How Cultural Rift can tank your business

Here’s a story about the relationship between a small office and its head office. It is inspired by true events and triggered by the insights from an article on ‘cultural rift’.

There was once a successful people development business that had an impressive reputation in its market. It attracted national clients and thereafter a pool of highly skilled facilitators and coaches. Soon, international corporations came knocking. Those were the good days and they lasted over a decade. To spur further growth, the shareholders decided to open an office in another city. It was a different market place, much slower, more loyal to its incumbent suppliers and rather indecisive. An influential pool of high caliber coaches and facilitators chose to live there too, and this new office became their home. Penetration into the new market was initially slow, but with the credibility of the brand and people associated to it, growth became rampant. The economy was being battered by head winds, but the new office endured. It should have been a happier time, but it wasn’t because a rift began to emerge between the two offices. Animosity and friction escalated. The primary source of conflict was a perceived mismatch of values. The home base valued business performance, profitability and sustainable processes, while the newer office valued innovation, deeper relationships and the community of people that served the brand. These didn’t have to be mutually exclusive, but they became barriers to harmony and synergy, and after five solid years, it fractured the business. The exodus of key people followed. It became nasty and personal. An unfortunate end.

It turns out that this sequence of events is quite common. In fact, it should be something all organisations seek to understand and navigate. In effect, each organisation has a dominant culture that holds within it numerous subcultures. These subcultures are created by variances in leadership styles, functions and geography. They are normal and inevitable.  They can offer many advantages to an organisation if they are considered as a valuable component of the whole. However, if these variances are seen as counter culture or as a threat, then a destructive, downward spiral follows.  The first signs of a cultural rift include a shift in the sentiment among employees of the sub culture who begin to feel unwelcome and without a sense of belonging. A demanding and domineering primary culture will attempt to force control and hierarchy. Resistance from the subculture follows.

If however these variances are embraced as potential contributors to a new organisational future, or seen as a more diverse set of identities, then numerous benefits are proven to be the result. Research bears this out.

If only the Head Office had embraced the diversity, innovation and community of its offshoot, and the newer office in turn had appreciated the rigour, structure and safety of a guiding and solid hand, then these supposed irreconcilable differences could have been drivers of exciting opportunities. Too often, due to ignorance, these cultural variances are viewed as rifts, rather than exciting sources of creativity and emerging future relevance.

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Are you Inhibiting or Enhancing the Transfer of Learning in others?

Initially I thought the specific focus of my thesis was clear, but the more I read the more I discover how much insightful research has already been done. With every new article, I gasp at the treasure trove of information out there – available but oddly out of reach in some academic dungeon. I think I can help, because to assist me in digesting and understanding key insights from what I read, I find it useful to share them in succinct summaries. Here is my first highlights package, straight from the library! Title:The Relevance of Organizational Subculture for Motivation to Transfer Learning, by Toby Marshall Egan.

This is for all my colleagues and peers who dedicate their lives to Learning and Development of others.

  • In excess of $130 billion is spent each year on employee learning and development in the US alone.
  • Unsurprisingly there is a keen interest to understand what influences an employee’s level of motivation to transfer new knowledge and skills from the classroom to relevant workplace application.
  • Organisational culture plays a role in this process. The question is how?
  • We now know that there are multiple cultures within a single organisation. There is usually a Primary Culture and many Subcultures (which are unique subsets of the primary culture).
  • Leaders of teams and functions tend to create subcultures through their unique translation of the larger organizational culture. It’s a natural progression.
  • BIG TAKEAWAY 1: These subcultures have a more significant influence on motivation to transfer learning than the primary culture.
  • Cultures can be defined. This research focused on 3 different types.
  • A Bureaucratic subculture is defined by a leader that focuses on task and task accomplishment, and emphasises structures, technical support, plans, and procedures to support collective goal achievement.
  • Innovative and Supportive subcultures are defined by a leader that focuses on the development of mutual trust, team commitment, and effective relationships with followers. These leaders establish this rapport through engagement, encouragement, support, and signalling to followers both an acknowledgment of their individuality and the importance of mutual obligation.
  • BIG TAKEAWAY 2: Bureaucratic subcultures inhibit motivation to transfer.
  • BIG TAKE AWAY 3: Innovative and Supportive subcultures enhance motivation to transfer.
  • BIG TAKE AWAY 4: The Primary culture has a low impact on employee motivation to transfer learning.

The key message: organizations interested in influencing the motivation to transfer learning, must focus their efforts on shaping effective organizational subcultures. The attention and expectation should thus be on the direct line manager and his/her influence on the culture they have created. Intuitive, but here is the research to prove it.

