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You Are What You Do

Posted on June 10, 2018 by: Chris Fagan

David G White PhD

David G White Jr., PhDCo-founder and Principal, ONTOSglobal

Cognitive Science Disrupts Culture, Part II (The second of a two part article. Part I is here).

Former Yahoo CEO and Google executive Marisa Mayer was quoted recently in the New York Times as saying she joined Google “for the culture”,and that cultures once they reach 1000 people become “self reinforcing”. Certainly cultures exhibit patterns and regularities unique to particular groups, but what stands out for me is the taken-for-granted-ness of her statement. Like most executives, she views culture as a tangible force with clearly discernable and unambiguous properties that have direct influence over people.

For those of us who study culture, this stance presents several fascinating paradox.

For one, while executives attribute much corporate behavior (good and bad) to culture, academics still can’t agree on the basics of what organizational culture is, what are its boundaries, or how to best intervene. One reason for this is the divide between business schools and other social scientists. Business scholars approach culture from disciplines such as economics, psychology, or management science and argue culture from the narrow paradigms of those disciplines. Anthropologists have studied culture for over 100 years and have it squarely in the center of their intellectual agendas, but historically have not concerned themselves with organizational culture. Until recently this has resulted in academic echo chambers with relatively little cross-disciplinary interest in organizational culture.

For another, why is it so hard to define, locate, and intervene in culture? If managers acknowledge culture as pervasive and critically important, why are there so few documented cases of successful planned culture change despite the fact organizations have been trying to do this since the early 1980s? Why is there no agreed upon body of knowledge or standard methodology — as there exists for disciplines like operations, marketing or finance — for how to productively and sustainably intervene in a predictable way for such an important resource?

Executives and practitioners take culture for granted, remaining blissfully unencumbered by modern science.[1] Culture interventions proceed according to the myths identified in Part I, claiming culture’s importance but trying to manipulate it through overly simplistic (“change the game!”), reductive (generic, externally applied culture types such as “Individualistic” or “Market”), or simply muddled approaches based on little more than anecdote (‘it worked at my last company’), outmoded science (‘one company, one culture’), or wishful thinking (‘people will behave this way once they buy in to our values’).

There is a Better Way

This is not meant as a blanket indictment of all managers and culture practitioners. Most culture change efforts are well intended. Often they are the critical success factor in major business transformation or M&A. Ironically, most executives are intuitively correct about culture’s importance. But their intuition is naïve: in emphasizing quick fix or overly simplistic “solutions” to culture in the name of pragmatism, half-baked, ill-informed and ineffectual approaches are tolerated. The practice has badly lagged behind the most up-to-date science. And the academy shoulders equal blame for remaining too narrowly focused.

The last 30 or so years has witnessed a revolution in the cognitive science of culture, from the cognitive branches of anthropology, psychology, sociology, linguistics, and the emerging field of cultural neuroscience. Much of this work is still not yet well known in the business world. Based on my own extensive interdisciplinary research as a cognitive anthropologist and decades of work as a practitioner, I suggest this new science will radically change how we work with culture in organizations. Whether that change happens now or in 10 years remains to be seen, but consider the rest of this article a brief primer on this body of research and the implications emerging from it.

Culture as a Reference System

Cognitive scientists today define culture as knowledge shared and distributed within a social community. Most of this knowledge is implicit– we know it but don’t know we know it until it is brought into our awareness (or we are confronted with a starkly different knowledge system that jars our own or renders it obsolete).

We use this implicit knowledge every day in millions of ways trivial and profound, from what to expect when we walk into a restaurant to how much or how little eye contact to make with someone in a meeting versus in an elevator, to how we think of success or who is or is not a leader or what is or is not a good idea. Most of this knowledge is preverbal and schematic consisting of basic, prototypical outlines or simplified mental models stored in memory and accessed as a “reference system” – a kind of mental operating system that runs in the background but is readily available at any time for use to make sense of new events or situations, guide social interactions, plan, or orient us to what is meaningful, ideal, or important. These simplified representations are called cultural schemas. [2]

Schemas are situational, triggered by different social and environmental cues. Importantly, they are transferrable: we apply schemas learned in one context to new or unfamiliar ones. This process is automatic and reflexive, and deeply conditioned by life experience.

Culturally Speaking, You Are What You Do

The process of acquiring schemas through life experience helps explain how cultures originate in organizations.

