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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.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Communicating across cultures, Global business strategy, Global teams, Integrated talent management, Leadership, Organizational change, Organizational culture, What We Do | Post A Comment

The 5 Myths of Culture Change

Posted on June 10, 2018 by: Chris Fagan

David G White PhD

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

Most approaches to culture change are ill informed. Cognitive science provides a better way.
Part 1 of 2.

These are heady times for those of us in the culture business — which is pretty much anyone who leads an organization or tries to help those that do. Organizational “culture” seems to explain everything, from Uber’s rapaciousness to Amazon’s intensity to GM’s ethical lapses to Enron’s greed. Startups now have VPs of “Culture”. The term is so firmly in the mainstream that athletes and sports managers use it to explain why, say, basketball’s Golden State Warriors are so good, or why European football’s Arsenal are so perpetually mediocre.

Wanting to improve your organization’s inclusion, creativity, performance, and overall humanity is laudable. Unfortunately for us cognitive anthropologists, the culture fad is like Dr. Frankenstein’s monster escaped from the lab to wreak havoc on the countryside. A well-intended and promising invention gone alarmingly awry. And most of us in the lab are at least partially to blame.

This piece explains why, and what can be done. I’ll begin by illustrating the problem through a short thought experiment to show how most of our assumptions about culture are ill informed. In Part II I will introduce the new science of culture and show how it might be leveraged.

The Mainstream Way

Imagine you are the CEO of a medium-sized, global industrial company (say 15,000 employees, 75 countries), who wants to change your company’s culture. Let’s say you want to do so because, well, your world is changing: product and service digitization, the Internet of Things, changing customer demand, the rise of emerging markets, and on. You believe your organization needs to move faster, be more innovative and collaborative in order to avoid being disrupted and rendered irrelevant in this new, rapidly changing post-industrial world. You believe a change to your culture is the key to avoiding this fate.

Where would you begin?

You might begin by impressing upon your direct reports and senior managers that they need to be more innovative and collaborative. You might say something like, “Culture change starts at the top.” Some of your colleagues might wonder what exactly you mean, to which you would say, “You set the tone. If you are more this way the rest of the organization will be more this way too.”

You might invest in internal marketing. This could mean a clever branding campaign with imagery and tag lines such as“Connect” or “Go Big” or “Make Something Happen!” to fill posters in conference rooms, tent cards in cafeterias, and new hire collateral. These themes become the centerpieces of your town halls as you evangelize the benefits of upping the collective innovation and collaboration quotient of your company.

Depending on the size of your budget, you might create training that teaches people how to behave in more collaborative and innovative ways. A sizeable chunk of your workforce will be required to take such classes, with everyone receiving a tchotchke reminding what innovation and collaboration really mean.

Rightfully you will be concerned these efforts are making a difference. So you will ensure the next employee engagement survey measures innovation and collaboration. In fact, a year passes and you are pleased to see the relevant survey questions have improved by a couple of percentage points from industry benchmarks.

So, after all this, have your changed your culture?

You might say you have, pointing to the survey results. To which I would ask, is your organization truly more collaborative and innovative? Or, might you be measuring the effects of priming by a marketing and training exercise? And is employee engagement the same as culture?

The scenario above, with minor variations, is the most commonly used approach and evidentiary standard for culture change in organizations today. Here’s the problem: most of the time it doesn’t work. The emerging cognitive science of culture helps explain why.

The 5 Myths of Culture Change

From the standpoint of research in the last 30 years on the relationship between the mind and culture emerging from cognitive anthropology, psychology, linguistics, sociology, cultural neuroscience and artificial intelligence — every aspect of this approach is flawed. The assumptions underpinning it are based either on outmoded theory, or no theory at all — when is the last time you read a popular book on culture based on actual theory or research? Remarkably, much of the mainstream approach is based on anecdote, wishful thinking, or trivialization: culture is operationalized in such a narrow or generalized way that “proving” something about it has little bearing on the lived reality of the organization. [1]

In other words, most of the ways in which we approach culture today are based on assumptions that upon closer examination reveal themselves simply to be myths with little or no foundation in modern research.

Myth # 1: Culture and culture change start at the top

This myth is so much part of the mainstream few of us have ever stopped and asked if it is supported by any independent evidence. It is based on an assumption of a linear and causal relationship between leadership and culture. That is, the leader shapes The Culture. There is another assumption embedded within this: that organizations have single, unified cultures.

Take the second one first.

The idea of a single, unified culture in an organization comes from literal interpretations of the classic ethnographies of the early 20th century on so-called “simple societies”, such as Mead’s work on Samoa or Benedict’s on the Zuni. While these groundbreaking ethnographers realized the concept of rigid cultural boundaries was of limited use and anthropologists abandoned it decades ago, many practitioners and management scholars persist with literal interpretations of this idea to this day, assuming any “society” such as an organization has a single culture.

Work in cognitive anthropology, sociology and linguistics shows us that cultural boundaries are highly permeable and fluid; people in organizations inhabit multiple pre-existing cultural systems (ethnic, regional, occupational, site or division-specific, etc.). To think of any sizeable organization having a single unifying culture is simply projection or wishful thinking. Cognitive science actually explains why we persist in believing in singular monolithic cultures, which I get to later on.

The assumption that leaders set culture has its roots in the Culture and Personality school of psychology from the first half of the 20th century. Management scholars extended the idea to organizations — some might say by a leap of faith — to suggest over time organizations can adopt the personalities of their leaders. There is undoubtedly a relationship between leadership personality and culture, but it is much more complex than that. For one, the relationship is mostly in the other direction: legacy cultures influence socialization. Simple relationships between CEO personality and culture have not been systematically observed in any organization beyond a small start up. And measuring such relationships is fraught with empirical problems: personality traits measure features of language, not culture; trait attribution systems vary across cultures; many CEO traits such as “achievement orientation” are so generalized in the CEO population that to suggest they occur as part of a particular culture is meaningless.

