Rejecting the Default Culture

Busi­ness cul­ture is an accre­tion of lay­ers, just like the crust of the earth. While the sur­face often rep­re­sents the cur­rent moment in his­to­ry, dig a lit­tle and you are like­ly to find some­thing less sophis­ti­cat­ed, empow­er­ing, and inclu­sive. A “default” busi­ness cul­ture — mean­ing what we revert to giv­en no oth­er input or direc­tion — lies below the felt aspi­ra­tions of many firms to cre­ate more open work­places. This default cul­ture is a set of prac­tices and assump­tions based on the neg­a­tive side of old-style for­mal hier­ar­chy. It includes such “invisible rules” as:

  • Good employ­ees keep their heads down and do what they’re asked to do with­out com­plaint. They know how to make the boss look good.
  • Peo­ple who raise uncom­fort­able ques­tions are trouble-makers.
  • Peo­ple who rock the boat will pay for it; if not now, later.
  • Loy­al­ty to the boss/organization means cov­er­ing up prob­lems, truths, and even eth­i­cal issues that could make us look bad.
  • Achiev­ing indi­vid­ual agen­das is the whole game. “There are win­ners and losers and I’m no loser.”
  • Blam­ing, judg­ing, under­min­ing oth­ers, scape­goat­ing and oth­er forms of “cya” behav­ior are the norm. (These behav­iors involve indi­vid­u­als, whole teams, entire departments.)
  • These and oth­er relat­ed beliefs do not oper­ate all the time, but are still in the ground beneath our feet, and some­times by only a mat­ter of inch­es. Some­times, when things become dys­func­tion­al, that default sys­tem comes back from the grave. Effec­tive lead­ers reject these old­er beliefs and act in ways that ensure the “zom­bie” cul­ture stays in the ground where it belongs.

    To ful­ly “drive fear out of the workplace,” it is essen­tial for every­one to be involved in active­ly reject­ing this anti­quat­ed cul­ture that divides the world into mes­sen­gers who get shot and lead­ers who don’t lis­ten. Both are stereo­types reflect­ing our fears of one anoth­er and our need for self-pro­tec­tion. “Active­ly reject­ing” means mov­ing into action and per­son­al­ly behav­ing in ways that con­tra­dict these neg­a­tive back­ground beliefs.

    The courage to speak up and the courage to lis­ten are the way out, and they require us to “stay in the ten­sion” of the moment, the anx­i­ety, step­ping past all of it, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fear that our sin­cere engage­ment with oth­ers will cause dam­age, dis­tress, and reper­cus­sions or that we will sim­ply expe­ri­ence humil­i­a­tion and anger because noth­ing will be done about the obvi­ous orga­ni­za­tion­al prob­lems we chose to bring for­ward. If we have two ene­mies in this work it is pre­cise­ly the fear of reper­cus­sions and the belief that noth­ing can change.

    Change can hap­pen, but only if we active­ly choose to cre­ate a dif­fer­ent kind of work­place, one where peo­ple seek and express under­stand­ing rather than make dis­con­nect­ed and insen­si­tive speech­es behide one anoth­ers’ backs. Change hap­pens only if we refuse to let fear guide our steps because fear is the essence of the old rules. Change hap­pens only if we choose to address what is right in front of us. 

    This all works best when it is done in the name of being of ser­vice to one anoth­er and to our cus­tomers. This is a mat­ter of let­ting our best selves move for­ward together.

    It is essential to understand that rejecting this background culture is not the same as rejecting people. 

    We have all par­tic­i­pat­ed in the neg­a­tive side of the default cul­ture. We’ve all been car­ri­ers and are all respon­si­ble for its pres­ence. We have all con­tributed to it at one time or anoth­er, par­tic­u­lar­ly when things have gone wrong or there have been tough chal­lenges. Here are some of the ways we can move for­ward togeth­er. This is cer­tain­ly one of those cir­cum­stances that calls up the dic­tum often attrib­uted to Gand­hi: “You must be the change you wish to see in the world.”

