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Three Myths Of Corporate Culture

Messy CordsOne of the reasons I’m attracted to anthropology is because I want to better understand something that most businesses fail to fully comprehend: organizational culture. There are countless posts out there by otherwise well-intended people trying to describe “corporate” culture. Trying to clarify how this concept of culture works. Trying to explain how we can create culture that gets results.

These posts are all very nice. And most of them are dead wrong, at least in terms of trying to convince us that culture is this narrowly-defined concept bereft of nuance and appreciation for complexity.

In a blogpost last week, Rand Fishkin wrote about what company culture is and is not. On whole, it’s one of the better and more eloquent attempts by a business leader…but it still simplifies culture down to what are very limiting ideas. Yes, culture can encompass shared beliefs and values. Yes, it can include how people act and behave together. But too many organizations use culture to control their people and institute a false sense of order. When this happens, they are perverting culture to be just another management tool.

Business leaders do this based on what I have found to be three interrelated myths of organizational culture:

Myth #1. Culture can be built, top-down.
Yes, it’s important for leadership to clearly articulate goals, values, and mission. But these elements merely provide direction and structure, the expectations of management. They are not the culture themselves. The problem is that management has come to see culture as one more way to institute controls over employees. If you read, “This is the [insert company name] way” when discussing culture, then you’re reading a top-down, executive mandate for what management wants the culture to be…but likely not what actually is. And just because the CEO says, “This is our culture” doesn’t make it true. It’s way bigger than that.

Myth #2. There is just one culture.
No matter how many people call an organization their professional home, there is not just one culture in play. Actually, there are multiple cultures and subcultures that often get overlooked. Even in a small start-up, think about the differences between accounting and sales teams. Yes, they may adhere to the same shared norms and values of the company, but how they work and interact are very different.

This isn’t even including the cultures we bring with us from our own outside lives. Think of the large, multi-national companies with work teams spanning the globe. We don’t shelve our personal lives when we enter the front door of the office, why then would we expect folks to shelve their respective cultures?

Again, by emphasizing one monolithic culture, management can feel like it’s exerting control over the organization. This also ignores the next myth, which is…

Myth #3. Culture is tame and structured.
This is the most pernicious lie that business leaders tell each other. Instead, here’s something closer to the truth: Culture is messy. It’s constantly evolving. It can be fragile and bewildering. This is what happens when people come together. We’re not programmable robots. We’re extraordinarily complex creatures with emotions, dreams, fears, and ambitions.

Corporate culture isn’t a highly conformed and stable melting pot. Instead, think of it more as a dynamic mixed bag of goodies of all shapes, sizes, and flavors.

It pains me to see culture get thrown around like so many other management buzzwords. This is when it gets stripped of its meaning, its vitality, and its power to convey something that is truly beautiful in its complexity.

Photo credit: otkuda via Flickr

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The Myth of Fit

Bob Sutton is one of my heroes. This excerpt gives some indication why:

Does your interview decision-making process end something like this?

I like this candidate. She fits our organization. She’s like us.

If so, it’s time to take a good look at the organization you’re building. In this day and age, do you truly believe the best way to succeed is going to be hiring like-minded people with like-minded outlooks and like-minded skillsets? If so, tell me how the view at the bottom looks. Because here’s the brutal truth: it’s not the like-minded individuals that grow and transform business in this maelstrom. It’s the counter-thinkers, the revolutionaries, the courageous souls who throw all the usual bullshit out the window in order to make room for ideas that transform.

Bob Sutton – Weird Ideas That Work: How to Build a Creative Company (p 11)

How many organizations use their “corporate culture” like a cudgel, bludgeoning and cramming every employee into a narrowly defined sense of what fits the executives’ idea of success? Its always couched in a way that makes it seem like its the best course of health for the business…but is it? For every Zappos that might get it right, there are countless other organizations that flail about with yet another way to control their employees.