Yet these assumptions persist unchecked, for two reasons. First, since the 1970s leaders have been taught that organizational control through normative means (such as culture) is far more desirable than overt control (‘theory Y’ vs. ‘theory X management). Leaders tend to want to imprint their own legacies on their organizations. It is not surprising that this tendency is most prevalent in the U.S.: leader ‘self-enhancement’ is rooted in American cultural models of leadership benevolence and individual agency. We want to believe leaders shape culture because it is deeply consistent with our ideals of what leaders are supposed to do.

A more modern and scientifically sound way to think about the relationship between leadership and culture is through the lens of power. Leaders set agendas, allocate capital, marshal resources, and determine rewards. These actions influence organizational practices that in turn shape how people think and act.

Even in the most well publicized cases of charismatic leadership (ostensibly) shaping culture (for example, Ray Dalio at Bridgewater), on closer examination one can invariably identify actual organizational practices at the heart of the culture shaping. There is no straight line to be drawn between leadership and culture; at best, leaders may influence the conditions through which cultures take shape.

Tip: leaders would see a lot more ROI for their culture investment if they prioritized holding their organizations accountable for practices supportive of a desired future state than worrying about corporate values.

Myth # 2: Culture is shaped by language

The emphasis on internal marketing in our thought experiment, and on leaders “setting” culture through what they say is based on the assumption that language changes culture. We assume if we just get the words right, that will shape desired behavior — as if the problem is word choice. This is one reason why culture change is often approached as a problem for the corporate communications or PR team.

There is nothing wrong with clever catch phrases to help sell a vision or desired value. The problem is most companies stop there.

The emphasis on language reflects a many decades-old debate in cognitive science about whether language shapes, rather than reflects, how people think.[2] But this debate has been largely resolved: cognitive linguists demonstrated convincingly we have many more thoughts, ideas and feelings than we can encode in language. Cultural knowledge is more than what can be conveyed through words alone. Therefore, to reduce culture to slogans or value statements is to mistake symptom for cause, or the mirror for the face. Language reflects some aspect of culture, yes, but it should not be assumed language is the same as culture. The prevailing view now is that language and culture in any society are parallel systems with overlaps and touch points that reflect, support, or at times serve as adaptations to each other. It is not the case that by simply espousing the culture we want we can change cognitive structure.[3] In fact, based on how the brain processes novel versus conventional figurative language, it is likely that using typical business jargon as part of your change program will not be memorable at all.

Tip: Language matters, but less than you might think. Without supporting practices, your clever pronouncements or marketing will amount to very little.

Myth # 3: Culture can be trained

Myth # 4: Culture can be measured in opinion surveys

That culture can be learned through training, and that opinion surveys measure culture rely on the same problematic assumptions of boundaries and language. A corollary assumption is that culture is synonymous with values and normative precepts, and that these can be taught through training classes.

Again, wishful thinking.

The literature on values and culture is littered with more problems than can be described fully here. Among them: large organizations are made up of multiple value systems; there is a difference between personal and institutional values; values are idealizations, beliefs in how I think I should be; values tend not to be internalized in a population unless they are already well-socialized in that population; leaders in any society tend to have more values in common with each other than they do with the rest of the population; employees may be prone to saying (or responding on surveys) what they believe top management wants to hear; and people don’t always act according to what they believe.

Opinion surveys measure something: opinions. Attitudes and opinions are not culture. As with language, they might reflect some aspect of it, or be compensations for it. For example, a technology client of ours publicly values open communication and goodwill towards others. In our research there, however, we observe robust thinking and mastery of craft to be deeply held cultural models that orient much of what is considered “good” in the organization, and that in practice get in the way of “goodwill”: it is difficult to have goodwill when you don’t respect your colleague for his lack of craft. Openness and goodwill are publicly espoused, however, because they should be ideally important, especially given the pervasive orientations about what really “counts”.[4]

Tip: “Training” a desired culture through norms and values will be highly problematic in any non-homogeneous organization (which is to say, almost all of them). At best, training might provide something to aim for, or better, be acknowledged as compensation for deeper cultural realities.

Myth # 5: Culture is a real “thing”

All of the above can be subsumed under the mother of all organizational culture assumptions: that culture is something tangible. From this all culture shaping proceeds. Managing culture is no different from managing any other asset: “target” what you want (e.g. more collaboration), then focus on “fixing it” (through marketing, training, etc. The words in quotes underscore the metaphor of a physical thing).

Making culture out to be a concrete object is due to the pragmatism of business: culture is, of course, a means to an end. It is also due to the fact the human mind tends to make sense of abstract things in terms of physical ones. Think of the way we characterize M&A as fighting, mating, or marriage — as if a merger literally is one of these things. We similarly talk and act as if culture is real and bounded, identifiable in language and in values, norms, and so forth. While its effects might be observed in these ways, this does not make it ontologically real in the same way, say, as a piece of machinery, or even money. For where, exactly, is that culture? Of what does it consist? What are its boundaries? Where does it come from?

Few executives and practitioners are able to answer these questions without resorting to the assumptions problematized above.

The Black Box of Culture Change

Which is one reason why so many culture interventions are, essentially, “black box”, consisting of sayings like be the change you want to be; change the game; keep it simple, etc., or else defaulting to loosely defined initiatives involving people (hiring, on-boarding, training) because, well, culture must have something to do with people (right?). Because we can’t readily “locate” culture, we are left trying to “solve” it through indirect means in hopes it will all work out.

We default to these kinds of interventions, well intended as they are, because they seem simple and easy to carry out. In truth, they are stabs in the dark, naïve attempts in the face of the fact we don’t really know much about the actual science of culture.

