The future of culture
Tribal expulsion, anyone?
Culture is the binding agent that endeavours to minimise wasteful friction within a social group. If you want to be part of this group you will need to behave in a particular manner. And if you don’t, you will be drummed out of the tribe. Knowing that tribal expulsion was a death sentence on the savanna, the only reason you would threaten the culture is if you had insurrection in mind and thus had the buy-in of some fellow members. If the uprising didn’t go to plan at least you would have the makings of a tribe when you and your fellow insurrectionists were dismissed.
So culture is deeply woven into our DNA. As social animals, culture provides a social glue.
If our leaders say we are a warring tribe, then violence is our thing.
It also sidesteps philosophical discussions on matters such as should we attempt to cultivate that barren patch or simply acquire someone else’s land. Culture promotes adaptability. Nobody wants to appear to be different and so will simply follow what everyone else is doing. Thus the leaders can issue an edict and everyone turns on their heels instantaneously. Their survival depends on it.
Business culture 1.0
Business leaders over the centuries have recognised the power of culture in respect of achieving business objectives. Industrial era companies were less concerned about the social aspects of culture and more the exploitation of compliant workers. In fact, the leaders weren’t particularly interested in the humanity of the workers. They simply needed people to enact the processes until technology matured sufficiently to obviate the need for a human. People were (are) technology placeholders with this approach.
The culture in a nutshell:
- Don’t be late.
- Follow the process.
- Suppress your human instincts and personality. Eg.
- Don’t be social – Don’t distract your fellow workers.
- Don’t move around – Stay at your workplace until you hear the klaxon.
- Don’t be curious or creative – Stick to the process.
The power sat with the factory owners and the workers were simply economic victims, forced to trade their humanity for work.
If you’re naturally distrustful, you’ll like it here!
This clear exploitation of workers created an atmosphere of distrust and led to the emergence of the trade unions. Now workers had a voice and the factory owners had to yield some power and make the workplace a little less treacherous and inhuman. Unions have varying degrees of relevance across the world today. In part because smart leaders have made work more human-friendly and in part because the value proposition (ie membership fees) doesn’t stack up. In any case, employment conditions have broadly improved, at least in developed countries, and thus organisational culture has evolved to be slightly more inclusive of the needs of the worker.
Pregnancy – not in front of the customers please
Nonetheless culture remained under leadership control. As a new entrant to an industrial era model company today, you are essentially told this is how we do things around here and this is what we value. Often it doesn’t even have to be expressed.
“If you enjoy collaboration, then you won’t fit in here because we are all about watching our enemies suffer.”
“If you don’t like getting plastered with the boss on a Friday evening, then its going to be very difficult to weave you into the organisation’s hedonistic folklore.”
“If motherhood appeals to you, then you might be a better fit for our back-office functions.”
So culture has become more nuanced over time, but in essence it remains ‘fit in or p155 off’.
Fortress vs railway station
This command-and-control approach to culture worked well when ‘we’ lived in the camp, fortress or factory and ‘they’ sat outside the perimeter, moat or factory wall. These two worlds are referred to as the organisation and market, respectively.
So up until recently, the cultural model has been that of a fortress.
However, the membrane that separates the organisation from the market is becoming more porous, thanks to:
- Gig economy.
It is becoming less clear as to where the business ends and where the market starts. In some respects, culture has morphed from a fortress model to something more akin to a railway station.
You turn up to work (the railway station) each day where you see plenty of people you recognise. But you also see many that you don’t. Everyone is moving with a great sense of purpose.
Now should the station manager (the boss) announce over the Tannoy that today we are all heading to say Manchester, Milan or Moscow, unlike workers in the past, many will reply by saying that they have already made their travel plans (in respect of the career) and are only using this station to get there.
Thus people increasingly are less interested in becoming part of the tribe and more interested in picking up the money / skills and then moving on.
Those with sought after skills are causing the power axis to tilt away from the employer and towards the talent. Consequently the traditional culture levers are proving ineffective.
Own goals are good
When the people in your organisation have the temerity to have their own goals and are in no way committed to donating their full lifeforce to making your shareholders even richer, you have a culture management challenge.
Alternatively, you might see it is an opportunity. People who work for your organisation on their terms are more likely to be engaged because they have a sense of autonomy. They will feel more secure and thus will challenge what they think is wrong. Thus the issue of boss-pleasing groupthink evaporates. Consequently, workplace originated mental illness plummets.
Studio 54 – This is crazy man!
But what about the loss of control? Leaders need to see themselves less as galley-slave drum beaters and more as a shape-throwing nightclub deejay. The latter can’t force people into the nightclub nor force them to stay.
However, the best ones somehow attract the best people and amazingly get them to stay well beyond bedtime.
But how do they do that? Well the answer of course is culture. People want to go to a place where they know they can express themselves to the fullest and engage with like-minded people. Expressing yourself means being genuinely human – a unique combination of personality, life experiences, strengths and vulnerabilities. It means being able to be curious, creative and courageous. It means having a strong sense of autonomy. Most importantly, it enables you to be with people who share your purpose.
Innovation is key to organisational success. People are key to innovation. Thus we need to build people-centric organisations. And we do that by creating the conditions for enabling compelling cultures to grow and thrive.