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Why It’s Not Smart To Assume Universal Values

Think those values around ethical research you have are universal? Think again. The folks at Mind Hacks point to an interesting article from the Dana Foundation about how different cultures share different worldviews of ideas like knowledge, ownership and anonymity.

The scientific method itself also conflicts with indigenous Canadian peoples’ worldview. Most scientists consider knowledge to be objective, evidence-based, and individualistic. It resides within individuals, and scientific research aims to obtain this knowledge from groups of individuals and natural phenomena, to construct an objective view of the truth. By contrast, many indigenous peoples view knowledge as relational—it is received and constructed from one’s relationships with other people, including that which is passed down from ancestors, and with the relationship with the natural world.

What does this mean for market researchers and business anthropologists? It’s yet another cautionary message that simply assuming each population we study shares our values can yield very poor insights. Not every organizational culture is the same. Study companies for just a short time and you’ll notice that each one assigns different values and meanings to knowledge, collaboration, and leadership.

So rather than starting from a place of knowing how an organization works, thinks, and behaves, we have to take a few steps back to that place of unknowing. Otherwise, our research becomes more a study of ourselves instead of our actual subjects.

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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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