If culture engineering and change were really as simple as mainstream practitioners would have it, we would see much more empirical evidence of successful change, and a lot less academic debate. The culture literature would be filled with case after case of success. Recipes for change would be unambiguous. Culture would be more like accounting, or marketing: a body of knowledge on what works would be readily available.

Yet the opposite is the case. Companies have been interested in shaping or changing culture since the early 1980s, yet what we have to show for all this effort is that most managed culture programs fail to produce any sustained or measurable impact beyond anecdote (which usually comes from the very people espousing the culture change to begin with). Even when it is “proven” to have changed, it is usually because “culture” is operationalized as a single variable and shown, magically (through attitude or opinion surveys), to have moved in some direction.

There is a Better Way

Executives and practitioners are intuitively correct about culture’s fundamental importance and pervasiveness. The irony is that in trying to work with it, many dumb it down to single variables, simple recipes or hackneyed sayings based on little more than myth. Few would subordinate their marketing or financial strategy to such flimsy standards of evidence or research, but organizational culture work again and again proves the exception, unfortunately at great expense of time, energy, and resources.

Cultures do exhibit patterns and tendencies that are intuitively recognizable and exert a deep, if mostly hidden force on social systems. The key question is whether these patterns and tendencies can be engineered to produce predictable outcomes. The jury is still out. But modern science is moving us away from most of the current practices we see in organizations.

When what we are learning about culture from the cognitive sciences trickles down to the mainstream, we will witness a radical transformation in the practice of organizational effectiveness and change. That this knowledge is not (yet) widespread is partly because anthropology, the one discipline that puts culture at the center of its intellectual agenda, has not focused much on organizational culture, leaving the field open for others.

The new cognitive science of culture changes the game. In part II I will begin to explain why, and how, the new science can be put to use.

Some Further Reading:

1. Alvesson, M., & Sveningsson, S. (2008). Changing organizational culture: Cultural change work in progress. Abingdon: Routledge.

2. D’Andrade, R. (1995). The development of cognitive anthropology. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

3. D’Andrade, R. (2008). A study of personal and cultural values: American, Japanese, and Vietnamese. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

4. Descola, P. (2013). Beyond nature and culture. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

5. Evans, (2004); Cognitive linguistics. Edinburgh University Press.

6. Evans, V. (2006). Lexical concepts, cognitive models and meaning-construction.Cognitive Linguistics17(4). DOI 10.1515/COG.2006.016

7. Gentner, D. & Colhoun, J. (2010). Analogical processes in human thinking and learning. In A. von Muller & E. Poppel (Series Eds.) & B. Glatzeder, V. Goel, & A. von Muller (Vol. Eds.), On thinking: Vol. 2. Towards a theory of thinking (pp. 35–48). Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

8. Handwerker, W. P. (2009). The origin of cultures. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press.

9. Hutchins, E. (2014). The cultural ecosystem of human cognition. Philosophical Psychology, 27(1), 34-49.

10. Hutchins, E. (2005). Material anchors for conceptual blends. Journal of Pragmatics,37, 1555-1577.

11. Hutchins, E. (1995). Cognition in the wild. Cambridge: MIT Press

12. Kronenfeld, D. (2018). Culture as a system: How we know the meaning and significance of what we do and say.New York: Routledge.

13. Langacker, R. (1987). Foundations of cognitive grammar, vol. 1, theoretical prerequisites. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

14. Martin, J., Frost, P. (2011). The organizational culture war games: a struggle for intellectual dominance. In M. Godwin and J. Hoffer Gittell (Eds.), Sociology of organizations: Structures and relationships(pp. 559-621). Thousand Oaks: Sage. Retrieved from: http://scholar.google.com/

15. Martin, J. (2002). Organizational culture: Mapping the terrain. Thousand Oaks: Sage. Ogbonna & Harris, (2002).

16. Ogbonna, E., & Harris, L.C., (2002). Managing organisational culture: insights from the hospitality industry. Human Resource Management Journal, 12(1), 33-53

17. Palmer, G. B. (1996). Toward a theory of cultural linguistics. Austin: University of Texas Press.

18. Quinn, N. (2005). How to reconstruct schemas people share, from what they say. In: N. Quinn (Ed.), Finding culture in talk.(pp: 35-84).New York: Palgrave. Smith (2003)

19. Shore, B. (1998). Culture in mind: Cognition, culture, and the problem of meaning. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

20. Smith, M. E. (2003). Changing an organisation’s culture: correlates of success and failure. Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 24(5), 249-261.

21. Stewart, J. (2010). Introduction. In: J. Stewart, O. Gapenne,& A. Di Paolo (Eds.). Enaction: Toward a new paradigm for cognitive science. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

22. Strauss, C. & Quinn, N. (1997). A cognitive theory of cultural meaning. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

23. Varela, F. J., Thompson, E., & Rosch, E. (1991). The embodied mind. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

24. White, D.G. (2017). Rethinking culture: Embodied cognition and the origin of culture in organizations. Abingdon: Routledge.

25. Wood, J., & Vilkinas, T. (2004). Characteristics of chief executive officers views of their staff. Journal of Management Development,23(5), 469-478.

[1]By “mainstream” I include most of the work emanating from business schools and large consultancies. It is not that some of this work is without merit. My issue is that little of it looks outside of the management literature or narrowly drawn client case studies to the fields referenced above. Most of the management scholarship on culture lives in an echo chamber, promulgating many of the theories shown to be problematic in this article.

[2] Known as the linguistic relativity problem outline by Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf.

[3] This is not to deny language plays a role in constructing meaning. How groups make meaning is in part based on language, which in turn reflects some aspects of shared culture. But that is only part of the story. Simply positing a desired culture by identifying key words, phrases and slogans for people to adopt is nowhere near enough to actually change lived culture.

