Archive for April, 2016

The implications of this definition (see PART I), the way we think about ‘Culture’, are profound.  The implications are profound because what drives, what motivates and what sustains daily behavior are the learned, shared deep tacit assumptions that determine each person’s and each group’s view of reality – reality as it is and reality as it should be.  Members of a culture or sub-culture count on this view of reality – it helps make things predictable, stable, and meaningful.

This understanding also helps folks begin to realize that because the culture and sub-cultures are so stable and deeply rooted that a shift, change or transformation can be (think: almost always are) incredibly challenging.  The challenge exists because the culture and the sub-cultures are rooted in ‘years of success.’  Their ways of thinking, feeling and perceiving the world significantly contributed to these ‘years of success.’  The challenge also exists because the important parts of the culture and sub-cultures are invisible (what folks ‘live’ each day, what they ‘espouse’ and what they ‘measure’ are indicators of the culture and sub-cultures – they are not the culture or sub-culture).

Members of the culture and members of a sub-culture cannot easily tell us what their culture or sub-culture is, any more than hawks, if they could talk, could tell us how ‘air’ helps support them.  This point is crucial for it helps us understand why cultures and sub-cultures cannot be ‘measured’ or ‘quantified’ via the use of surveys or other measurement tools.  These ask about behavior and espoused values (for example); they cannot uncover, much less assess, the deep tacit assumptions that are the major tap roots that nurture and sustain the culture and sub-cultures.

Cultures and sub-cultures are ‘helpful’ or not, are functional, or not, and are ‘healthy’ or not because of their ‘purpose for existing’ and because they ‘fit in to’ the operating environment that ‘holds them.’  In addition, the current ‘waves’ washing over a culture or sub-culture at any given moment (think: high performing teams, total quality management, learning organizations, empowering employees) are all doomed to failure unless they demonstrate how the deep tacit assumptions on which these initiatives themselves are based are adaptive to the culture AND sub-cultures.

Finally, for this topic anyway, it is important to understand that another implication of this definition is that there is a pattern of deep tacit assumptions that are interconnected and interdependent.  Identifying and naming one or two deep tacit assumptions and then concluding that you have an understanding of the culture or sub-culture is, at minimum misleading and at maximum delusional and harmful.  These one or two ‘namings’ make it easy to miss other deep tacit assumptions that are crucial to understanding the culture and sub-cultures during times of challenge and change.

Cultures and sub-cultures are, by their nature, multidimensional and these many dimensions become even more crucial when folks attempt to assess the strengths, weaknesses, and growing-edges of a culture and sub-culture.  For example, when a dimension that at one time was functional and now has become dysfunctional needs to be changed or transformed folks need to discern how the functional dimensions can support, not hinder, the change or transformation.  The goal is not to change the culture or sub-culture; the goal is to use the strengths of the culture and sub-culture to support a dimensional change or transformation.


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I concluded PART II with a promise that I would provide an example of ‘Culture.’  Here it is:

The new president of a second-generation successful, professional organization asked me to spend some time with his leadership team.  There were 12 members on this team.  10 of them had been with the organization more than 15 years, one had been with them for 5 years and the new president had been with them less than a year.

The president wanted me to help the team improve its communication, interpersonal relationships rooted in trust and decision making.  This team met for two hours once a week.  I sat in their weekly meeting three weeks in a row.  I observed a number of things, here are three of my observations: (1) there were high levels of interrupting, frequent verbal confrontation, and almost constant debate; (2) emotions ran high when it came to ‘advocating’ for one’s proposed course of action; (3) members were frequently frustrated for they did not believe ‘their point of view’ was being ‘honored.’

The president was frustrated because he had the reputation of being able to ‘bring folks together for civil conversations’ and in his view, these were, first, not conversations and second, they were far from being civil.  The team was also, by their admission, frustrated – by the 5 year member and by the president (the president, by the by, was the son of the founder).

Over the next six weeks we emerged some suggestions about ‘better listening,’ ‘less interrupting,’ and ‘more orderly proceeding.’  We also agreed that with 12 folks in the room, all needing to be heard, that a once a week, two hour session did not provide them enough time; they added an hour to their weekly meeting.

There was some initial success and some longer lasting success but overall the basic patterns did not change.  The team was committed and yet the patterns continued to re-emerge. What we were up against were the deep tacit assumptions that had been integrated during the organization’s first generation.  I began to help the 10 members of the ‘old guard’ bring to a conscious level some of these deep tacit assumptions.

Here is one of the key assumptions they uncovered: one cannot determine whether something is ‘true’ until the idea/proposal is subjected to an intense debate – the idea/proposal that survives this intense process is the one that will be acted upon.   Given this, being civil and polite was unimportant.  For the 10 ‘old guard’ members this was the most effective way of separating the wheat from the chaff.

