One of the primary purposes of corporate culture is to maintain the system – to flykeep things just the way they are. In this way, your culture can be working against you – trying to keep the organization growing and developing. In this brief article I will explore how cultures are created, and how you might unwittingly have a defensive culture.
As humans we are very adaptable and perceptive – when we find ourselves in a new situation (as some would say out of our comfort zone) our awareness heightens and we start to recognize how others are acting and we adapt to model their behavior to fit in. Operating at this heightened awareness takes a lot of energy, so we start to take on the behaviors of those around us (indoctrination) until we get back into a new comfort zone. In organizations, the behaviors adopted are the behaviors that we perceive as being necessary to fit in and in most cases get ahead. These behaviors may or may not be what we would choose to do, but none the less they are the way things are done around here.
A classic example of this occurs on airplanes. When you fly you are part of a temporary organization, where the flight attendants are the formal leaders. During the flight, the flight attendants communicate information about where to put your stuff, to keep you seat belt on, and what to do in case of emergency. One thing that flight attendants do not do is tell you how to get off the plane when you arrive safely; culture has taken care of that as a norm has been established to get off the plan row by row. It is efficient and effective, and no one has to say anything, that is just the way we do it. However, occasionally the flight arrives into a hub late, and the flight attendants make an announcement – “We apologize for arriving in Detroit late, we have some passengers on board whom have tight connections, so would you please let them off the plane first?” It is a reasonable request, however it rarely has any effect, the norm to get off the plane row by row is stronger than a reasonable request from the leadership. This phenomenon happens in organizations every day, we as leaders make reasonable requests, and our staff has no problem acting like we never said a thing – culture is a powerful force that drives behavior and performance even when it is contrary to our demands.
There are two types of culture – Defensive and Constructive. Constructive cultures reward proactive behaviors that foster innovation, performance and personal responsibility and accountability. Defensive cultures on the other hand reward inactive or reactive behaviors that focus on maintaining the status quo, blaming others for creating problems and a real desire to look good on the surface.
All organizations have some of each set of behaviors in their culture, but what differentiates companies is which set of behaviors is dominant. Research has shown that only about one third of the cultures are primarily constructive, while the remaining two thirds are primarily defensive.
The tendency for organizations to be more defensive than constructive is just part of a natural path that organizations follow (unwittingly) in their growth and development. Most organizations start out constructive (or with a lot of money) and to survive they develop a product or service that establishes them with a dominant market position. Over time their initial success leads to more success and they lose the urgency to create and develop new products to survive and they start to develop a sense of needing to “protect the core” and maintain this success. The management gets into a comfort zone convinced by their success in the past, that their brilliance will carry them forward. As more and more effort goes to protecting the current business, the management develops arrogance – and they start to pay attention only to information that reinforces their view of their brilliance, and ignore and rationalize information that would suggest that their core business is deteriorating and that they need to reinvent themselves. To prevent dissidence from occurring the focus shifts internal – attempting to maximize profitability on the core product or service oblivious to the realities of the market. The true performance of the organization continues to deteriorate until one day they wake up in a crisis and have no idea how they got there. In fact, recent research has shown that the more defensive the culture of the organization the more volatile the financial performance is – i.e. going through cycles of developing new and then protecting the core until it is gone and then in a panic develop a new and protect that and so on.
So if you have been frustrated trying to implement new initiatives, perhaps it isn’t the initiative that has been the problem, but that unseen obstructionist the culture. The companies that continually promote a more constructive culture do this through effective leadership, leadership that recognizes how important it is to keep the organization ever-green. These organizations are externally focused, balance the concerns of all stakeholder groups, keep politics out and ensure that communication flows freely ensuring candid discussions and decision-making. These leaders do this by being future focused always anchoring decisions to a clear vision, a strategy and clear expectation. In other words, vision and values are not posters in these organizations, but true operational tools.
As a global consultancy, with over four decades of expertise, The Pacific Institute® has worked with over half of the current Fortune 1000 companies, as well as national and international governments, educational institutions, professional athletes and sports teams. Founded in 1971, in Seattle, Washington, The Pacific Institute® uses the latest research coming out of the fields of cognitive psychology, social learning theory, backed by recent neuroscience, to help organizations and individuals ignite fresh thinking and accelerate performance.