[4] Cultural models are the underpinnings of culture and are described in Part II.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Global business strategy, Integrated talent management, Leadership, Organizational culture, What We Do | Post A Comment

VIDEO: How Cognitive Science Disrupts Culture

Posted on October 31, 2017 by: Chris Fagan

Enjoy this interview with Ontos Principal with UC Berkeley Haas Business School on how modern cognitive science changes our approach to organizational culture.

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When is Leadership Development “Transformational”? (Part II)

Posted on October 31, 2017 by: Chris Fagan

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOS global

My last post on this topic described our approach to creating transformational learning environments (Transformational Leadership Development? What Makes it So?). I introduced the idea that when leaders want the organization to transform, they are actually seeking its people to transform. I discussed some key elements including the need to engage each individual to explore his or her unique motivations and identity, to support them in becoming more aligned to the organizational strategy, and to become change leaders themselves.

But the organizational environment equally matters. Just as fish can only swim in oxygenated water, individual change leaders also need an environment where they can breathe, grow and thrive. Few would debate this point, but leaders who emerge from transformational learning experiences will often run into a wall of people who completely miss the importance of workplaces as places of learning, in addition to places of business.

A client of ours recently shared one of his ideas with a colleague: “I told this leader that after meeting individually with my staff, I ask them if they felt I met their needs and that this discussion was worthwhile. This leader thought that this was really silly. This made me feel like this leader was uncomfortable talking about these topics.”

When we consider just how much our modern-day global environments asks of us – to do more with less, meet ever-higher expectations, adapt to new technologies, incubate relevant innovations and assimilate new generational and cultural perspectives into the workforce (phew) — it becomes obvious that none of this is possible without people who can learn, unlearn, and learn again — over and over. What people are essentially doing in these scenarios is a heroic stretch of their cognition, social skills and emotional capacity.

Organizations benefit enormously when their hallways and offices become places of curiosity and exploration, where they are encouraged and rewarded to continue to reinvent themselves and to respond to the evolving demands of their jobs. Leaders must believe at their core that people can and should be learning every day. Reflecting on their experiences, what they’ve learned and how they feel about what they’ve learned, is a practice that leaders can instill regularly, as it is commonly a missing part of the learning integration process.

Is your organization a place with a multitude of ways to learn, unlearn and learn again? Or is taking time to reflect on learning perceived as “silly”, like our client’s colleague said? What can organizations do to be better learning organizations?

Consider that in some organizations:

  • Employees keep a career profile that they maintain themselves, which contains record of their skills training.
  • Employees are the de facto teachers to each other by blogging their insights or writing white papers on company-sponsored internal websites.
  • Companies give badges and certificates are issued to acknowledge achievement are issued for skills that are not tested in exams but that firms nevertheless value.
  • Companies provide extensive support for mentoring and coaching exists to support the idea of learning from others.

And that:

  • AT&T, a telecoms and media firm with about 300,000 employees, gives “nanodegrees” – short courses designed for constant learning.
  • Google employees have one day a week for any personal project they want to pursue. They are accountable for presenting their work to their manager for potential continuation and integration into the organization.
  • In-person executive development programs have become “live concerts” or premium experiences that cannot be replicated online and build critical thinking skills, social skills, and emotional capacity so lacking in more traditional programs.

Forward thinking employers put learning as a skill in its own right:

  • Sanjay Rajagopalan, SVP & Head of Design and Research at Infosys, (until September 2017) emphasizes “learning velocity” – the process of going from a question to a new idea in a matter of days or weeks. (See notes ii)
  • Manpower, a human-resources provider, is currently running trials on an app that evaluates individuals on their “learnability”.
  • Google’s recruitment focuses on finding “learning animals.”
  • Microsoft has leveraged the work of Carol Dweck, a psychology professor at Stanford University, to develop performance review criteria that include an appraisal of how employees have learned and applied knowledge from others.

Individuals can have powerful learning experiences in transformational leadership programs. But individual development must be accelerated by a climate that values learning. Indeed, there is no organizational transformation without, well, organizational learning.

(i) Study was done using jobs advertised from online sources
(ii) Design Thinking and the Enterprise. (2015, Volume 1). Infosys Insights, pp. 24

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Confidential 360-degree Assessments: How Does a Manager Support Without Information?

Posted on May 31, 2017 by: Lisa Koss

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOS global

The other day, we received this message from a client:  “Without breaching any confidentiality, can you provide a high level overview of the findings and actions based on my direct report’s 360-degree assessment debrief?”  

This is our response:  First, the curiosity and interest in a direct report’s developmental journey is exactly what we want from a manager.  Too many managers spend their time managing only the business outcomes, and mostly ignore the critical responsibility of what it means to be a people leader:  supporting one’s direct reports to grow and develop in their roles.

Second, a 360-degree assessment process is one that must be managed carefully to ensure that its use does not undermine the ultimate goals of such a tool.  The 360 process is meant to be an opportunity to receive helpful feedback and to reflect on the feedback, and to consider maintaining or changing one’s behaviors.  To do this, the person must feel a sense of safety and support, which is why confidentiality is so important.

At the same time, we also understand that managers cannot easily support without some amount of information about what was discovered by numerous stakeholders.

To achieve both, we suggest the following basics:

  1. Best practice dictates that the reports and debriefs are confidential. This policy helps ensure that 360 assessments are more likely to be used as a learning and development tool and less likely to be used by any rater in a way that manipulates perceptions or other time-wasting activities.
  2. Participants use the 360 results to write 2-4 goals (with metrics of success) and share those with their manager.  There is no need to show the report itself.  If the participant wants to keep 1 or more goals private, that is their prerogative.  A 360-degree assessment should not be treated like a performance appraisal.

This method works because (1) the manager gets some insight into the assessment results while keeping the responsibility for development and learning on the employee; (2) the discussion and process allows the manager to bring up any other aspect he is concerned about; and, critically, (3) the conversation itself provides an opportunity to build the relationship and trust with the direct report.

