Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Placebos, Paradoxes and Parables for Culture Change

These days, I find myself thinking a lot about ‘culture change’. In my previous post (The Culture Lizard), I mentioned that just by changing the way people address one another in office (e.g. calling people by their first names instead of ‘Sir’, ‘Boss’ etc.) the underlying (hierarchical) culture is unlikely to change. I also said that in general such attempts might do more harm than good (e.g. by creating cognitive dissonance – especially for new entrants). But there are exceptions to this and let us begin this post by looking at one such scenario.

From my experience across organizations, I have found that new entrants often make incorrect judgments about the ‘culture of the organization’ and ‘what is required to be successful in that culture’. Sometimes, they also ‘project’ their ‘assumptions’, ‘preferences’ and ‘fears’ into these conclusions. Going back to our discussion above, there could be situations where new entrants (because of their assumptions about culture) misjudge the culture to be ‘hierarchical’ (where it is not actually so). They might also start addressing people as ‘Sir’ or ‘Boss’ (where it is not really required).

That is where the ‘placebo effect’ comes in. Placebo effect is the beneficial effect in a patient following a particular treatment that arises from the patient's expectations concerning the treatment rather than from the treatment itself. In a situation where the new entrants have misjudged the culture to be hierarchical and hence started addressing people as ‘Sir’ or ‘Boss’, the above intervention (of stipulating that everyone is addressed by their first names in the office) might do the trick. Of course, here the problem was essentially in the minds of the new entrants and that was the primary reason why the placebo (intervention) worked.

In reality, a particular culture is not really ‘black’ or ‘white’ (i.e. hierarchical or non-hierarchical) – it is more like ‘shades of gray’ (i.e. ranging from ‘very hierarchical’ to ‘very non-hierarchical’). Since placebos often have useful physiological effects, I would speculate that our placebo (i.e. our intervention) might even cure mild cases of ‘hierarchical culture’. This happens when the new entrants feel ‘empowered’ by the intervention and if there are a ‘critical mass’ of new entrants they might actually end up changing (‘curing’) mild cases of hierarchical culture!*

This brings in another important issue. One of the methods advocated for culture change is to hire the right people who would help in creating the desired culture. However, as I have mentioned in my post ‘Paradox of hiring good people and letting them decide’ that implementation of such an approach might be more difficult that what it appears to be (as definition of ‘good’ might get colored by the limitations of the current organization in figuring out ‘what good looks like’). It is also possible that if an organization hires someone who is aligned to the desired culture and if the desired culture is very different from the current culture the ‘system’ (the current organization) might ‘reject’ the new entrant just like the human body tries to reject a newly transplanted organ. May be, the solution is to hire someone who does not disrespect current way of doing things (and hence someone who would not evoke too strong an ‘immune response’/rejection from the existing organization) – but who is committed to the new way of doing things (the desired culture) – and changes the culture in subtle ways – say by introducing subtle modifications to the stories (parables) and the meanings derived/messages conveyed by the stories – by changing the daily conversations among the members of the organization through which they derive/agree on/make sense of the events in the organization (see ‘Architects of meaning’ for more details)!

*Note: Another scenario where such an intervention might be useful occurs when these words ('Boss', 'Sir' etc.) have strong associations (especially negative ones - say with 'autocratic behavior', with 'highly formal relationships' or with 'distant authority figures') in the minds of the new entrants. These associations (formed based on their previous work/life experiences) might trigger corresponding emotional responses in the new entrants and this might cause them to feel/think and act differently when interacting with their managers. For example, it might make it difficult for the new entrants to interact in a natural/creative/uninhibited manner with their managers. It is possible that such associations exist (at least to some extent) in the minds of managers also and this in turn might affect their feelings/thoughts and hence their behavior towards their team members. In such scenarios, this kind of an intervention (calling people by their first names instead of ‘Sir’, ‘Boss’ etc.) is useful as it prevents these unwanted emotional responses from getting triggered.