It's Hard to See Culture

Maddie and I had a great conversation last night with Craig Honick, of Sector Intelligence, about the topic of culture. As a researcher, Craig has expertise on identifying and telling the story of culture in organizations and markets, and Maddie and I talk a lot about organizational culture in Humanize. For each of the four human elements we discuss in the book, we discuss how it shows up in organizational culture (as well as process and behavior).

So here’s one of the sticky points about culture we were talking about: it’s hard to see. Well, it is hard for YOU to see YOUR culture. It’s the whole fish/water thing, but you can’t see it because it’s always there and has become a part of you. It is possible for you to see it, but it takes some work. You need to dig fairly deeply into the experiences of other people in your organization and you have to have the personal courage and maturity, basically, to be able to take a piece of you and hold it out in front of you to make sense of it.

Robert Kegan, a specialist in adult development at Harvard, refers to this as the process of moving something from “subject” to “object.” As in subjective versus objective. When something is subject, you can’t see it. It is driving you in ways you probably don’t realize. But the key to moving to a new stage of psychological development is in pulling out those assumptions and pieces of your world view that you had not articulated and holding them out in front of you. When they are “object” like that, then you can do something about them.

So if you are serious about working on your organization’s culture, give yourself some time and push yourself to see what you had not been seeing. Your culture is not those inspirational posters you have on the wall, and it’s not what you say it is in your values statement. It’s more than that and if you want to be able to change it or at least push it in a particular direction, you’re going to have to truly see it first.

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  1. 24.08.2011 at 8:12 am

    Ah Kegan. Thanks for mentioning him as it is probably high time I dust off my notes from hearing him speak once and review some of his good thinking.

    One of my mentors always stressed talking to new hires about the perceived culture a few weeks into their employment. She said they had been round long enough to have a feel for how things truly operated, but not so long to have been completely tainted to accept them as normal and useful. That was sound advice.

    • 24.08.2011 at 11:49 am

      Do you have Kegan and Lahey’s Immunity to Change book? It gets a “must read” from Maddie and me in Chapter 9 of Humanize.

      And yes! Good advice about continuous data gathering about culture.

  2. 24.08.2011 at 8:19 am

    When I read your posts it feels as if they speak directly about me and my organization. I find that to be a good thing and thought provoking. You mention assumptions as objects here and getting them out in front, I am going to use that! Thanks!