Aug 012011

button with the word changeThere has been a lot of commentary in the wake of ongoing economic woes recently about increasing marketplace regulation and calls for tighter controls on pay, ownership and reporting.

However, the debate is now starting to broaden out further into questions about what it is that we can reasonably expect our core economic and social organizations to deliver.

And such questions about assumptions, expectations and obligations lead naturally onwards for a lot of individuals within organizations of all types and sizes to challenges as to just what is going on around them in their own lives.

Traditionally a lot of definitions surrounding corporate culture have tended to consider the structural elements, such as organizational hierarchies, group habits, the process and strategies, the vision statements and the business plans and the recitation of the organizations’ official line on all things.

Analysis is now beginning to become more sophisticated and is starting increasingly to move away from the process trappings as outlined above and is increasingly drilling into the human dimensions of culture. After all, if corporate culture lives anywhere – and, in the final analysis, corporate culture itself as a term is no more or no less a metaphor than any other analytical heuristic – it is best identified in the feelings of those people who both recreate it and are guided by it.

So let’s create a mini-guide on how corporate culture is experienced because once it is appreciated how it is best accessed, then it is only a small step forwards into considering how it might be best cultivated in more creative and productive ways.

Corporate culture is best seen through feelings and in relationships. Indeed, it can only be created within relationships because culture is itself a deeply social concept. Occupational Psychology’s focus on personality traits has tended to slant its work on corporate culture towards an excessive individualism.

This is in contrast to the other traditional approach as sketched above – structuralism – which has all too often failed to let people in at all in any meaningful way.

What is now perhaps needed more than ever is a middle course, an analytical framework which accepts the importance of power and tradition but which also accepts that corporate culture, ultimately, exists in emotional-rich relationships between people.

Our suggestion is to break these cultural locations down into a number of areas such as preconditioned macro-expectations, preconditioned local expectations, leadership relationships, values and purposes, boundaries and organizational stories.

By preconditioned macro-expectations we refer to our basic orientations towards work. Many anthropologists and historians have referred, in many different ways, to the creeping alienation down the ages of people from the objects and outputs of their labor, be that concerning the farmer now selling his crops or the office worker dealing in remote and abstracted financial instruments. It is about our core attitudes to work and workplaces. It is the difference between believing that work itself is our calling and that work is our oppressor. It is the difference between believing that the workplace can be a place of mutual creativity or that the workplace is a place of grinding oppression. Macro-expectations set the scene and are massively influential in framing corporate cultures.

Preconditioned local relationships take us straight to the other end of the interpersonal spectrum. Do people seek each other out naturally and chat and confide in each other, or do they stay wary and keep their distance? Do they share grievances, or hopes, or achievements?

Leadership relationships are about distance, connection, reasonableness and the exercise of power. The difference between naked power and respected authority is a giant gulf that all organizational leaders must cross if their organizations are to aspire to a superior corporate culture which aspires to marry better the achievement of higher corporate performance with greater personal fulfilment. Indeed, there is an increasingly strong flow of opinion and research which suggests that far from requiring a balancing act, corporate performance and individual fulfilment are in fact mutually supportive and enhancing.

Values and purposes live in human hearts; too often they are often just stuck on workplace walls as decorative platitudes or inserted mutely into the pages of unvisited corporate plans. There is an assumption that values and purposes are usually already strong within an organization’s people and that a little structure and discipline is all that is needed to set them free. This is flawed thinking. Modern organizations are both complex and artificial in the sense that their purposes are far removed from traditional motivators as laid in theories such as the hierarchy of needs. Good values need good planning – and they require ongoing work and searingly honest and frequent revisiting.

Boundaries are about our sense of belonging and connection. Do we feel part of a group that is greater than the sum of its parts? This sense of transcendence into boundaries greater than the strict materiality of the belonging is utterly core to capturing and expressing something of the specialness of the notion of culture if it is to have any real use as an independent concept. So where is the boundary? Does it barely push past our immediate close group and then only in a tentative sense-making solidarity kind of a way? Is it into broader departments, sections and even the whole organization? Is is a broader sense of mission, of core value-add, that extends out into society as a whole, or even across nations? Or is about clans, or protective professionalism, or other inward looking mentalities? Culture brings with it clear views on how we connect and how we connect very much shapes our individual worlds, for good and for bad.

Organizational stories are culture acted act on a daily basis. Academics and other commentators who like to make strong claims about the validity of their viewpoints often choose to talk in abstracted conclusions. But, by and large, people don’t talk amongst themselves in abstracted, rationalized conclusions, and that includes the claimsmakers when they are outside their ivory towers. People tend to make sense of their lives by relating stories. And the telling of a story invites another story in return. It is how we order our thinking and how we order our relationships with others. Listening to the kind of stories people within their organizations tells so much about the corporate culture therein. There are survivors’ stories, foundation stories, heroes stories and stories that tell of triumphs never to be repeated and others that tell of great triumphs yet to come.

Listen to them and, most importantly of all, listen to the ones that you yourself choose to tell.

About The Author:
The Cultureship Practice is a pracademic initiative involved in the development of superior corporate culture and which applies its unique corporate culture research outputs to enabling human resources strategies which better marry the higher achievement of corporate goals with greater human fulfillment.

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