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Where Does Culture Come From?

“If you think it’s expensive to hire a professional to do the job, wait until you hire an amateur.”     — Red Adair

I have never considered the origin and evolution of the culture of my workplace, not even the one that I created as a small business upstart.  I guess I just accepted that ‘it’ is done this way because that’s how ‘it’ has always been done.  In the case of my consulting firm, it was a spin off of another firm and their culture.  While we did create our own artifacts and had our own espoused values (that were designed to be counter culture to our parent firm, but weren’t really), there were very few assumptions I would call our very own. In retrospect, I can see that it was these few assumptions, however, that were actually the ones that caused my increasing dissatisfaction in my work when faced with economic difficulty – because they weren’t aligned with my value system.  Schein’s chapters on how culture emerges in Organizational Culture and Leadership shed an interesting light on not only the role of the founder and leader, but the role of every member of the organization along the way.

Of all the primary embedding mechanisms Schein Schein points to, ‘how leaders recruit, select, promote, and excommunicate’  was most intriguing to me.  Having recently gone through a rather arduous interview and hiring process, I considered why I hired from a new perspective.  Schein says, “One of the subtlest yet most potent ways through which leader assumptions get embedded and perpetuated is the process of selecting new members… Founders and leaders tend to find attractive those candidates who resemble present members in style, assumptions, values and beliefs.” Was I hired, then, because I resemble other members on the team or because I do not?  From what I’ve been able to discern perhaps a little bit of both.

There were seven coworkers involved in each of three interviews I had for this position.  The first was a phone interview, the second a face to face where I was asked to conduct a presentation, the third a Skype in which I had to suggest changes to a learning module that would integrate technology.  The fact that the ‘leader’ involved all of my soon to be colleagues would seem to say something about her values and beliefs.  What did they learn about me in the process? Were they looking for innovation and change or confirmation and consistency?  Did they realize they were responding to culture?

What if you would like to hire for innovation and change?  From what I’ve read, this is where wheat Schein calls ‘the reinforcement mechanisms’ come into play – systems and procedures, rituals of the organization, space, formal statements, etc.   I read several articles on this topic that indicate if you want to bring in innovation, you have to reflect innovation – in the job descriptions, in the screening process, in the interview questions and process itself, on the website.  In other words, you have to both externally and internally prove an ‘innovative culture’ to the candidate.  By this definition, it appeared that by giving me several tasks to perform and creative ways to demonstrate my skills and knowledge, the team was seeking innovation.  You always want to think that, at least, when you are job seeking.  Creating an innovative culture, the ‘gurus’ on the videos say, “has to come from the top down.”   They also say that you can bring in the right person, but that innovative implementation – “going to market” with the innovation is much, much harder.  I believe that is because of the inconsistency between the embedding mechanisms and the reinforcement mechanisms.  Schein says these work to create a positive culture by being consistent.  I can find my answer to why I was hired, so he says, in observing leader behaviors.

I know what I would like the answer to be.  Does it have to be all or nothing?  One article suggested that innovation can occur ‘a bit at a time’ – after you do enough the big ideas occur.  Steven Johnson, in this creative video – Where Good Ideas Come From  – says that good ideas are “where hunches collide.”  Perhaps culture shifts, little by little, with each collision over time.

Can a slow shift in embedded mechanisms help to shape a culture in new ways?  Can I shape culture in this way?  It seems when we want to create a new or different culture we start by ‘bringing in the reinforcements,’  forcing change to procedures, and structures, and rituals, and space.  These are the amateurs.  The professionals focus on the thinking, feeling and behaving – and little collisions over time.


One Response to “Where Does Culture Come From?”

  1. Joanne – I agree in that I had “never considered the origin and evolution of my workplace” before this class. Or that the decisions that founders make at start-up can impact the ebb and flow of the life of an organization. For instance, I doubt that Ken Olsen from DEC knew that developing an argumentative culture would contribute to the downfall of the organization.

    I am excited for you in your new position of influence in a budding organizational culture. What innovative ideas or changes will you bring to your new organization? What artifacts will you develop? I know you will make an impact that will last.

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