Identity Forms Culture
How does conversation impact the development of an organization’s identity?
In our day-to-day workplace lives, we rarely sit around reflecting on the ways our last meeting represents our organization’s broader belief paradigm. Instead we mull things over in small pieces, on the way back to our office space: “Hey, it’s great that the meeting finished early; now I can get my report done before lunch!” or “Bob shot down almost everyone’s ideas today; he is such a buzzkill!”
Over time, however, all these little conversations we have with ourselves and our co-workers begins to write an overarching narrative. This story plays out over and over, becoming like Lego pieces—interconnected as they build upon one another. Often, it becomes the lens through which the organization sees itself, both individually and collectively, as a shared identity.
Identity “manifests itself implicitly in the habits, assumptions, beliefs and attitudes which are shared by its staff and which underpin the organization’s activities. Culture becomes visible to people inside and outside its boundaries in emerging explicit expressions, as symbols, messages, conversations, and behaviors” (Guenther 96). Essentially, identity is the composite of abstract concepts we carry around in our minds, molded constantly by each touchpoint we have with individuals, groups, technologies, leaders, messaging, etc. Culture then, is the outward expression of a shared identity.
Author Donny Ebenstein writes in his book, I Hear You: “It’s hard to observe the system when you are inside it” (147). When a leader or manager is conflict-adverse, as one example, internal thoughts across the entire team identify moments of frustration, fear, or shock—all separately. An identity begins to form, where each member accepts, either consciously or not, that opinions are not shared.
Following suit, the culture may become one of avoidance, as everyone knows contrary opinions are not allowed. This dynamic may become dysfunctional and collapse quickly; or it may just be a low current that ebbs on for years. It is hard to see how you might be contributing to this shared mindset – we usually find others in the system to be at fault, broadly accepting certain norms as beyond our control. “The reciprocal reinforcement of these personal and systemic issues occurs when the firm begins to replicate the personality of the conflict adverse founder” (Ebenstein 162).
In his book Good Talk conversation designer Daniel Stillman discusses how conversations have “operating systems” – which is the code consisting of “our unique arrangement of habits, rules, and beliefs” (40). As we label each interaction throughout the day — “slow progress”, “responsive!”, “awkward meeting”, or “that was helpful!” — we begin to see patterns in our everyday world. These perceived patterns help us define our environments; we essentially learn what works (or what doesn’t!) and continue to follow the same paths. Not unlike the Colorado River flowing through the Grand Canyon: years of ingrained behaviors form a groove we all eventually recognize and join.
You can’t use conversation to address culture. Culture is the by-product; once you encounter it, there isn’t much more you can do but acknowledge it. However… you can harness the power of great conversation to understand identity. This can influence an organization’s mindset at the root.
THEY SAID IT BETTER
Peter Senge &
The Learning Organization
“Managers need to realize that once they begin to use conversation rather than make edicts, they have crossed a threshold. They are creating a different kind of organization – the learning or partnership organization” (The Institute of Cultural Affairs 142).
Chances are you’ve already heard of Peter Senge (or read a quote by him somewhere along the way). He is the author of the acclaimed book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of The Learning Organization, as well as a lecturer at the MIT Sloan School of Management. Senge promotes changing the role of leadership from a traditional top-down approach to one of inquisition, in turn placing higher value in the act of learning as part of how an organization operates and strategizes.
As any business leader can attest to, however, this is not easy to attain, especially if the established paradigm is one of control and it has been ingrained within the organization’s identity over many years. In 1993, not soon after Senge published The Fifth Discipline, Harvard Business School professor David Garvin writes: “discussions of learning organizations have often been reverential and utopian, filled with near mystical terminology” (Garvin) and challenges scholars to focus more on the “gritty details of practice” rather than “high philosophy and grand themes” (Garvin). He wonders, how would an organization recognize it has become a learning organization? What metrics and measurements are there as a means of integration? (Garvin). These are all valid concerns; many field guides have been written in the years since to aid leaders with these specifics.