One of the most important insights from cognitive linguistics and anthropology is the way we interact with our environment provides the basis for many of our conceptual skills. This is much more than saying we learn from experience. What has been demonstrated is that regular and sustained patterns of interaction with regularities in our physical and social environment are the foundation for how, and what we think. This is because of the brain’s synaptic plasticity as it is exposed over time to ongoing and repeated physical, social and cultural stimuli. [3]

This idea is at the heart of the new science of culture. It means what we know to a large degree is constrained and delimited by the physical and social environment in which we have come to know it.

This has huge implications for organizational culture: how and where cultural knowledge is acquired shapes organizational culture.

Cultural schemas are “learned”, that is, psychologically “induced” from meaningful sustained exposure and experience, such as formative experiences from childhood, or profound ethnic or regional cultural contexts. Extending this idea to organizational and professional life, cultural schemas are formed through the process of professionalization – the extensive training and socialization involved in becoming a professional (law, medicine, engineering, banking, construction, etc.), or from the strategic tasks associated with solving very hard problems or fulfilling compelling missions in a sustained way over time (or both). When these highly meaningful contexts are experienced over time, they influence brain chemistry, inducing distinct schemas related to the professionalization process or the core task environment. [4]

On the surface, this is very intuitive. This is why professional service firms seem to have distinct cultures associated with their occupations (e.g. law firms). Similarly, companies where certain occupational groups wield significant power and prestige — software engineers in software; data scientists in AI; doctors in HMOs; marketers in consumer products; traders in brokerages, and so on, will manifest cultures closely associated with their dominant group (although other influences are also at play, rendering no two cultures exactly alike). This is one reason organizations within industries are more culturally alike than those across industries.

This is also why start ups that have solved very difficult business, technical or even social problems (e.g. in transportation or food delivery) can exhibit strong and distinct cultures associated with those strategic tasks, at least until they reach a certain size. Because of the motivating nature of the mission or problem solved, the schemas induced in these contexts will tend to be widely shared.

In a very palpable but largely invisible way, organizational cultures at their cores reflect their own professionalization or task environment. Culturally speaking you are what you do: what you (successfully and meaningfully) work at shapes how you (collectively) think.[5]

Culture’s Foundation

Shared schemas are the foundations of culture. These knowledge repositories underwrite everything we take as culture: behavioral tendencies, norms, values, prevailing beliefs and attitudes, symbols, myths, physical plant or office layouts, and so forth. They are most visible in formal and informal organizational practices and routines as the logic or assumptions justifying them. For any given practice, what is emphasized or de-emphasized, the basis of its logic or authority, what is considered ‘good’, and so on, are all instantiations of cultural schemas.

In this way schemas can be “read” as habitual “overlearned” organizational tendencies, the reflexive responses or adaptations to environmental triggers.

Examples of this are everywhere: the conglomerate whose business model is portfolio optimization and risk mitigation who automatically applies these principles to innovation projects, which has the unintended consequence of shutting down risk taking and learning even though the organization explicitly espouses these behaviors as key to strategy. Or the industrial manufacturer with deeply embedded management control and risk mitigation practices given the high cost of product failure who finds it difficult to implement Internet of Things (IoT) technology: what industrial is comfortable shipping a product with known bugs and updating it in 6-week sprints? Or the airline whose primary orientations of safety and speed cause it to reflexively apply excess speed to merger integration activities, only to experience disgruntled employees, warring unions, and irate customers years after the merger. Or the operating systems software firm whose core strategy is to create software platforms for external partners, which inadvertently lead to internal product teams fighting amongst each other to be the platform of choice for other internal groups to base their code. Or the dewatering unit of a global water technology company whose business model hinges on fast customer response times to remove unwanted water, a reflex that inadvertently perpetuates an urgency and crisis mentality across many of its management practices, resulting in a tendency to alter plans or strategies at the last minute, a high value placed on individual heroics, and marked difficulties collaborating with others outside the unit.

Most managers recognize such phenomena as “culture” but are hard pressed to explain why they are there are where they come from. And despite highly motivated leaders and an abundance of ‘best practice’ advice, cultural effects such as these will constrain business transformation: embedded preconscious schemas structuring core practices invariably conspire to sabotage progress.

This is one of the main reasons why culture change is so hard.

