Culture – more than “how we do things, around here.”

“Hello. We would like to change our culture. We want you to deliver us some training through which people to change the culture in our company!”

It is the first sign that the interlocutor is at least confused about this subject. Lines like this make me ask myself more questions.

What is the most useful method, model, or approach for understanding culture? Which approach is more useful: university, scientific or managerial? Can you understand culture by reading the definition of culture in a dictionary, or do you need to go beyond text? Can culture be measured, controlled, and managed?

 Culture dimensions

One of the most cited definitions of culture belongs to Edgar Schein, professor at MIT Sloan School of Management:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that a group learns as it solves its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

This includes how the group does things, how they organize internally, the type of hierarchy, how they relate to each other, etc.

Schein identifies 4 categories of culture: macro cultures (nations, occupations that exist globally, etc.), organizational cultures, subcultures (groups within organizations) and microcultures (microsystems with or within organizations).

In Schein’s view, culture operates on 3 levels: artifacts – they are easy to see, hear and feel; this includes the behaviors; declared values – shared by individuals working in the organization; basic underlying assumptions – operate on an unconscious individual level.

In other words, culture has two parts: a visible and palpable one and a less visible one, which pertains to the unconscious and psychosocial.

Intangible and difficult to define, organizational culture shapes the way employees think, act and make decisions related to business and safety.

Culture can also be understood as the collective unconscious (Jung): what people do, think, believe, value, and act collectively, without thinking rationally and consciously.

Carl Gustav Jung – founder of analytical psychology, brings together the unseen but present aspects of culture under the name of the Collective Unconscious. These are much more than people’s values and beliefs and can be seen as the forces and energies that bring people together, sometimes even in meaningless actions like war.

Just as neither the individual nor the Collective Unconscious can be measured or controlled, neither can culture be measured or controlled.

Several authors in the field study the psycho-social dimension of culture focus son common language and knowledge, common values, attitudes and beliefs, explicit and implicit symbols, shared stories and experiences, terms of reference accepted by the group, social customs, and social norms, “maps of meanings” that make social life intelligible to its members.

Unfortunately, STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics), propositional thinking, managerial-engineering view of culture does not have the capacity to truly understand culture. Culture is felt and experienced much more than it can be analyzed and defined.

Therefore, understanding culture in a professional way requires a Transdisciplinary approach. This involves studying the perspective of specialists from many disciplines: psychology, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, spirituality, metaphysics, religion, semiotics, etc.

 The usefulness of metaphors and semiotics

Juri Lotman’s books: The Universe of the Mind, A Semiotic Theory of Culture (1990) or The Unpredictable Functioning of Culture (2010) bring us a semiotic perspective on culture: the meaning of human activity, the creation of signs and how people give meaning to everything around them.

The analysis of language, symbols and signs in the organization allows us not only to better decipher the individual and collective unconscious, but also opens the opportunity for effective interventions to improve culture.

What is the most effective way to explain the concept of culture to both workers with little education and an executive manager with two MBAs? Is the text of the dictionary definition enough?

One of the most interesting books I have read so far is Metaphors We Live By, written by George Lakoff and Mark Johnson and published in 1980. The book explores metaphor as a tool that allows people to communicate and understand abstract things like work, time, mind, and feelings.

Without realizing it often, we often hear and use metaphors when communicating: time is money, she is a shining star, you fight windmills, etc. Metaphors describe something by what it is not.

The metaphor I’ve used for a long time to explain culture is that of water in an aquarium. For fish, culture is like the water in the aquarium in which they live: it is essential for life, when the water is toxic the fish get sick and die, when it is clean the fish live healthily.

Obviously, every metaphor has its own subjectivity and subliminal messages, which are always open to question.

For humans, culture is also that air between us. Dr. Rob Long, founder of Social Psychology of Risk (SPoR), developed a more inspired metaphor and semiotics to illustrate how he views culture, using the semiotic and metaphor of a cloud: the Culture Cloud. (Figure 1)

Figure 1

Cloud semiotics help us go beyond textual definition of culture. Why a cloud? Clouds can be seen but cannot be “touched”. Clouds are vital for sustaining life. Clouds can be affected by wind and altitude. Clouds can be toxic, of good weather or storm, as different types of organizational culture. No matter what form clouds take, we can find meaning in them and we can also project meaning onto them.

The cultural cloud shows us the main factors that make up culture: artifacts, slogans and symbols, behaviors, customs, leaders, heroes, and loathsome people in the present and history of the organization, the language used, attitude, values, beliefs, functioning structures.

 Culture as a wicked problem

Although it is not a problem, due to its complexity and difficulty in being defined, culture can be viewed as a “wicked problem”.

The idea of “wicked problems” was first introduced by Churchman (1967) in the context of management theory but was later developed and defined by Rittel and Webber (1973) by ten characteristics. These are:

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. Every attempt to create a solution changes your understanding of the problem.
  2. Wicked problems do not have a rule or end point in which they are solved. The resolution process ends when resources run out, stakeholders lose interest, or political realities change.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but better or worse. Choosing a reasonable solution to a wicked problem is a matter of judgment and obtaining agreement from all interested parties.
  4. There are no tests to verify solutions developed for wicked problems. The solutions adopted generate consequences about which it is impossible to know what development they will have later.
  5. Each solution to a wicked problem is a unique solution. Since there is no possibility to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts meaningfully.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an enumerable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of operations that can be incorporated into the resolution plan.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique, unprecedented. For this reason, experience does not help us to address it.
  8. Every wicked problem can be a symptom of another problem. A wicked problem is a set of interconnected problems and constraints that change over time, embedded in a dynamic social context, and have no single root cause.
  9. The causes of a wicked problem can be explained in several ways. There are several stakeholders with different and changing ideas about what can be considered a problem, its causes and how to solve it.
  10. Those who present solutions to wicked problems have no right to make mistakes and are responsible for the consequences of the solutions they generate.

Unlike tame problems, wicked problems cannot be defined or solved by applying an algorithm but can only be ‘tackled’.

Statistics show that between 50% and 75% of cultural change initiatives fail. One reason is that the leaders and consultants involved are trying to solve these “wicked problems” with tools specific to tame problems.

The trap of reductionist thinking

Most of the managers and consultants I meet explain culture using a reductionist paradigm of Schein’s definition: “culture is how we do things, around here.”

This narrow definition reduces our understanding of culture to behaviors/habits, systems, and values, specifically to those things managers are obsessed with controlling. The truly important things, such as trust, respect, love, are neither measurable nor controllable.

The problem with this approach is that interventions based on this simplistic definition are ineffective because they address components of culture that are not very relevant. Some interventions even increase organizational dysfunctions.

Culture is not just about: behaviors, organization, structures, organizational systems, or leadership. Reading the works of E. Shein and C.G. Jung, we understand how culture transcends all these things. Consider the differences between European and Asian culture, or between Latin and British culture.

Culture is best understood through its experience, as anthropologists do when conduct cultural research. You can read tomes about Hippy Culture, their symbols, and greetings, but to truly understand it you have to leave your home, car and office comfortably and live with them in a Hippy community.

As a manager, the longer you stay in the office and away from people, the more out of touch with your company culture you become.

To overcome the surface level and understand people’s vision of life, you need to be among them as much as possible, to be accepted and to have real dialogue.

The desired changes in the visible part of culture, namely systems, technology, and standards, must be supported by interventions in the less visible part of organizations, namely in the psychological and social dimension. This obviously requires a Transdisciplinary approach.


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