic value. They appear as ‘resources’ acquired and managed as component widgets to serve the well-oiled machine. They are increasingly no longer whole people who are ends in themselves, but heartless heads and hands to do the boss’s bidding.
The engineering subculture refers to those who are required to translate the intention of their executive bosses into projects. The mental model is of a world of elegant machines and processes, working in perfect precision and harmony with minimal human intervention. People are the problem for those who occupy these positions and should be designed out of the system wherever possible. Or, to quote the famous behaviouralist, BF Skinner, ‘The real question is not whether machines think but whether men do’. Nature can and should be mastered with solutions based on science and available technology for the engineering subculture. Their work is to solve puzzles and overcome problems. They do work to create valuable products and services.
At the bottom of the hierarchy come the operators. This subculture knows that the output of any enterprise results from the action of people. Success, therefore, depends on the operator’s knowledge, skill, learning ability, and commitment. It’s the operators who know how to use the organisation’s core technologies based on their specific experience. They are not as enamoured as the engineers of the elegant machines they dream up. No process is so tightly engineered that human intervention becomes unnecessary, and it is the operators who can learn, innovate and deal with matters as they inevitably go sideways.
Operators are the linkage between the separate parts of the process. It is up to them to find ways to collaborate in teams, communicate effectively, and develop trust with their mates. Management’s role is to ensure they give them the proper resources, training and support necessary to get the job done.
While these three subculture archetypes may vary in their particulars in any given organisation, I suspect you’ll find enough truth in them to admit they exist within yours. Every subculture, however, can still be defined by the rubric of external adaptation and internal integration. So, let’s take a deeper dive into some of the dimensions of culture which would ordinarily pass by our conscious selves and be the invisible fabric of ‘how we do things around here’.
On truth, time and space
Let’s kick off with the question of how people within a culture might define truth. Sounds simple, but not so much. How much of what we regard as truth is simply dogma, based on tradition? Do we rely on the authority of experts and the wise to reveal the truth? What was it about the pandemic that had us surrender our civil liberties to unelected experts because we believed they had the wisdom of prophets? To what extent are we rational and empirical in determining what is true and what is false? Who sets the experiments, who runs the logic and who decides which direction forward? If it’s a marketing decision, is it only marketing who get to run the experiment? Who goes on the lookout for disconfirming data, if anyone? Do we all get to vote on the decision?
Another dimension of culture which we rarely bring to the front of mind is the nature of time and space. Time is a very different commodity to tradie operators clocking on and off from their work on a construction site than to a consultant preparing a report on the impact of environmental legislation on the business case for investment.
You see time very differently when you are in a planning phase of an initiative than when you are executing it. Depending on the circumstance, different people within the organisation have longer horizons of discretion to get their work done. How often do people operating under different time signatures become frustrated with each other? One person’s scurrying around ‘busyness’ is another’s need to run the beast as it’s been designed. What appears to be a leisurely and aristocratic indulgence to some is the carefully considered deliberation of the other. Just pause for a moment when you’re next amongst your colleagues and see if you can observe the metronome beating out the rhythm of their work.
“How often do people operating under different time signatures become frustrated with each other?”
So, as with time, what about space? Sociologists have an expression called the ‘ideal sphere’ around each of us, reserved only for those with whom we have an intimate relationship. It’s between 10 and 40 cm. If a stranger is that close to us, it makes us uncomfortable or anxious. Think about how you feel when you are packed into an elevator or onto a full and busy train. We overcome the physical distance by creating an enhanced psychological space. Moving in this close on the space of another at work can be considered intimidating or creepy.
When we engage in conversations, one on one, we usually have a good sense of personal distance. Somewhere between 45cm and 75cm is felt as being at the proper distance, whereas anything more is considered far. This distance permits a normal or soft tone of voice and is usually accompanied by intense eye contact. Interestingly, these distances are bound in national and ethnic cultures. One can unwittingly feel that a person closing in on the 45cm is ‘in your face’ because of your cultural norms, but they are not violating their own.
When we talk to several people at once, say at a dinner party or a seminar, it usually involves some raising of the voice and less personal focus on any given individual. Our eyes will scan the group, or we will focus on the floor or ceiling. Do your office spaces and meeting rooms feel appropriate for the kinds of meetings you want? If we’re going to meet informally and really get to know each other, the more the room has to be scaled down to allow that to happen. For people seated around a table, its size and shape must be appropriate to feel socially at ease in each other’s presence.
“Do your office spaces and meeting rooms feel appropriate for the kinds of meetings you want?”
A significant contributor to organisational culture is what people think about who they are in the corporate setting and what their role is. A person arriving from a small engineering consultancy into a large mining house could feel like a fish out of water, or alternately as a breath of fresh air. What does the culture allow this person to be? It’s what Schein calls cognitive clarity.
That same person might wonder how their own need for influence and control will be met. How does the organisation manage aggression and disagreeableness? Donald Trump famously set his Atlantic City casinos into fierce competition with each other. The culture in a Buddhist seminary could hardly be more removed from that extreme example.
‘How will the group’s goals allow me to meet my needs and goals?’ is a question we all ask of our workplace, consciously or not. Of course, everyone turns up to work with an intention to get something done. But, in Steve Jobs’s world, there was the well-documented use of his ‘reality distortion field’ superpower. What example does that set for Apple employees regarding what is permissible in the management of intention and will? And what of those organisations who perpetuate the idea that ‘it’s above your pay grade…’.
‘Am I accepted, and can I let down my guard?’ is another question we ask, even if not explicitly voiced. Some organisations are very formal, and a relational distance is maintained to attempt to avoid the messy nature of human affections. What does it mean, though, in an organisational setting to be managing love, that most basic of human emotions? Is your culture a cauteriser of love, or is it expressive and vulnerable? How is intimacy managed?
The more we dig into an organisation’s culture, the more complex it becomes. It is not static but revolves around its historical anchors, reaching back to its founders’ thoughts, behaviours, and actions. In the third and final article on culture, we’ll look into how leaders within an organisation can equip themselves to amplify those aspects of the culture they’d like to see more of and dial down what is harmful.
This is Part 2 of our series on Culture.
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[Background image: A metronome, Rachel Loughman on Unsplash]
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