Implications: Stop Changing “The Culture”

When we understand cultures are underwritten by shared preconscious knowledge, our interventions can target the source rather than symptoms. We work inside the “black box”, addressing what gives rise to culture to begin with.[6]

There are four major implications of this new science for managers.

1. Culture is not ‘Out There’ Waiting to be Manipulated

Think of how many interventions proceed from the assumption of culture as a physical thing to be manipulated. The phrase ‘we need to change the culture’ takes as a given culture residing “out there” somewhere ready to be accessed and changed like a defective motherboard. Culture doesn’t reside out there; it resides in here,in our collective minds. Our objectification of culture, while understandable, makes us believe culture is a dependent variable, something to “fix”. This fundamental attribution error leads us to black box interventions that waste huge amounts of time and resources.

2. Most Organizations Have Many Cultures

Unless you work in a small firm with people who share the same professional background or are all highly motivated by a big business or technology challenge, the likelihood of a single culture in your firm is low. I realize it is powerfully seductive to think about The Microsoft Culture or the GE Way, or coming to Google for “the culture”, and so on. But these are figures of speech, not really statements about how culture actually works.

If your organization feels like it has something like a single “strong” culture, what you are experiencing is the effect of a few primary schemas that bear a family resemblance to each other because they share the same professional or task-based origins. These schemas will endow practices and behavior patterns across the organization with the same readily identifiable characteristics.[7]

3. Culture is Not Causal

From the above we might by now see why conceiving of culture as causal in shaping behavior is problematic. This doesn’t mean cultures cannot be influential. But doing so is like trying to direct water running down a slope; you can’t shape water, only the course it takes.

To understand why, return to the idea of schemas as reference models. Cultural schemas are basic prototypes that orient us in a myriad of situations. But their guidance is schematic — an outline. What one actually does or how one actually thinks in a given situation is always based on individual life experience and the context at hand. Schemas are mental conduits guiding what to do or how to think given the situation, but the actual thought or action is a function of the actor’s own thoughts and behavior which at times may operate outside the conduit.

This is illustrated by an example from my own research at an industrial manufacturing conglomerate. A dominant schema in this organization is a pervasive orientation to first-hand knowledge, as captured in the expression if I don’t see it I don’t believe it. [8] The schema is shared widely and shows up in many ways, such as in prevailing beliefs about how only personal experience can solve complex problems, which means only people who have done the exact job or task are deployed to work on such problems; or, the belief that to be a successful general manager requires a breadth of personal experience across all major functions under one’s purview, which means no one is promoted or hired as a GM unless they have had that breadth of experience; or, the expectation that division executives personally know their customers even if not in sales roles. This general hands-on orientation extends to social realms of trust and perceived competence, where people who use overly abstract language or rely on models to convey ideas tend to be perceived as not “down to earth”, “out of touch”, and even less trustworthy.

The first-hand knowledge schema powers many practices, but it is a general orientation. The actual details — about hard problems, hiring, customers, or who to trust — are filled in by individuals at the moment of instantiation and blended with other schemas. This inherent variability means culture cannot be causal.

Every individual operates according to the logic of many schemas, such as those related to his or her occupational training, the core tasks of the business, and those of one’s family of origin as well as the wider society or culture of which he or she is a part. Think of a Kashmiri chemical engineer working for a global oil company in Houston. This person, by definition, lives and operates in several cultures simultaneously — Kashmiri, Texan, American, engineering, chemistry, and that of the localized business unit, to name a few. If you are trying to measure and change culture at this firm, how would you know which culture you are dealing with in this case, or the thousands of others like it?

4. To Change Culture, Change Practices

To effectively intervene in culture requires intervening at the source – the shared schemas.[9] This means, basically, changing collective cognitive structure. Easier said than done, of course. How to proceed?

First, it is important to understand that while brains are “plastic”, schemas are durable. Meaning: because schemas are learned through sustained and meaningful experience over time, to change schemas requires inducing new or revised schemas through sustained and meaningful new experience. Creating sustained and meaningful new experience can only be done through changing practices.

Practices are the everyday formal and informal, task-based and social routines by which the business of your business runs. They include everything from how you plan and allocate resources, the basis by which you determine success and failure, how you promote and reward, how open (or not) you are to new ideas, how you collectively learn, and on. Most organizations have hundreds of practices deeply emblematic of their own cultures. Identifying which ones to change, of course, is all about knowing what it is you want to change, and how motivated people are to change (people need motivating reasons to do things differently).