Is the notion of corporate culture that’s paraded about today beneficial? Or does it lead to a form of necrosis that threatens the future welfare of the enterprise? Unlike organic cultures, corporate cultures rarely evolve. Instead, they become entrenched, just one more thing that gets added to the mentality of this is the way things have always been done.

What if there’s a different way of understanding culture? Of creating a better workplace that is not only successfully groomed for the future, but humanizes the organization?

As you get ready to enter 2010, take a good, hard look at whether your “corporate” culture is growing and transforming your business. Or if it’s creating Stepford-like employees who think and act alike, now is the time to make changes to your people practices.

It’s okay to embrace values to define your organization, but not at the expense of insisting each and every employee conforms to a top-down, highly limited idea of corporate culture. Stop seeking out and creating clones. Let your employees bring their whole selves to work even if parts of those selves conflict with your notion of “fit.”

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Anthropology In Business And Industry: A Synopsis

As I’ve talked with folks about my academic training and work in the field of business anthropology, one common response I get is: “Wow! That’s cool! So, what in the world is business anthropology?” One of my assignments this week was to read a chapter written by Marietta Baba from a book called Applied Anthropology: Domains of Application and write a synopsis. I immediately saw it as an opportunity to post information on the field based on the writings of someone I greatly respect.

I know it’s lengthy but hopefully it gives a sense of the history behind the field and how we anthropologists can be exceptionally useful within business. Enjoy…and feel free to leave any of your own questions or ideas in the comments.

Anthropology in Business and Industry: A Synopsis
2005 Baba, Marietta L. Anthropological Practice in Business and Industry. In Applied Anthropology: Domains of Application, ed. Satish Kedia and John Van Willigen. Westport: Praeger.

Summary
In this chapter, Marietta Baba provides a brief, yet comprehensive history of business anthropology in the twentieth century and compelling insights into how anthropology can benefit the objectives of private sector organizations.

The Historical Development of the Field
Business anthropology may seem like a recent offshoot of applied anthropology, but its roots lie further back in the twentieth century. Baba links the origins of the field to a set of experiments that took place within Western Electric Company (now part of Lucent Technologies) and its Hawthorne Works. Starting in the early 1920s, the executives of Western Electric tried to determine how to improve working conditions and set up experiments to test their hypothesis that manipulating just one variable (such as factory illumination, incentive pay or number of rest breaks) would generate sufficient conclusions. Unfortunately for the company’s management, the test results were almost always highly contradictory.

Elton Mayo, a Harvard psychologist, was asked to help interpret the results. What he and his colleagues observed was a much more complex social system at work where changing just one variable affected several other variables. Mayo knew about anthropology and its potential usefulness in understanding these social systems through his friendships with Bronislaw Malinowski and A. R. Radcliffe-Brown. Mayo was introduced to W. Lloyd Warner, one of Radcliffe-Brown’s students, who consulted with Hawthorne researchers to develop the next phase of the experiment – the Bank Wiring Observation Room (BWOR) in 1931. Baba argues it was this event which gave birth to what we now call business or industrial anthropology (223).

In a uniquely anthropological approach, the BWOR used ethnography to observe what workers actually did rather than listen to what they said they did via interviews. It became the “first systematic observational investigation of a work group’s social system, or, as we would call it today, the work group’s organizational culture” (223). The experiment also revealed a complex, and up to that time poorly analyzed, relationship between management objectives and the work group’s own productivity. The Hawthorne conclusions provided the first empirical evidence of “informal organization, defined as the actual patterns of social interaction and relationships among the members of an organization that arise spontaneously and are not determined by management” (224).

Out of the Hawthorne study, business anthropology in the 1940s was dominated by the human relations school of thought which posited that any conflict between management and employee was due to a disruption of a natural equilibrium. Therefore, the aim of this school was to balance the equilibrium between manager and worker and create beneficial relationships that ensured optimal performance. This asymmetrical power relationship would ultimately be called into question by anthropologists and it lost much of its influence as a result.