Given this and other assumptions we worked together to emerge ways of being together that would address their highest priority need – in this case, to discern the ‘true’ or the ‘truth.’  The president was quite helpful and in the process his ‘credibility’ with the ‘old guard’ improved dramatically.  For the team, it was important to uncover and understand the deep tacit assumptions, to confirm or disconfirm them.  Their ‘understanding’ also provided them the ‘freedom’ to shift, change or transform them.


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I offered us, in PART I, my definition of Organizational Culture.  Let us briefly explore the ‘bones’ of the definition and see if we can add some muscle and meat to them.  Here is the definition:

Culture is the shared, deep tacit assumptions that an organized group has learned, embraced, and integrated as the group successfully engaged, responded to and coped with important external challenges while at the same time the group successfully engaged, responded to and coped with complex internal relationships. 

Let us begin with share, deep tacit assumptions.

Assumption = something taken for granted.  We all hold them; generally they are beneficial for they save us a great deal of time.  At other times they are, at the extreme, debilitating [‘assume’ contains ‘ass-u-me’ for a reason].  Consider that behaviors, repeated successfully, over a significant period of time, become integrated and we end up with ‘this is how we do things around here’ [remember, there has never been an organizational culture integrated that was rooted in failure].

Tacit = understood without being openly expressed.  Once a repeated, successful behavior has been integrated and become an assumption folks no longer have to ‘explain it’ – folks ‘do not need ‘it’ to be openly expressed [of course, ‘new folks’ must find ways of learning all of the nuances of the culture and sub-cultures].

Deep = subconscious.  Over time, a ‘tacit assumption’ moves to be integrated into the subconscious.  Not only don’t folks think about the ‘assumption’ they behave motivated by the assumption AND they are not aware of the assumption nor the motivation.  The ‘deep tacit assumption’ become part of the organization’s ‘identity’ [to complicate matters even further, all ‘professions’ develop their own deep tacit assumptions and all sub-cultures develop them – any organized group rooted in ‘success’ over time will emerge and integrate deep tacit assumptions at the ‘personal,’ ‘relational’ – think: team, profession, department, division – and at the organizational level].

Organized Group.  The organized group, via experience rooted in reflection, will choose to repeat what they deem to be ‘successful’ ( ‘success’ means: completing certain tasks, achieving certain goals, reaching certain outcomes, living into and out of the stated ‘mission’ and moving toward the ‘vision’).  The organized group will seek to improve what they believe can become ‘successful’ and will seek to ‘let go of’ that which does not lead to success – the group, simply stated, ‘learns.’  Certain successful patterns that meet the ‘test of time’ are consciously ‘embraced’ and over time are ‘integrated’ and over more time become unconscious.

For a period of time what has been learned, embraced and integrated continues to function at a conscious and pre-conscious level.  Because we humans cannot consciously hang onto all of this we end up moving some of the assumptions from the conscious and pre-conscious levels to the subconscious level (as Jung discovered, a group has a ‘collective unconscious’ and this is where the ‘deep tacit assumptions’ reside).  As part of our collective subconscious they then become part of our ‘identity.’  Understanding this, helps us understand why sub-cultures and cultures resist certain change – they perceive the change (at the unconscious level) as a direct threat to their identity.

An organized group that is ‘successful’ in two areas develops the most powerful culture (NOTE: ‘culture’ here refers to the organization’s ‘culture’ and to the organization’s ‘sub-cultures).  These areas must be engaged simultaneously.  One area involves the ‘important external challenges’ (these are successfully embraced, responded to and coped with – over time).  The other, equally important area involves the complex internal relationships. These relationships are also successfully embraced, responded to and coped with – over time.

‘Hey, searcher-seeker, will you provide us with an example?’  ‘Yes, I will – next time.’ 

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I first became aware of an organization’s culture in 1969 when I sought to nurture my concept of a school-within-a-school from the seed of an idea to the garden of reality.  I learned then that ‘culture matters, it really does matter.’  Since then, I have continued to seek to understand – and help others understand – this powerful concept.  During the past year or so I have been helping several individuals, teams and organizations understand the concept we call ‘organizational culture’ and as I was noodling a topic for my blog I thought it might be helpful to me – and perhaps to you, gentle reader – if I wrote a bit about ‘Organizational Culture.’

First it is crucial to understand that a culture has never emerged as a result of failure; all cultures are rooted in success (even the most dysfunctional culture you, gentle reader, can name was once successful).  Second, too often folks equate, or confuse, the organization’s culture with ‘climate’ and/or ‘environment;’ these are manifestations of culture, they are not culture.  Third, what complicates all of this even more is that the number of definitions for ‘organizational culture’ (or for ‘national culture’) are almost legion.  These past forty years there have been, and continue to be, thousands of pages written about ‘culture’ in all of its many forms (think: organizational, team, state, church, city, neighborhood – the list, as you well know, goes on and on and on).