Finally, a note about the basis of a 360 assessment:  Organizations either buy a set of 360 questions, or, in the case of our clients with whom we have co-developed custom competencies, they will have a full set of success criteria by function.  In the latter case, we would suggest that the manager also review those competencies ahead of time.  As such, the manager can more easily bring up any item with the direct report that is of concern and did not come out in the direct report’s goals.  Using competencies makes the discussion be a more specific and is a objective look at what success looks like in the person’s role.  Feedback from the manager is less likely to be perceived as biased or based simply on a personal preference with regards to leadership style or work style.

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Real Leadership is Daring to Confront the Impossible

Posted on May 31, 2017 by: Chris Fagan

Antoine Bebe




Antoine BebeAssociate, ONTOSglobal

With Brexit and Donald Trump’s election we have witnessed what numerous political and economic leaders labeled as impossible and catastrophic, nevertheless have become a new reality. Through analyzing these game-changing events we suggest four cognitive strategies for those in charge of leading a company in a fast-changing world.

Prepare for the impossible!

It is striking that neither European leaders, nor, as it seems, the British leaders who launched the initiative for the referendum, nor financial markets had got ready for a vote in favor of Brexit. In 2008 as well, few or no banking group had envisaged as possible the failure of Lehmann Brothers without the American Federal Reserve coming to its aid. The phenomenon occurred again during the campaign of Donald Trump. Numerous officials, journalists and commentators mocked him for a long time, as they considered his accession to the presidency of the United States as an impossible scenario.

In all these cases, decision-makers used a one-track thinking system for their analyses, their strategic directions and their decisions. Divergent opinions were considered as emanating from under-educated people, soft dreamers, or common revolutionaries. The absence of alternative plan, even succinct, confirmed that options exogenous to the dominant thinking were perceived as impossible, thus not even deserving the time and effort of risk analysis or multi-scenario prospective study.

Our intent here is not to take a political stand. Rather, we want to underline that beyond the unpredictability of major changes in history there is a major difference between considering an event as improbable or simply impossible. Indeed, if we consider a scenario as really impossible, by definition it is of no use to get ready for it. While if we consider a scenario as improbable, but not impossible, we allow it to enter our scope of reflection.

Any system of thought, with its cognitive, historic, cultural or political filters brings at the same time power and limits. Through its filters it makes it possible to distinguish the right and the wrong, the fair and the unfair, the possible and the impossible. But we, at times, forget that our perception, itself, is not neutral; it also is shaped through filters.

Therefore, if you are a leader or a manager, ask yourself the question of what you consider as impossible for yourself, for your team, for your company, or for the ecosystem in which you intervene. And imagine what could take place and what might be your reaction, if indeed the impossible came true.

Besides its virtue regarding risk analysis, this approach will open for you creative and innovative perspectives. The exploration of fields previously considered impossible will bring you the benefits of accessing new elements of understanding, or even new possible realities. It will allow you not only to identify intellectual mechanisms (scenarios) but also to come up with dynamic leverages (sensory representations of these scenarios), which will be useful for you in understanding current reality in a different way.

Accept contradictions, including those against your deepest convictions

The model of vertical leadership development presented by David Rooke and William Torbert in their article “Seven Transformations of Leadership” published in 2005 in Harvard Business Review includes different levels of development for the leader. Whereas the performer obtains results by focusing on an objective, without disputing the frame of it, the leader in complexity knows how to listen, understand and integrate contradictory points of view.

Giving real consideration to various points of view is a rewarding approach for teams and stakeholders. They feel listened to and they are more inclined to join the leader in their vision. It also offers the leader the opportunity to open up to other systems of thought, hence better sizing up the complexity of reality. Such an approach also allows them to better understand the social dynamics at work in the company or in a market, while giving them the possibility of detecting and exploring the micro-signals which will turn into the major trends of tomorrow. Whatever the real or supposed relevance of the leader’s point of view, confronting the reality as perceived by the stakeholders will allow for adjustment making for their vision and their project.

Obviously, quite a few institutional decision-makers didn’t have this listening skill that is present only when there is respect for opponents. Not only did they fail to detect and understand what were the feelings of the voters who were going to approve Brexit or Donald Trump, but also they stayed in a system of thought made with certainties, when undoubtedly it would have been beneficial to question these.

In fact, the paradox is classic. In companies with strong power distance, the decision-maker who is supposed to be the best informed person in order to make relevant decisions often has no access to a whole class of information, those considered as disturbing or those conflicting with the official line. Yet it is exactly these information or analyses that go against the dominant tide that are the most important, because some of them will be the beginnings of future mainstreams.

Therefore if you are leader or manager, spot those who have the ideas, the viewpoints and the analyses that are the most disturbing for you. And raise the following questions: why do my opponents think as they think? What do they feel? What are their experiences? Why is it important for them to think what they think? And also, why are their points of view so disturbing for me? What do these viewpoints question in my own system of thought? In so doing, you will reach a multitude of points of view and you will enrich yours.

Clarify each person’s responsibility

Frustration is frequent in the business world when a leader listens to their teams at the time of a difficult choice or of a transformation of the organization. Listening for real may get the decision-maker to reconsider and to refine their evaluation of the situation. The frustration occurs when the act of listening is faked, as all doors are in fact closed. It indeed happens that company directors listen to their opponents only out of appearance, knowing perfectly well that they will not take into account these points of view. Their attitude is then purely superficial, not authentic and sometimes even completely hypocritical.

Another cause of frustration that is also frequent occurs from opponents’ confusion when they take their leaders’ listening being indicative of a joint decision. When the leader’s decision is not in tune with their opponents’ viewpoint, their opponents may have the impression that they have not really been listened to.

To avoid these two pitfalls, it is necessary to adopt an authentic approach, that of real interest, of friendly curiosity for the divergent points of view, while respecting the authority of the decision-maker.