However, in spite of its early successes, the field of business anthropology faded from the anthropological landscape in the 1950s and would not return to prominence until the 1980s. Baba lists four primary reasons for this decline:

  • Failure of first generation of industrial anthropologists to produce a second generation.
  • A theoretical shift from human relations school and rise in contingency theory, which based findings on primarily quantitative research and statistical analysis
  • Changes in academia where more anthropologists were able to find tenured work due to increased college admissions from baby boomers.
  • Political and ethical issues raised by anthropologists who viewed working within corporations as unethical. This had a devastating impact as the American Anthropological Association instituted principles of professional responsibility in 1971 that prohibited any research that could not be freely disseminated to the public. Baba notes that since industrial research can often be proprietary, “this code of ethics virtually banned anthropological practice in industry for the next two decades” (230).

By the early 1980s, the economies of other areas of the world began to compete with the dominance of the United States. Industries in Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore increased their own power which meant not only new competition but new markets for U.S. goods, as well. U.S.-based companies knew very little about their new international customers but recognized the importance of what we have come to understand as globalization. Two important developments would help resuscitate the field of business anthropology at this time: industry providing a demand for tools to better understand new cultures and their markets; and an overproduction of PhDs relative to few academic positions forcing changes in the professional code so anthropologists could accept jobs within industry.

Business anthropology also received a lift in importance as the concepts of “corporate culture” and “organizational culture” resurfaced in the business lexicon. As American industrial superiority began to decline in the face of challenges from foreign companies, executives in the U.S. sought viable reasons and solutions. Two best sellers published in 1982 from Deal and Kennedy (Corporate Cultures) and Peters and Waterman (In Search of Excellence) highlighted the role of culture and its connection to successful and unsuccessful businesses. However, by this time, studying organizational culture was no longer solely an anthropological activity. Business efficiency consultants, organizational development specialists and other social scientists were poised to offer insights into the issue of culture.

While each discipline has demonstrated its own particular strengths within business, it is important to point out the special capabilities that anthropology delivers to help organizations better understand their customers and their employees.

Anthropology’s Approach to Business Needs
Within business anthropology, there are two major subdomains that address business needs: the external consumer marketplace and the internal corporate work organization.

Consumers and the Marketplace
Baba comments that consumption, as the engine of a modern capitalist economy, is far more significant and complex than often recognized. There is a particular cultural significance underlying our purchases which rarely receive attention, yet “research has shown that such actions are integral to our individual definitions of self and reflect cultural patterns at both the societal and subgroup levels” (236). In other words, we typically buy goods and services that reflect our own identity. These purchases can be conscious decisions that promote a certain status or unconscious decision where it is other individuals who attribute meaning to our choices. There is a symbolic value at work here as our consumption acts as a type of interpersonal communication where the “coding and decoding of signals [is] dependent upon deeper meanings that have their roots within a particular cultural context” (236).

For marketers, anthropology provides unique insight and guidance into how a company can best position its goods and services to customers. As human behavior is not predetermined and the creation of meaning can be uniquely peculiar, marketers face a near-constant dilemma. Their challenge is to figure out what meaning the buyer will create from the product since it is the consumer who derives meaning from a thing, not the marketer. An anthropologist who is trained in cultural theories and ethnographic methods can develop the research necessary to gain a deeper understanding of patterns that impact product concepts, functions and design. They are also positioned to uncover the subtle cultural meanings that consumers may attach to these products, for example, by comparing and contrasting what a buyer says and what they actually do.

Corporate Cultures and Organizational Change
The anthropological study of corporate culture is more in line with fieldwork traditionally conducted by practitioners. It is also a direct descendant of the Hawthorne studies from the 1930s which proved that employees within organizations are rarely bound to the formal, rational objectives designed by management. Again, accepting that human behavior is not predetermined, anthropologists study how people who form working groups develop their own shared systems of meaning that persist over time. These shared, open systems also evolve and shift spontaneously in response to perceived challenges from both inside and outside the group’s scope of operations. Further, anthropologists possess the conceptual tools and methodologies to understand the relationships between the various layers of culture that exist within and outside the organization.