7 Reflections on the OD field

It is not often in life that a decision yields returns that exceed my expectations. Especially positively.

As a Clinical Psychologist working in the field of Organisational Psychology, I have often flirted with studying further, mainly to build some conscious competence in the latter field. The thought of scratching about the inner psyche of psychiatric dysfunction and furthering my studies in Clinical work was unappealing. Enter Consulting Psychology, the twin hull yacht of the field, riding on the combination of both. I signed up almost immediately.

It is the first time in 15 years that I have embedded myself within psychological academia and to my surprise, it has felt more friendly that foreign.

These are the 7 Things that I commit to reminding myself about after my first 8 weeks back as a student:

  1. Read More of the Right Things: As a professional knowledge worker I have been reading the wrong things much of the time. Too much internet based summaries, not enough academic source materials. I feel at times like I have been sleeping in a capsule and have now awoken to a new world. Reading dense academic articles may be draining, but the insights are invaluable. I will share those over time on this blog too.
  1. Be Eternally Sceptical. I use statistics and facts with little interrogation of accuracy. I trust authors and theorists too much, and along the way, I believe I miss aspects of essential truth. It’s time to stop only looking for data that supports my beliefs and word view.
  1. A lot of People are Winging it. My understanding of Clinical psychology is sound, but as I have re-treaded across the field, I am now aware of just how many people are ‘winging’ it. Sometimes dangerously. I am more convinced than ever that working in a collective of complementary skills should be a key demand from all our clients.
  1. Lean on the Field: For most of my career I have been hiding my Clinical background. It freaks people out. I now need to stop apologising for it and recognise that unlike any other field in people development, it provides insights into the conscious and unconscious aspects of peoples experiences that unlocks immense insight and value. It is a deep and wide treasure trove of understanding.
  1. Relationships are still All there is. Need I say more? We have moved beyond knowledge, and whilst diving into a focused academic pursuit is challenging and rewarding, the manner in which the world will receive and share in those insights depends on the quality of the relationships all around me.
  1. Personal Psychology is ever Present and Influential. No matter what we choose to control and wish away, ignoring the impact of personal psychology on groups and organisations is a big mistake.
  1. Believe in our Professional Value. The more I delve, the more I realise that within the libraries of psychology lie answers and perspectives on all the challenges facing modern organisations, teams and individuals. Translating that into the workplace is priceless, and therein lies our immense value.

Shooting ourselves in the foot?

There I was sitting, with eleven esteemed HR consultants, all sporting Masters Degrees in Psychology and we tackled the definition of ‘Leadership.’ The result? It was much like discovering that the Zulu language has literally hundreds of names for a cow; the inputs were inconclusive and subjective. No truth or fact emerged.

Let’s be frank, Psychology is not a truly scientific discipline a lot of the time. We struggle, for example to succinctly and coherently explain what culture is, how the mind and brain interact (if at all). We have multiple perspective and views on Motivation and Personality traits. I could go on. We talk a lot about a lot, and often end up shooting in the dark for answers. It seems though that we are still obsessed with certainty and scientific place, and thus may not encourage the scientific paradigm that compels us to challenge and attempt to disprove everything that we believe (or would like to believe) is the truth. We don’t have a disciplinary wide focus that tries to poke holes into all and every theory, idea and so called ‘truth’. So we simply don’t do that, and end up having more theories. We thus talk a lot, about a lot, more of the time.

A Professor of Mathematics made this typically blunt judgement;

‘the problem with psychology is that you are not trying to work your way towards a universal theory, as a result you are breaking it down into further smaller theories.’

The process of science is to eliminate the weak theories and in psychology, it’s evident, we may be doing the exact opposite. Ever noticed how many ideas proliferate with different words and frameworks, and yet essentially are saying the same thing?

Here is the question we might all want to consider as we attempt to find a legitimate place in industry. For every piece of data or fact that we consume and use to enhance our credibility, do we go back to the original study? To the target group? To the time and context? Do we understand the assumptions that were made at the time of that research? Have we looked at the source of it all?

I am sure, because of my own experience that we generally don’t. As a result we trust the author, or article or highlights package and invariable share this as the gospel truth with our stakeholders. So does Culture really eat strategy for breakfast? Find me the evidence!

It seems that in order to move our body of knowledge forward we might need to move away from a dogmatic acceptance of everything we read and hear and want to believe, and  should rather apply a healthy scientific scepticism.