So what’s the point?  The point was, is, and will remain that ‘Culture Matters, It Really Does Matter!’

During the next several postings I will share with you, gentle reader, some of my understanding and current thinking about ‘Organizational Culture.’ As I noted above, I am choosing this focus because my thinking about culture this past year or so has been focused on ‘Organizations and their Cultures’ (as I am putting finger to key this morning I am not sure as to how many postings I am considering emerging).

As an aside (isn’t there always ‘an aside’), as a Nation (we are not, by the by, a true Democracy, we are a ‘Republic’ – those of us who took ‘Civics 101’ in high school learned this) we strive to weave together hundreds (at least) of powerful sub-cultures into a fabric of the whole which we call ‘our nation’ (not a seamless fabric either – think: colorful patch-work quilt).

So, how do we continue?  How about a definition.  As I noted above, the following definition is not the only one – not by far – and, for me, it captures the key ingredients necessary in order to begin to understand ‘Organizational Culture.’

The Definition:  Culture is the shared, deep tacit assumptions that an organized group has learned, embraced, and integrated as the group successfully engaged, responded to and coped with important external challenges while at the same time the group successfully engaged, responded to and coped with complex internal relationships. 

I invite you, gentle reader, to spend some time reflecting upon this definition (of course, since it is the definition that I support it has to be the ‘best one’ and the ‘correct’ one).  Next time I will begin to put some flesh on the bones that help make up this definition.


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Like many folks who have lived these past thousands of years, I experienced early in life (I was six years old) the unintended consequences of being perceived as different.  We learn – by experience – that others (especially the ‘significant others’ in our lives) have the power to single out, to ridicule, to turn away from the ‘we’ who are deemed to be ‘different’; at minimum ‘we’ are ‘misunderstood.’  During our adolescent years and again during our adult years we learn again, if not directly experience, the ‘lessons’ of ‘being different’ – of being ‘misunderstood.’  Some of us learn to cope and develop our capacities for understanding, tolerance, acceptance, and empathy of those who are deemed to be ‘different.’

We all want to be understood; it is, it seems to me, a basic need.  Being ‘misunderstood’ might well be the most painful experience we can have (at minimum it seems to make the top five list).  I have heard four year olds scream, with great passion and pain, ‘You just don’t understand!’  All adults were at one time ‘adolescents’ (some adults, dynamically, are stuck in this stage) and my hunch is that any of us under the age of 75 probably cried out in great pain (or in an effort to manipulate and frustrate the adults in our lives) the great adolescent mantras: ‘You don’t understand me!’ or ‘If you really understood me, then. . . .  As adults there are versions of these mantras that we continue to utter – ‘They just don’t understand…’ is a popular one.

The reality, of course, is that we are ‘different.’  But the type of ‘being different’ I am referring to tends to result in deep feelings of ‘being alone’ (if no one understands me it is easy for me to move to this deep feeling).  For example, the art that artists choose to emerge can easily lead to a judgment that ‘this artist really is different’ (in a not-so-good way).  Artists (think: fine art folks, educators, ministers, parents, authors, etc.) are rarely held up as role models of normalcy – they are labeled ‘different’ and are misunderstood (true, some of what they offer truly seems to be ‘un-understandable’).

I paused and I am now thinking of Van Gogh.  For some folks it might be a sign of ‘wealth’ and ‘culture’ to have an original Van Gogh hanging in your home (or, more likely you castle).  But, one who is familiar with the human being named Van Gogh would shudder at the prospect of having the person himself visiting their home (or castle) – many devoted art lovers would be put to rout when he showed up for this guy was truly ‘different.’

When I think about this I smile and I am also sad for our platitudes about the virtue of ‘being truly yourself’ (that is, of truly being different) now rings hollow.  We espouse ‘be yourself’ and  yet, as adolescents know only too well, if we are then we will, at best, be misunderstood and at worst we will be labeled as ‘different’ and suffer the consequences (intended and unintended) for being so.

Catering to our fear of being misunderstood or of being labeled ‘different’ leaves me-you-us dependent upon the other(s) in our lives.  At minimum, we find that we dilute either who we are or how we present ourselves (and our work) to the other(s).  At worst, we compromise our   integrity in order to be ‘understood’ and ‘accepted.’  For myself, I was blessed with a number of mentors in my life who, even if they did not ‘understand me’ they believed in me and helped me stay the course.  In staying ‘my course’ I found that there are many others who are kindred spirits (no two spirits are the same, I learned, but there are enough kindred spirits walking around) who are also ‘different’ and who are also seeking to be ‘understood’ (some of these folks I do ‘understand’ and some also ‘understand’ me).

I leave us this morning with the words of Marie Curie: Nothing in life is to be feared, it is only to be understood. Now is the time to understand more, so that we may fear less.


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