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Organisational culture: It doesn’t shape itself

Leadership and the new scienceMargaret Wheatley, in ‘Leadership and the new science’, writes about ‘fields’, as they apply to organisational culture.

In science, fields are the in-between forces that are only visible through their impact. Gravity, for example, cannot be seen or measured, yet we experience its manifestations throughout our lives.

Wheatley applies the same thinking to organisational culture; it affects us, it shapes our experiences and our behaviours, but we can’t easily put a finger on what it is, beyond being confident that it definitely exists.

Reading Wheatley’s framing of culture left me thinking; while we might not be able to see or touch gravity, we have found ways to shift it through technology, and we know it is different in different settings. By extending the metaphor, what does this mean for the ‘field’ of workplace culture?

Here is a starting point; what do you think?

You are sitting at your desk. Your colleague two desks away is being served an uncalled-for quantity of verbal abuse by their manager.

It’s uncomfortable. This discomfort is creating, undermining, or reinforcing your understanding of your workplace culture, depending on your experiences there before the incident.

The  next day the same thing happens again. Your perceptions this time are either reinforced, or further undermined.

The kicker? Your behaviour is now most likely being shaped by what you have experienced. You might be a little less open, a little more defensive, slightly less comfortable with the time you spend at the office…

And today you are also sitting beside a new colleague. This is the first time they have played witness to the bullying dynamic, but not only do they see the bully-bullied pair, but also anyone else in the office not standing up for the one being treated unfairly.

This shapes their perception of the situation, as it did yours, which in turn shapes how they engage with their new workplace.

Their perception may well be that much worse than yours, because they have not only witnessed the toxic act of workplace bullying, but also the failure of their new colleagues to say anything against what had happened.

Through each of these experiences, a field is emerging; it is a field of mistrust, guardedness, pragmatic calculation, formed on the basis of both the acts of the manager and corresponding thoughts and reactions of others, which have a strong tendency to reinforce one another, if not consciously challenged.

Protecting ourselves… at the organisation’s expense

While your (or my) response to the initial bullying makes perfect sense at the level of protecting oneself, it also plays to reinforce the field that is taking shape around us. When we ignore or avoid, we are in fact complimenting and reinforcing the negative dynamic through our complicity. In failing to constructively support our colleague, we complicity contribute to the further deterioration of the field that is our organisation’s culture.

But enough of the bad stuff!

So what would the alternative look like? What can we do to shift the field of ‘organisational culture’, to create a workplace where people are happy, enjoy their time together and create good things in the process?

In my experience, it starts with being conscious of ourselves. If we agree that both our perceptions and our actions play a role in shaping the culture around us, what could we do to move it in a positive direction?

The challenge, of course, at the individual level then, is how we can become more aware of our own influences on the field of organisational culture, to help shift it in a way that improves everyone’s (including our own) experience.

Projections and Perceptions

projection perception loopIn the example above, I described how the bullying manager was projecting certain behaviours into the organisational culture field, and how we, as onlookers in the office were both perceiving them, and then acting differently as a result of them. We’ll call this the ‘Projection-Perception Loop’; the system through which behaviour is enacted by one person, interpreted by the second person, and then (often) re-enacted by the second person, creating a cycle that can be either good or bad.

So what happens if we shift our input?

What if we were more aware of the ways we responded when people treated us or others like crap at the office? What if, instead of retreating, or attacking back, we simply started to engage differently?

In destructive situations, we often revert to the old ‘fight or flight’, ‘silence or violence’ dichotomy, but can we be conscious in those moments and find a less destructive ‘third way’? Can we focus on the positive relationships that are there at the office, the elements we enjoy more, rather than giving more attention to the parts of the organisational culture field that we don’t like? Can we improve trust amongst our colleagues by sharing more openly with them, making ourselves a bit vulnerable?

Accepting some responsibility… and thus some credit?

There’s nothing easy about this level of change; it usually involves re-evaluating some very deep gut responses to situations we don’t feel any responsibility for creating.

But if we acknowledge that we have played some small role in making the environment as toxic as we have experienced it can be, can we also take credit for acting differently and thus not perpetuating the cycle again?

Like the old parenting mantra reiterated through generations to the fighting young boys who both claim that the other ‘started it!’, ‘it’s not about who started it, but who finishes it.’

  • What steps can we take or have you taken to break a bad cycle that has helped grow a destructive organisational culture?
  • Have you experienced destructive cycles in any other relationships in your life that you’ve been able to shift the patterns around?
  • What are some of the defining traits when you have experienced a positive ‘field’ of organisational culture?

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Posted in accountability and leadership + management and learning and organisational psychology and trust.


5 Replies

  1. I think it would be useful to link this model with the dynamics of power and trust, which should be positives but so often aren’t.

    I wonder how often and to what extent the absence of analytical thinking and difficulty of seizing the moment mean either no intervention is made or the response is instinctive rather than positive. In a paper test, asking staff and managers what they would do as (a) staff and (b) manager – could produce good answers by all, which would not be matched by the reality. Maybe everyone needs to be better prepared in being able to think: what’s going on and how best to deal with it to get to a good outcome for both staff and manager.

  2. Ed Anderton Mar 27th 2012

    This reminds me of a guy who worked with us in my mediation days who described conflict as being ‘co-created’ by a whole community. Those involved in a particular ‘dispute’ (e.g. your bullying manager and colleague) were highlighting the conflict for everyone else – and the only possibility of a sustainable resolution involves everyone feeling safe enough to share responsibility.
    I’m also curious as to how the ‘fields’ we inhabit in home/social life influence our behaviour at work – one to chew over…

  3. Hey Paul. The old ‘theory and practice’ divide, rearing its ugly head again!
    This is where I think it becomes impossible to just think about these issues as a ‘organisational level’, because essentially, if you want to improve culture, everyone involved has to be doing some real soul-searching. ‘Why do I get so angry when X does Y? How else could I respond? What wouldn’t lead to negative escalation of tension?’
    There is no silver bullet, as far as I can tell on this front, but a need to be constantly looking at ourselves and checking in if we are living the values we would put on the staff survey.
    As for power and trust, these are definitely blocks, but as I’ve said when writing about trust before, sometimes we need to take a risk and put ourselves out there, make ourselves vulnerable, take a chance and do something positive, even if we know we might get something negative in return.
    And re: power, there are always mechanisms that can rebalance it, but without creating a ‘zero-sum-game’. You can reinforce the essence of a colleague’s criticism of a manager’s practice, without further attacking the manager; you can frame criticism as opportunity to do better, rather than simply something someone did wrong.
    …I realise it’s a slippery slope from that into some ‘just say it nicely and it’ll be ok’ bullshit, but if you actively shift your intent (rather than just your words) to being constructive, it can create remarkably different results.

  4. Hi Ed –
    I like the ‘fields’ approach, because it does seem to suggest a less rigid line between work and everything else; who we are when we walk into work, out of a fight w/ our partner/kid/parent/etc, is still part of what we are feeding into the field at the office.
    The other thing I’ve been reading that I think subtly fed its way into this post, was a book called ‘The Dance of Anger’ by Harriet Lerner, which looks a lot at the co-created impacts of relationships at most personal levels, for better and worse. Very worth reading, and have felt that the same principles fit in offices…
    Thanks for the thoughts 🙂

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