    None of this is to say that our only task should be the rejec­tion of old ways. That’s only the begin­ning of a dif­fer­ent kind of work­place free­dom and with that rejec­tion comes the respon­si­bil­i­ty to define and live — as best we can — what cul­ture we do want. I was encour­aged a few days ago to find “Your Cul­ture is Your Brand,” an arti­cle by Zap­pos CEO, Tony Hsieh, as a great exam­ple of the exper­i­ments, inno­va­tions, and new think­ing that are need­ed to bring alive pos­i­tive, val­ue-based work cultures. 

    Between these two realms of old and new, of uncon­scious vic­tim­iza­tion and con­scious choice, is a cul­tur­al cross-over point of major pro­por­tions. Many orga­ni­za­tions are ambiva­lent about which way to go and are some type of mashup of both worlds. Some seem to want to rely upon and return to the past; some strain for the future. This can be an anx­ious space but also a good one for forg­ing our own lead­er­ship. Oppor­tu­ni­ties abound. Sure­ly this is a time that will shape and define us and our orga­ni­za­tions for a long time to come.

    Technorati Tags: and . Link to blog posting. Link to Oestreich Associates website.

    4 Comments

    • Dan
      I believe that you have stat­ed the issue very well — I love the term “Zom­bie Cul­ture” as a per­fect description.
      Cul­ture is a pow­er­ful force and when it is pos­i­tive, it can help any orga­ni­za­tion over­come any chal­lenge. On the oth­er hand, we all too often see cul­ture left unchecked, allowed to grow in the direc­tions that serve indi­vid­u­als and not the orga­ni­za­tion as a whole.
      Cul­ture is extreme­ly hard to change and many lead­ers have had to suc­cumb in their efforts. Some have become casualties.
      True lead­ers can iden­ti­fy prob­lem cul­tures, and have the courage to chal­lenge it. As it has been said “Leaders don’t just do things right – they do the right things”.

    • Yes, I com­plete­ly agree Craig. Cul­ture can be left unchecked. This means to me that it is an essen­tial­ly uncon­scious part of the enter­prise. Not attend­ing to the cul­ture — or know­ing but look­ing the oth­er way — is like rely­ing on only part of the books. Which part of the finances of an enter­prise can you sim­ply dis­re­gard? The “num­bers” might not be to easy to quan­ti­fy but whether the “bal­ance sheet” is pos­i­tive or neg­a­tive cul­ture has much to do with such things as turn-over, degrees of prob­lem-solv­ing and inno­va­tion, knowl­edge trans­fer and infor­ma­tion flow, lev­els of com­pe­ti­tion among divi­sions, man­agers, and employ­ees, the degree to which mis­takes are hid­den or learned from, and many oth­er issues. I know you understand.

      You also point to the real­i­ty that some lead­ers become casu­al­ties of their efforts. Such is the nature of the beast. Sad but true. There will be casu­al­ties. And yet I believe there is a spark of integri­ty in a great many peo­ple that can work to help us step past the inher­i­tance of the default cul­ture. I have great hope for the change, espe­cial­ly when I find lead­ers such as your­self on the net writ­ing about the steps we can take to get there together.

    • Dan, you put is so beau­ti­ful­ly, “The courage to speak up and the courage to lis­ten are the way out, and they require us to “stay in the ten­sion” of the moment, the anx­i­ety, step­ping past all of it, par­tic­u­lar­ly the fear that our sin­cere engage­ment with oth­ers will cause dam­age, dis­tress, and reper­cus­sions…” This is so need­ed to take our work rela­tion­ships into the next lev­el of engage­ment we need for the new cen­tu­ry and (hope­ful­ly) a new econ­o­my. I think con­scious cap­i­tal­ism includes being con­scious of how we relate and impact each oth­er as fel­low Human beings at work. Can’t wait to read more of your work.

    • This is so need­ed to take our work rela­tion­ships into the next lev­el of engage­ment we need for the new cen­tu­ry and (hope­ful­ly) the new economy.”

      Mary — You’ve hit the nail on the head. “Con­scious cap­i­tal­ism” must be dif­fer­ent than what peo­ple have expe­ri­enced in the past. 

      It’s great to see you here. I checked out your blog, ReImag­in­ing Work Rela­tion­ships, and it looks real­ly great.

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