Figure 1 depicts the cognitive-science based approach to culture change and how it differs from the mainstream approach:

Figure 1
Culture Diagram2

In the mainstream view, the locus of intervention is “the culture”. Since we are not ever sure what that is, we fall back to changing communication strategies, or HR initiatives like rewards or recognition. For example, if you want to be more detail oriented as a culture, you might come up with a slogan like sweat the small stuff and hope that by marketing it extensively people will change behavior.

In the modern conception, the locus of intervention is core practice. For example, it is difficult for the industrial manufacturer implementing IoT to embrace the logic of “fail fast” and other iterative software and design methodologies because, like human antibodies attacking disease, the schemas endowed by the manufacturing environment will actively mitigate against failure! Which makes change like this very difficult.

Difficult, but not impossible. The key is to identify the constellation of practices surrounding innovation and new product development, such as those involving how risk is defined and managed; how (IoT) success is defined (hint: not based on P&L); how control and delegation of authority is carried out; how resources are allocated; how projects are managed; and how learning and failure are treated, and so on.

From this one begins to see culture change is not about espousing norms and values, the shoulds and thou shalts. While these might be important in signaling what is aspired, simply evangelizing what you want alone will not change collective brain chemistry. Sustained change requires embedding what is aspired into high leverage practices so that they are capable of entraining new behavior and attitudes, and thereby alter neural pathways.

What Leaders Can Do

As leaders and practitioners, therefore the first and best question to ask in culture change is: how do we surface our primary cultural schemas, the root logics embedded in our assumptions for how we make sense of things, what we deem important, and how we tend to operate across the spectrum of our most critical organizational practices? How do we “see” the logic that underpins our own system?

You tend not to know your shared schemas until they are brought to your attention. And when you have identified primary schemas, the next step is to trace all the ways in which they fuel your key practices. And change to organizational practices take focus, a long-term horizon, a sophisticated understanding of the dynamics of change and resistance (longstanding core practices tend to be vigorously defended) and political will. From this one can see how the strategic use of power in allocating resources and setting agendas becomes instrumental in culture change.

The cognitive science of culture begins to explain why culture change is so hard, and so hard to come by. Our understanding of culture in organizations is still immature, but modern interdisciplinary cognitive science is illuminating why culture is among the most complex phenomenon of organizational life. As such, it requires a more sophisticated approach than what we see today. As leaders and practitioners we have choice: we can continue to operate according to popular myths, or we can accept that a new frontier based on the science of the “cultural mind” is upon us, one with the potential to sustainably help transform the organizations we help and lead.


[1] Maybe the popular usage of “culture” is simply shorthand, a modern metonym like trollor photobombor selfie that has something to do with collective behavior and attitude but is pretty much unrelated to the thing social scientists are referring to when they talk about culture.

[2]There are many other terms for schemas including “models”, “scripts”, “recipes”, “frames”, and “logics”. For the purposes of our understanding they all refer to the same kind of thing. “Cultural” schemas are those shared across a social group. Schemas have been studied since the 1980s, but their application to culture is relatively new.

[3]See Hutchins (2014, 2005, 1995). Also see the literature on embodiment. For an overview, I suggest Varela Thompson, and Rosch (1991), or Stewart (2010).

[4]Interested readers can refer to my book, Rethinking Culture: Embodied cognition and the origin of culture in organizations(Routledge, 2017).

[5]This is why expressions like they have an engineering cultureor it’s a real sales cultureare not inaccurate characterizations of certain organizations.

[6]The definition of culture offered by Edgar Schein and others, that culture is ‘how we do things around here’, is compatible with the cognitive science view. The major difference is the ‘how we do things’ view usually refers to how people behave, whereas the cognitive view encompasses organizational practices that extend beyond human behavior into the rules, precepts and attitudes that are behind common practices such as budgeting, planning, hiring or promotion.

[7]There are many examples of how schemas endow recognizably strong cultures. I refer those interested to my book, Rethinking Culture: Embodied cognition and the origin of culture in organizationsfor examples.

[8]The schema I suggest is the result of the manufacturing task environment: designing, procuring, manufacturing and selling physical things.

[9]One way to do that is to replace people — the most obvious and logical path to schema change. But that is often impractical, expensive, and unethical — and won’t work if that is all you do.

For further reading, please refer to the references in Part I.


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