Organizational cultures can also come into conflict, such as the culture promoted by management (referred to as a rational system by Baba) versus the culture that organically emerges throughout the workforce (or natural system). To assist an organization, anthropologists can serve as a type of “knowledge broker” by recommending ways to allow the natural systems to adapt to changing situations without suffering harm. Anthropology can also negotiate agreements between rational and natural systems that allow management to design objectives while promoting conditions necessary for employees to co-create healthy work communities that align with those objectives.

Benefits of Anthropology to Business
There are three primary knowledge domains that anthropology brings to business: general knowledge of culture and culture theory; competency in the practice of ethnography; and specialized knowledge of particular cultures and languages.

General Knowledge about Culture
Since culture is a somewhat amorphous term, Baba offers a definition that is particularly salient for business: “The distinctive, shared patterns of behavior, thought, and feeling that emerge from a group’s historical experience in a particular environment and that are taught to new members as the correct way to live” (251). Out of this definition, an anthropologist is relevant to a business’s needs by answering questions related to culture’s impact on its success. Anthropology’s application is one where a business learns “what decisions it should make and what decisions it should take in light of its interests and goals, one the one hand, and cultural realities on the the other” (252).

Baba proceeds to present some aspects of the value proposition that anthropology brings to any business (and I would add that these work for not only private enterprise, but nonprofit and government organizations, as well).

Anthropology:

  • Offers a holistic approach integrating a wide range of social and behavioral phenomena in describing and explaining culture.
  • Recognizes that history is an important factor in understanding the origins of cultural patterns and what shapes them over time.
  • Values multiple insider (or emic) perspectives as a way to understand the varied layers within a culture.
  • Offers cross-cultural comparisons that generate insights into how different groups relate to each other.

Competency in Ethnographic Practice

Ethnography is a term gaining prominence in business circles but with this increase in awareness comes a danger in it being poorly executed. Anthropologists are trained in ethnographic practice and Baba notes some best practices described by others (254):

  • Requires that anthropologists conduct significant fieldwork. The degree of fieldwork needed or possible within a business organization is usually dependent on time and fears of distraction and disclosure of confidential information.
  • Uses multiple methods and techniques. These include interviewing; direct observation and videotape recording of behavior, events and situations; census and surveys; focus groups; and network analysis.
  • Conveys a sense of being there. Ethnography captures “detailed and nuanced portrayals” of a field site.
  • Searches for and provides details and conclusions that are unexpected or counterintuitive. Business decision-makers need help discovering issues that may be hidden or unknown. Ethnography can be exceedingly helpful in making sense of contradictory data.
  • Offers a model or theory. Ethnography goes beyond just surface-level description and aims to provide explanations as to why something is the way it is.
  • Contextualizes its findings. Again, ethnography is holistic in its objective to relate human thoughts and behaviors to multiple contexts of history, geography, environment, society, politics and economics.
  • Emphasizes both what people say and what they do and the disconnect between them. Some of the most valuable insights anthropologists gain through their ethnographic work is locating discrepancies between verbal behavior and actual practices.
  • Looks closely at how language is used. Ethnography captures the unique emic terms, phrases and expression cultural insiders use to describe their points-of-view. This language is often a condensed form of cultural meaning.
  • Protects the people being studied. Anthropologists are professionally committed to the principle of “first, do no harm” in whatever field site they work. This commitment ensures informed consent, respect for confidentiality and agreement to not engage in projects that endanger or degrade a people’s livelihood. Baba notes, “Our particular sense of ethics in a business project may be one of the most important features characterizing anthropology in the private sector” (257).
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The Subtle Art Of “Endiscouragement”

This idea and plan for Endiscouragement is not mine, but I wish it was. It comes from David Donathan at University Business (via LibraryBytes). David’s article is called Stifling Initiative and it proposes ten never-fail ways to kill innovation without actually saying “no.” With tongue firmly planted in cheek, he describes the reason why this is a practiced skill for managers:

Unfortunately, there are always those who just don’t get it. You know-those who think organizations need to adapt to remain competitive, that change is good and results in greater efficiencies, that failure to adapt to “modernalities” is evil and counterproductive. Since they usually mean well and truly believe they are trying to improve our situation, we don’t want to cull them from the herd (besides, who wants the hassle of trying to break in the newbie?). It usually suffices to discourage these people to the point that they fall in line and stop agitating. How do we get them to stop? How do we encourage the status quo without driving them to leave? I call this unique program “Endiscouragement: The Fine Art of Encouraging No Change Without Being Perceived as a Naysayer.” It has ten simple rules, which, if judiciously applied, will gradually lead the agents of change to conform to the culture of no that we are so carefully trying to preserve.

My personal favorite is #6: “Have you talked to … about it?”

While similar to rules 2 and 3, this rule is more nefarious in that you have appointed the agent of change the instrument of her own endiscouragement. The agent of change will wander from one overworked, disinterested employee to another as each key person refers her to someone else who needs to be “in the loop before I can help you.” Eventually the agent of change will be locked into a self-instigated merry-go-round of eternal meetings. Best of all, she will be so busy trying to deal with all the meetings for her proposal that you will be able to call her to task for not being attentive to her job.

The sad thing is that most of these rules are practiced in organizations not out of maliciousness or Machiavellian cunning, but out of a simple (and usually unconscious) belief that this is how the corporate world operates. Which leads me to a couple of related questions:

What does your organization do to encourage dynamic innovation at all levels? What does your organization do to stifle innovation? If you want to truly engage your employees, your answers will lead you to some interesting conclusions.

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Latest Research: Using A Symbolic Approach To Connect Organizational and Corporate Cultures

As I progress into my Business Anthropology grad work, you’ll start seeing most of the discoveries, insights, and developed applications here either in the form of blogposts or downloadable resources. Look for a new Portfolio page soon.

Over the summer, I did some introductory research on culture in business. What might come as a bit of a shock to most managers within organizations is that the concept of “culture” that’s been thrown around for the last 30 years isn’t really culture in the purest (or at least anthropological) sense. Below is the introduction to my paper; you can download the full article here [pdf].

Culture in Business: Using a Symbolic Approach to Connect Organizational and Corporate Cultures

Introduction
In trying to understand the modern business organization, few concepts have been applied (and misapplied) by management and organizational theorists as frequently as culture. The genesis of this is likely the publishing of Deal and Kennedy’s Corporate Cultures and Peters and Waterman’s In Search of Excellence, both best-sellers in the early 1980s (Hamada 1998:1; Gamst 1989:15; Jordan 1989:2). Both non-anthropological works had a considerable impact on business thinking and in many ways challenged the idea of what culture is. Since then, the idea that culture exists in organizations has grown in acceptance to the point where most business leaders now take it for granted. And herein lies a significant problem for organizations: over the past thirty years the richness and salience of the culture concept has been diluted and devalued by the prevailing conventional wisdom. It is considered yet another faddish management tool rather than a valuable social process that reveals the holistic nature of human group behavior.

Today, when management talks about culture within their organizations, they often focus on tacit qualities they want to encourage among their employees or they use culture as a branding tool for attracting new employees and retaining current ones. While I don’t want to completely disparage the intent behind these efforts, I do argue that these simplistic and directive efforts ignore the complex symbolic and individualistic meanings that exist within an organization. It’s these symbols that help define the structure of the culture and ultimately guide the behavior of the organization’s employees.

In this paper I explore how culture has come to be defined and applied in the business organization and how this differs from the more traditional concepts of culture as developed by anthropologists. This contrast will be important as I examine organizational culture as viewed from a symbolic analysis. This paper will show how the theories of symbolic anthropology can provide a useful understanding of culture that reveals how organizational actors formulate meaning and reality in their collective work.

Download the full article [pdf]

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