Aristotle said that « It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it ». So, it will be crucial to define clearly the frame of the initiative with all the stakeholders. In particular, it will be about fully agreeing on the decision process and the scope of responsibility attached to the decision.

To draw a parallel with the political arena, it seems that beyond appearances, both for Brexit as for the election of Donald Trump, there is no complete agreement from all of the actors of the system on the process of the decision. Since, after the vote in favor of Brexit some called for a new vote or for the non-compliance with the vote, and as for the election of the American President some do not grant him the legitimacy of the ballot box.

In the micro society constituted by a company, confusion or disagreement on the mechanisms of listening, reflection, investigation, sharing or decision-making also raise major problems in terms of teams’ motivation and implementation of the decisions taken by the leader individually or collectively.

Dare to dream the impossible!

Many companies live under the dictatorship of short-term results or are focused (almost) exclusively on their quarterly figures. The problem is not using financial indicators of performance, but that these indicators sometimes prevail over the economic, industrial or social vision. Thus there is often confusion between vision and ambition. Increasing a market share or profitability rate constitute ambitions but not visions. What motivates teams, just like for voters, is the vision developed and carried out by their leaders.

At times of major change, the vision is embedded in a reality that has not arrived yet. Paradoxically, the most promising visions will also sometimes be precisely the ones that appear as impossible. But it is the case that they are impossible only according to old thinking systems, at “constant scope”. The two sided mirror offered to us by the events of Brexit and the election of Donald Trump shows on one side the belief that some scenarios are impossible, while at the same moment the other side presents the belief that everything is possible. The contradiction is only apparent. Besides the fact that these two beliefs are carried by different actors, those who do not go past the impossible base their point of view on an analytical and static perception, whereas those who believe in the impossible join a dynamic which transforms the very elements of the equation.

If you are leaders or managers, maybe it is time to overcome the stage of convictions to transform them into useful and rewarding visions for your company and the ecosystem it belongs to. You will still need to promote your project while integrating diverse sensibilities. This expression of leadership requires certainly some courage: to express, to give a direction, and to embark teams (or voters) on a project for which it is not possible to measure with certainty all the possible futures. In doing so, maybe will you succeed in creating a dynamic that will allow you to transform the dream and the impossible into a concrete, strategic and beneficial reality.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Diversity, Global business strategy, Leadership, Organizational change, Organizational culture, Partners | Post A Comment

A Coaching Client Wants to Develop Her “Leadership Story”: What to Say?

Posted on February 11, 2017 by: Lisa Koss

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOSglobal

My coaching client is a woman who was not raised in the US but has been working in the country for a total of about 15 years. Lately, she has being asked to present herself as a “minority” who has made it in her firm.  She’s recently been featured in a business magazine, has spoken on minority leadership panels, and is being regularly consulted for tips on how to succeed. It’s an interesting situation in that she harbors doubts about her identify and success.  In fact, a year ago in our first coaching session she shared with me her trauma of moving to the US and her sense of alienation.  Now since her recent promotion, she is struggling with how to represent herself.  In fact, she feels ambivalence about being a minority “poster child”, and is uncertain about what she did exactly that made her stand out among her peers.  She is puzzled why there hadn’t been others before her to be the famous success story.  She asks herself if she has really made it?  Has she smashed some kind of “ceiling”?  She feels that there is always a another cultural ceiling to smash.  So what should she say to people?  She mused that she could tell people her story, how people in her family didn’t want her to work outside the home.  She could tell people she simply has worked very hard to get where she is.  She thought that was true.  But was that all, she wondered?  In sum, she was at a loss about what to say.

I reminded her that she had just outlined the speaking points to her next presentation.  Her story is already written from what she just relayed.  Her comments about her ambivalence, her uncertainty, her puzzlement, and her sense of needing to smash more ceilings….This is her authentic story.  Her real experience.  That is, in fact, what people want to know.

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Disrupting Culture: Why we get culture wrong, and what cognitive anthropology teaches us

Posted on February 08, 2017 by: David White

David G White PhD



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

(This is an edited excerpt from Rethinking Culture: Embodied Cognition and the Origin of Culture in Organizations, to be published by Routledge in 2017).

A recent report by CEB reports that 76% of its surveyed firms plan some form of culture change in 2017. What is astounding about this is not that so many organizations want to change their cultures. What is astounding is that they believe they can.

As a cognitive anthropologist who researches organizational culture, this belief runs counter to most of what we know about culture based on the science of the last 35 years, namely, that culture can be easily manipulated. It’s as if much of the business world is stuck in the pioneering anthropology of the 1920s and 30s of so-called primitive societies that posited cultures as neat, monolithic wholes with clearly drawn boundaries and easily discernible values. Anthropology has advanced considerably since then, but much of the business world remains idled in paradigm nostalgia. As a practitioner, I am reminded daily of this gap between modern theory and practice.

Cognitive science is upending old ideas; cognitive anthropology is well ahead of the business world on culture. This piece examines how, and why modern science offers a better alternative. Consider this a short primer, and an invitation.

The Great Divide

When your local sports talk radio host says the reason why the local pro team has failed miserably this year is because of its “culture”, you can safely conclude the term is the most overused and least understood in society. CEOs, managers and practitioners impugn cultural explanations for most of human behavior in organizations, believing culture can be willfully designed for positive outcomes. Meanwhile, despite decades of work, the academic research community  — anthropologists, sociologists, cultural psychologists and others a bit removed from the culture industry — still wrestle with even the most basic questions, such as what is culture, can it be measured, is it a dependent or independent variable, is it causal in organizational performance, and if so, how. Is this just academic hand wringing while the rest of the world gets on with the “real” business of culture shaping?

