Sunday, January 16, 2011

The Culture Lizard

“We need to change the hierarchical culture here. So let us stipulate that everyone should be addressed by their first name in the office”, said the young HR professional. When I hear a statement like this, an image comes to my mind – image of the detached tail of a lizard!

It is said that when lizards are attacked (or when they are captured by the tail), they are likely to shed part of their tail and flee. The detached tail will continue to wiggle, creating a deceptive sense of continued struggle and distracting the attacker’s attention from the fleeing lizard. The lizard can partially regenerate its tail over a period of weeks.

Now, let us come back to our young HR professional. As far as I could figure out, the real problem that she was trying to address was the hierarchical culture. While I don’t think that there is anything inherently evil with a hierarchical culture (especially in the context of a larger society that has high ‘power distance’), I do agree with her that such a culture can be an impediment when an organization is trying to ‘empower’ the employees.

However, the source of my ‘disconnect’ with the young HR professional here was something very different. It was because I felt that the terms people use to address each other in the office (‘Sir’, ‘Boss’, ‘first name’ etc.) seemed to be just a symptom (or just one of the manifestations - that too a rather peripheral one) of the underlying hierarchical culture. I also felt that the manner in which people address each other in office was like the tail of the lizard (the 'hierarchical culture lizard!).

Hence my fear was that if our young HR professional tries to catch the culture lizard by its tail, it will just shed the tail and flee. Again, the distraction caused by the wiggling tail (the change that is happening in the way people address each other) might dilute the focus and adversely affect the chances our young HR professional might have had to bring about real culture change. So we might have a situation where people address each other by their first names but the underlying hierarchical culture remains very much intact. In my opinion, this is a more damaging situation as it creates cognitive dissonance and it can be very confusing – especially for new entrants.

In such hierarchical companies, newcomers might find it difficult to read the situation correctly when it comes to the degree of empowerment they actually have and how much innovation/creativity they should exhibit. For example, let us look at the following situation.

Your manager gives you the feedback that you need to be more innovative. You take it very seriously and you come up with many innovative/creative ideas during the next year. However, these ideas get promptly shot down by the manager. You detail out your ideas and try to convince manager that they are likely to work. However, the result remains the same and you also sense that the manager is becoming impatient and annoyed. At the end of the year, you again get the feedback that you need to be more innovative. Here what really happened was that that when the boss asked you to be more innovative, the boss was not really expecting you to come up with something very innovative/creative. The real expectation was that you should show more enthusiasm for the innovative ideas that the boss comes up with!!

In hierarchical organizations, it is often assumed that the bosses are the source of all good ideas and that the ideas from people down in the reporting chain (lower forms of evolution!) are unlikely to work as they won’t have sufficient understanding of the business/organization. It also follows that the best way to get the organization to implement your innovative idea is to create it twice - first in your mind and then in your boss's mind. The 'second creation' has to be done in a subtle manner - by 'triggering' or 'planting' it in your boss's mind without letting him/her know - so that the boss considers it to be his/her innovative idea. This might not be such a difficult task if the boss is prone to a bit of megalomania and/or self-delusion. This assumes that your primary motivation is to get your idea implemented and not to get credit for generating the idea. However, you might get 'indirect credit' - for implementing the idea - which has now become the innovative idea the boss has come up with. Not such a bad deal - considering that you managed to get your idea implemented and also received some sort of recognition (even if it was not for generating the idea)!

I am in favor of intervening simultaneously at multiple levels of culture to bring about culture change. Again, interventions/changes at a particular level of culture can sometimes have useful 'ripple effects' at the other levels of culture. Hence I do see value in making changes at the ‘outer layers’ of culture (like artifacts, norms etc.). But if we make changes at these levels without touching the inner/core layers of culture (like values, basic underlying assumptions etc.), the culture change is unlikely to work. Depending solely on the 'ripple effects' mentioned above is too much of a risk (especially since the ripple effects are often unpredictable). Also, as we have seen earlier, the lizard can regenerate its tail fairly quickly. Similarly, if the culture lizard is alive and kicking despite the loss of its tail (i.e. if the underlying hierarchical culture remains intact even after the change in the way people address each other), it might regenerate its tail without much delay!

Have you encountered any such ‘culture lizards’? If yes, what happened to the tail?

Note: Please see 'Placebos, Paradoxes and Parables for Culture Change' for further exploration of this theme.