How to see the water… understanding the culture you work in

It’s how we do things round here

Organisational culture can be a slippery concept. It’s not something we often talk about in organisations (apart from saying “of course the culture is crucial”). We don’t need to talk about it because, at least when we’ve worked somewhere for a while, we just know how to behave. This leads to the problem where “the fish don’t know they’re in water”. We don’t know why we behave this way, we just know that it’s the way things are done round here.

Most of the time that’s not a problem. It’s a fundamental part of being human after all. If we were to constantly analyse and discuss the logics, history, and benefits of every choice we made in our offices… well that would be quite dull and probably rather annoying.

But there are times when it can be helpful. If you’re trying to implement a change for example.

Change means doing things differently

Pretty much any change, in an organisational context, will stand or fall on whether people in the system behave differently. Understanding what drives and constrains behaviour right now makes it much easier to design programmes that will drive and constrain the new behaviour.

You can (and for a substantial change programme probably should) hire specialists to help with this. If you decide to embark upon this process on your own, you will have one key advantage over any external folk. You see the fish may not know they’re in water, but they are the experts in everything to do with the water. You are an expert in the culture of your organisation. Even if you do not see the culture.

Make your cultural knowledge explicit

Here are three simple things you could do to help make explicit your tacit expertise.

  1. Ask yourself what would happen if you did something different (it’s best to restrict this to the change you’re trying to drive… it might be interesting to imagine how people would react to your appearance in the office on horseback but it’s not likely to be useful). Some things you could imagine might cause a raised eyebrow. Somethings are so out of the norm that you’ll struggle to even imagine doing them. This starts to map out the limits of the cultural norms in your network.
  2. Ask yourself what purpose these norms serve. People don’t invent cultural rules for no reason. They serve (or may have originally served) some purpose for at least some people. In hierarchies good places to look for purposes include conflict avoidance, accountability, and the exercise of power. In all organisations respect for the right to be included and the respect for privacy are also common purposes to reflect on.
  3. Ask yourself in whose interests these norms act. Maybe the rules around conflict avoidance protect frontline staff from oppressive managers, maybe they allow managers to drive performance in their teams without getting lots of pushback, maybe they allow people to critique and improve each other’s work safely to the benefit of all.

What will your change do to the culture?

Then go back the change you want to see. What cultural norms will it break / change? Consider the purpose that drove these behaviours in the first place. Are you trying to replace one set of behaviours with another to meet the same purpose or are you trying to change the fundamental purpose underpinning the norms. For example are you trying to find a different way to exercise power or are you trying to remove the need to exercise power? If these norms act in the interests of particular groups in the organisation they’ll probably be pretty unhappy about the change unless you can show them that their interests will be protected some other way.

I bet your change plans won’t look the same as they did before you started this process.


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