What is doubly curious about the current culture fad is that there is little academic research showing culture can be causally shaped beyond espoused values in any organization larger than about 150 people.[1]The few serious studies on planned culture change suggest ambiguous results, anecdotal evidence, or “skillful parodying” by middle managers struggling to adopt imposed value systems.[2] Simplistic relationships such as ‘good performance is the result of strong culture’ have not been systematically observed.[3] The data from M&A integration, another area where one would expect advances in culture practice to be seen, is equally ambiguous. In short, organizations have been trying their hand at planned culture change since the early 1980s with little to show for it. Think about it this way: If successful approaches were evident and widespread, culture change practice would not exhibit the wide variation and Wild West quality it does. Successful change efforts would be well documented in the academic community, which they are not.

But none of this dampens enthusiasm. In practice, any espoused norm, habit, preference or value can be measured as “culture” on the basis of its apparent effect. The more broadly framed and generalized (“appreciate others”, “work-life balance”, “don’t make assumptions”, “be accountable”), the better. The lack of agreement on what culture is aids and abets this tendency. Organizations still adopt top-down or one dimensional merger integration methods only to wonder why they don’t achieve post-merger bliss. Meanwhile, a recent Gallup survey finds 70% of U.S. workers do not feel engaged at work, with the problem most pronounced in larger companies — in other words, those more likely to undertake culture change.[4] These data suggest the field is overdue for disruption.

Are managers wrong to be obsessed with culture? I suggest there is a relatively straightforward explanation: Managers are correct in viewing culture as a powerful normative force, but, like dark matter, popular approaches can’t account for it. Practice hasn’t caught up to intuition.

Looking for Culture in All the Wrong Places

Ironically, culture’s popularity as an explanatory and normative tool may be due to the fact it is pervasive. But in seeking to shape it, managers and practitioners tend to focus on cultural syndromes rather than what generates culture to begin with. This inevitably leads to failed or unsustainable interventions because interventions are not targeted at cultural root causes. Traditional approaches tend to suffer from 6 common but flawed assumptions that, for the most part, are drawn from outmoded theory:

  1. We think of culture is a “thing” like money or physical assets, and therefore assume it can be manipulated like any other asset. This is evident in the many ways we talk about culture: just get your culture right and success will follow; drive the culture; shape the culture, The assumption of “thingness” is so taken for granted we miss the metaphor embedded within these statements of culture as a physical object. But is it? Where, exactly, is that culture?
  2. As things, we assume cultures have boundaries. We assume them to be monoliths: one organization, one culture. But do systems of values and beliefs change once off corporate property? And how to measure and reconcile the influence of regional, national, ethnic, or professional effects?
  3. As things, culture can be easily reduced and oversimplified to singular variables like personality or Such simplification and reduction ironically diminishes culture’s explanatory and normative power. In making it simple, we dumb down its value (and then wonder why our culture change “solution” isn’t sustained).
  4. When reduced, culture is assumed to be causal in changing behavior. For example, we believe if the rest of the organization shared top management’s values, success would be inevitable. But the literature in values is fraught with difficulties. Among them: large organizations are made up of multiple value systems based on regional, ethnic, professional and/or task orientations; values are idealizations, beliefs in how I think I should be; and people don’t always behave according to what they believe.
  5. Because culture is considered to be causal, we assume leaders are its prime movers. This belief is rooted in essential American schemas of leadership benevolence, self-actualization, and individual agency. Leadership, of course, plays an important role in culture change. But in complex organizations, is it directly causal? In a cognitive approach, leadership effects are more muted. Which means leaders have to be more sophisticated about culture. And the emphasis on individuals ignores the more important impact leadership groups play in culture change.
  6. We assume culture is borne by language, and therefore by shifting or switching our language we can change culture. Language is one manifestation of culture, yes. But modern cognitive linguistics shows us that semantic structure is not the same as conceptual structure, meaning words are a subset of concepts. We have many more thoughts, ideas and feelings than we can encode in language.[5] To reduce culture change to changing words on a poster, or simply adopting new language, is to mistake the tip for the iceberg.

Calling these assumptions into question may seem heretical, but they underlie the many “quick fix” and one-dimensional culture change programs that dominate in business today. We owe it to our constituents to get smarter in light of research advances over the last three decades.

The Cultural Mind

As the eminent cognitive anthropologist Ed Hutchins puts it (I paraphrase), the way we interact with our physical and social environments provide the basis for whatever truly internal conceptual skills we have. What Hutchins means is that regular patterns of interaction with regularities in our physical and social environment form the basis for how, and what we think. This idea is at the heart of the new science of culture.

These perceptions are mainly preconscious. When shared by others they become collective assumptions from which we think, feel, act, speak, and organize. Culture in this way is first and foremost a cognitive phenomenon, the product of interaction between our neurobiology (our so-called “plastic” mind), and the social and physical world. It is made up shared implicit assumptions, or cultural schemas, that form a cultural “DNA” underwriting everything from beliefs, values, norms, symbols, language (jargon), how we collectively make sense of our environments, and even brands and office layouts.

You Are What You Do

This means that your environment — the actual work your organization does and the problems it confronts, including and especially how it formulates problems to begin with — indelibly shape collective thinking and practice, and by extension, culture. Which has many implications for culture change.[6]

First, because culture is ecologically contingent, change is delimited. This explains why manufacturing companies have trouble adopting software mindsets when they try to implement IoT technologies. What manufacturer is comfortable shipping a product with known bugs or doing updates in 6 -week sprints? It explains why social service NGOs struggle to act as disciplined businesses, or why investment banks, with deep arbitrage orientations, are challenged to turn themselves into customer-first organizations. Culture change is possible, but it is constrained by the nature of the underlying assumptions that originate in the structure and nature of the firm’s primary tasks, and/or the professional training of its dominant groups.