In the video, Senge quickly explains what makes an institution a “learning organization,” stressing the importance of getting rid of the jargon that turns people off up front, while also developing the institutional tools, philosophy, and infrastructure needed to support a transition away from an overly controlled environment to one that promotes learning.
Conversation, through the act of participation, is one powerful way organizations can challenge status quo, and distribute power and voice throughout the ranks. Open dialogue and a sense of contribution will shift a culture of control and suppression, to one of openness, which promotes learning. “Today it’s not ‘business as usual’ anymore. The rules have changed and continue to change. The new rules are the rules of networks, not hierarchies” (Sanders “Postdesign and Participatory Culture”). This viewpoint—that users are seen as active co-creators and partners in a networked and connected way—goes hand-in-hand with learning organizations.
When Value Statements and Identity Don’t Align
In 1994, a book titled Built to Last entered the scene. Written by Jim Collins and Jerry Porras, it touted the benefits of developing and publishing an organization’s core values, “provoking managers to stampede to off-site meetings in order to conjure up some core values of their own” (Lencioni). This “fad,” as Lencioni labels it, is still an intrinsic part of many companies today.
Here are a few examples of some famous companies’ values:
Impact, Innovation, Humanity, Empowerment and Honesty
Integrity, Excellence, Respect, Inclusion, and Collaboration
Be Bold, Focus on Impact, Move Fast, Be Open, Build Social Value
Let’s briefly compare Facebook’s core values with recent headlines.
From 2016 to 2018, Facebook faced a series of backlashes after a number of articles illustrated how a political consulting firm had “improperly accessed the data of 50 million Facebook users” (later revised to more) and detailed the resulting efforts to sway the 2016 election (Rodriguez). Cnbc.com writes of the debacle:
“The company’s clumsy response to the reports didn’t help. Facebook first tried to get ahead of the reports by publishing a Friday night blog post on March 16, saying it was suspending Cambridge Analytica for improperly accessing user data. After the reports went live on Saturday, Sandberg and the rest of the company did not address the public for five days” (Rodriguez).
The breach of privacy, the delayed response time, the influence on an open election – were all actions that negated Facebook’s stated values, especially the move fast, be open and build social value tenets. The results are clear: there are about 15 million fewer users from 2017 to early 2019 (Edison Research).
Though this cannot be completely attributed to the scandal (competition, like SnapChat, has also left its mark), the friction between stated values and actual behavior causes havoc on all stakeholders – from users to employees to advertisers. “Empty values statements create cynical and dispirited employees, alienate customers, and undermine managerial credibility” (Lencioni). Thus, organizations in the stages of creating or revising their value statement need to take a hard look at themselves first so values don’t become “lip service,” hollow words. Values and identity in conflict do more harm than good.
Conversation that addresses the organization in its true state, rather than its desired state, is an essential component of this process. “Values can set a company apart from the competition by clarifying its identity and serving as a rallying point for employees. But coming up with strong values—and sticking to them—requires real guts” (Lencioni). These communication spaces need to be open, welcoming, and safe, where ideas are not shot down immediately.
The Power of Negative Narratives
Human beings seek patterns. Author Esther Choy writes of us: “It is our innate nature to connect the dots” (Choy 19). But what happens when a narrative, written over time based on a perceived identity, needs to be rewritten? “Once a story has taken root in hearts and minds, it’s extremely difficult to challenge its validity. As a leader, if you don’t connect the dots proactively… others will fill it in for you” (Choy 20).
Yet leaders rarely come to their positions at the beginning, where they can help shape their team or organization’s culture; most positions come with inherited baggage and assumptions, and eventually — unless resisted — an indoctrination into this is how we do things here.
The good news is that very few organizations are without some positive cultural component to build off of – and that is where the conversation can often get off the ground – what are we doing right? What is working? What is engaging people?
Developing an attack strategy, built off of open and honest communication, incorporating elements of all four human conversational needs can begin to address an established negative narrative. Over time, this corporate story can be changed; but everyone will need to participate in the heavy lifting.