Why organisational culture, values and leadership might be things to leave alone

(No it isn't.)

Anybody who works in an organisation, particularly a large organisation, will have noticed in recent years much talk about 3 things:

1) organisational culture
2) organisational values (and mission), and
3) leadership.

I'm going to suggest that if you're focused on these things, you may be barking up the wrong tree. And it's a long story as to why this might be.

To cut the long story short, for hundreds of years if not longer, much of the West has used a distinction it calls the "fact-value distinction" (Hume for example codified this clearly). Or in other words, it's made a sharp split between what "is", and what "ought to be", claiming that you can't argue what ought to be simply from what is.

This extends into values more generally. So it's one thing (apparently) to have some sort of facts about the world - how the world is - but another to overlay these with how you value these facts. For example, under this schema, honey has some definite chemical composition, which you can describe clearly in terms of compounds included within it etc. However how you feel about honey, or how you value it, is a separate thing completely. Some love it, some hate it, some are indifferent, some paint it on their bodies, etc.

Seems fine, this fact-value distinction? It looks difficult to argue against. But it's complete rubbish. And common sense and everyday life knows it, and reflects it in phrases such as "it's not what you say, it's what you do." People can say whatever they like, but the true measure of what they value will be shown in how they act. And we all know it. In our everyday lives what we do is not split into a series of facts, to which we then add the colour of values - our entire lives are shaped in real, physical ways according to what we value. Not as a separate process, 'after the fact', but in every moment. There are no separate facts and values.

Even in science this is true. There's a common mythology about science, that it doesn't trade in values but only in facts. But it's impossible to have a fact without a value - how you study something, right down to what theories and instruments you use, is shaped by a whole collection of values. Feminist authors have been unpacking this for years, showing that what has been passed off as the natural order of things in fact reflects a whole range of value-laden assumptions that guided the research. Or Shirley Strum's wonderful study of baboons, where she showed how comprehensively different they are as creatures if you dump the "alpha male is the lynchpin of the society" assumption before you start.

Back to organisations. The same applies there, if you want to know what an organisation's values are, look at what it does. Not at its value statement, normally a list of values the organisation says it embodies. Look at what it does, internally and externally. In every tiny detail, from how it looks after its grounds to wider organisational structure. (Universities do very well out of this sort of analysis - they're usually beautiful places with good working conditions.) You'll see what it values, and that it may or may not correspond with what it says it values. Organisations spend a lot of time coming up with their value statements, and this can be an arduous process because how do you pick between so many things that could be noble values to aspire to?

Well - you don't. Firstly and most obviously, for the reasons above - there are no free-floating, separate values, which you can then use to guide how to deal with all of the operational facts. You can't save this either by making them aspirational. It's a hard habit for many to break, they feel that it MUST be possible to take a value like inclusivity, and say "we will be inclusive", and then go about doing things to operationalise that. But it's a trap, because even what a term like that can mean will change with changing circumstances, always evolving. Theories of inclusivity will change, but so will physical, practical circumstances, that force people to rethink what it means.

So why are culture, leadership and values dead-ends?

When you look at what motivates organisations to focus upon culture, values and leadership, it's nearly always because things aren't going quite how they would like them to go. Coupled to that is a belief that what coordinates a large group of people - and nearly always these are problems of coordination - must be something that is simpler and more easily digestible than the thousands of varied operational processes they're engaged with every day. You need something (the idea goes) simple and inspiring that they can hang their myriad operational hats off, to bring everything into alignment.

So it's that feeling of there being some sort of disconnect between higher-level aspirations for an organisation, and what actually happens out on the ground, that often drives people to think about culture, values and leadership. Often after all sorts of attempts at process improvement have taken place, and the organisation still isn't heading where is intended. So it must be in the culture, and we need to decide on some shared values, and get better leadership. Etc.

If your organisation isn't doing what you want it to, it's not because you have the wrong values as a group, but because the group can't coordinate its work. The various tensions within your organisation are not being processed by the mechanisms you have in place to get your daily work done. So there's a disconnect between what you plan and what actually happens. Not because leaders are failing to inspire and marshal the troops, or people aren't all sharing the same values, or the culture is wrong, but because simple everyday, practical organisational tensions that represent the gap between vision and reality have nowhere to be processed. Peoples' values are fine, unless you're hiring sociopaths or you've unluckily stumbled upon an anomalous group of absolute boobs. Which is very unlikely, and won't explain why so many other organisations seem to be in the same boat.

No need to assume people are lacking shared values. People are generally nice, it's not actually that common to run into somebody in an organisation who's actively pulling back on the reins. They're human. They just can't find a way to process the gap between what they're doing every day, and what the organisation needs them to do every day. No amount of 'line of sight' or shared values will help them with that. Only practical mechanisms to process those tensions can do that, mechanisms that bridge the different levels of the organisation so that everything ends up pulling together. All an under-performing organisation shows is that facts and values are, again, the same thing - the organisation looks like it's floundering because it's simply lacking proper, distributed coordination. Plenty of values out there, at all levels, but nothing coordinating all of that collective effort.

(Of course many organisations work very hard at trying to get the coordination right - they use plans and various other methodologies to try to get everybody on the same page. Next time I'll suggest why that's so often ineffective.)

Linked to this is what it is that actually drives co-operation and collaboration. A common assumption is that people collaborate through agreement, they come together via some agreement to work together on something. That can happen, but in fact the most powerful incentive and driver for any collaboration is disagreement. John Dewey, the famous American philosopher, argued that any group is brought into being by a 'negative externality' - or in other words, a problem that can't be solved using existing methods. And in fact collaboration that happens as the result of agreement is always really not that - each person to the agreement will have their own reasons and differences from everybody else involved, for taking part. So it's actually differences that drive collaboration.  Where those differences have no avenue for resolution - where the tensions can't be resolved - an organisation then isn't unified and can't process its broader aims, even if everybody within it desperately wants to.

Culture is also interesting. Culture is one half of the split that defines modernity, the other half being nature. Most of modern Western history is defined by this split, with nature being some objective thing and cultures being a myriad collection of 'interpretations' sitting on top of this objective nature. This split is now falling to pieces (particularly with the climate change debate), and even many scientists no longer talk about nature with a capital N any more, the 'natural world' is too diverse a thing to be captured in that way. Similarly, there is actually no really plausible definition of what 'culture' is, in capital C terms. There are of course a whole variety of specific practices that make up what we normally call a culture, but there is no overarching definition of culture that makes any real sense. So working with 'organisational culture' is a little like trying to cut soup with a knife - you're wallowing right in the middle of that fact-value abyss, trying to pin down what would constitute a 'culture' for an organisation, separate to the specific things it actually does.

Some organisational theorists make the powerful point that people in a workplace have different 'spaces', and you need to respect all of them. Their personal space, and their organisationally-defined role space, and their governance space, etc. So talking about their values from this point of view, and trying to use values and more generally peoples' relationships and connections (the 'culture'), to leverage organisational change, is mixing up the spaces, which is not only ineffective but also potentially destructive of organisational relationships.

A nice example came from an organisational change process undertaken by the David Allen company, a company with very good 'culture' and interpersonal dynamics, but not great success in business terms. Allen was quoted as saying, after working through a framework that looked at things through this 'spaces' lens:

"What you're saying is that it is an inappropriate use of love and care, to use love and care to get something done."

Amen to that.


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