Second, interventions in core assumptions and their manifestations will tend to be vigorously defended. Why? Because they lie at the heart of what you collectively do and how you think. Which explains why culture change is so hard. A few examples: the manufacturer who operates on a core set of schemas having to do with lean and reflexively applies lean thinking to all its practices, including the way it enacts succession planning or executive selection. Or the former conglomerate with deep portfolio optimization and quarterly earnings schemas whose espoused innovation and entrepreneurship initiatives result in adaptations of risk aversion and risk-intolerance, the very behaviors it wants to change. Or the consumer products company with well developed market intelligence and ‘keep ‘em guessing’ schemas that inadvertently engenders secrecy and misinformation between departments. Or the operating systems software firm with dominant platform schemas which lead to product teams fighting with each other to be the platform upon which others base their code. These are but a few examples of how cultural root logics inevitably constrain change.

The good news? Interventions in cultural schemas have the potential to be much more impactful and sustainable because they are, by definition, interventions at the source. To change culture requires changing the collective cognitive orientations on which culture is based. This is done by surfacing implicit assumptions and then intervening across the many practices (physical, social, communicative) they fuel. By changing practice, and sustaining the change, you begin to rewire collective neural circuitry. I recognize this is more involved than publishing a new set of corporate values. But when you surface dominant schemas and map out the architecture of how they structure formal and informal organizational practices, and orient leaders to these phenomena, you may be surprised: every set of leaders for whom we do this intuitively gets the architecture. After all, physiologically it is their own. And this tends to generate momentum for change. The new science shows us how and why, making possible a whole new generation of interventions that up until now have been out of reach.

[1] One reason concerns social network effects. See Dunbar (2003).

[2] For example, see Alvesson & Sveningsson, (2008); Balogun & Johnson, (2005); Ogbonna & Wilkinson, (1993); Siehl, (1985).

[3] See Scott, Mannion, Marshall, & Davies, (2003)

[4] Employee engagement is not culture. But this statistic underscores the overall lack of efficacy in culture change because improvements in employee engagement are often stated goals of culture change initiatives.

[5]  For example, see Evans & Green, (2006); Evans, (2004, 2006); Langacker, (1987)

[6] Cultural schemas are also called cultural models.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Organizational culture | Post A Comment

“What Makes Your Leadership Development Programs ‘Transformational’?” asks a Client

Posted on December 19, 2016 by: Lisa Koss

Lisa J. Koss

Lisa J. Koss Co-founder and Principal, ONTOSglobal

We were asked this question just today.  “What makes your leadership development programs “transformational”?  We explained that when a client is looking for their organization to transform, they are really asking their PEOPLE to transform.  This is true because there is no such thing as organizational transformation without PERSONAL transformation. Organizational transformation — dramatic growth, spin-off, business model change, restructuring, turnaround, culture change, etc. — require a different kind of learning from leaders.  It is not simply a matter of acquiring more knowledge or even skills, but through shifts in basic assumptions, frames of reference, and ways of learning so that the problems and solutions look entirely different.

How do we do that?  There is a lot to that question, but here is a brief response.  First, when we commit to work with organizations to support their transformation, we work to harness the individuals’ personal and professional ambitions – challenging them to identify something that they’ve always wanted for themselves but thus far have NOT been able to achieve — and incorporating that ambition into the learning environment.  When leaders learn to align their own motivations and interests with the organizations interests, and this is combined with the proper support from a coach and their peers supporting them and holding them accountable, barriers to change tend to fall.

Second, we challenge thinking patterns and assumptions that essentially serve to get us the same results we have always gotten.  Doing things in a familiar way makes sense to us because those patterns (with corresponding behaviors) have gotten us to our current level of success.  But we all know a shift will be required to get us to a new level of leadership.  It’s meaningful experiences and exchange with a diverse group of people that enlighten us, so we create learning environments to refresh the way we learn.  Putting our client groups into multi-faceted, fresh learning environments with unique content allows for each person to take away new insights on addressing nagging dilemmas in ways that stimulate and inspire further learning.

In a similar fashion, groups also work to identify their collective ambition, assumptions and frames of reference — which quite naturally revolve around their collective efficiency, effectiveness or company success — and then we align that ambition to the larger organization’s strategy and metrics.  Based on cutting edge research in cognitive science, we lead groups through a process of re-designing their core work processes to incorporate what they are wanting to integrate into their culture.  We do this because it is the actual practices of work that groups engage in every day that shapes the culture.  When you change the way you work, you — and the culture — will change accordingly.  By contrast, we don’t believe that by proclaiming repeatedly that the culture will be a certain way will make it so.  To put a poster on the wall and say that we believe in ‘respect’, ‘accountability’ and ‘results’ (sound familiar?) is not an effective culture change strategy.  If it were, we’d have seen far better results from cultural change programs during the last 40 years.  Culture is not what the leader proclaims it will be.

Does it work?  Change efforts can falter for 2 main reasons.   First, individual change requires trust in each other and in the larger system.  Individuals need to trust that when they take a risk or change the way they operate, the rest of the group and their managers will allow for something different to emerge.  We work to create this environment of psychological safety and well as the group’s capacity to experiment with new ways of working.  It’s a process.  It doesn’t take much imagination to also see, then, that the extent to which the organization values ‘development’ will drive that openness.  And it’s absolutely achievable because we’ve seen it happen.

Second, you need the top leaders at the right time to engage in the work of organizational culture.  That means working at the level of basic assumptions and organizational practices.  When a newly empowered and transformed group is aligned on an important topic, and top leaders can see it too, they must be committed to working with those same individuals — often without the luxury and experience of going through a transformational process themselves — to find solutions.  Without work at the core work processes level, empowered groups will run up against the cultural forces at play and limit the transformation.

Here you have the “bones” of what we mean when we say that our programs are transformational.

Posted in: Change / Change management, Leadership, Organizational change, Organizational culture | Post A Comment

Global Leaders, What Does Your Diverse Team Need? (Part I)

Posted on June 21, 2016 by: Lisa Koss

Flipping television stations between news programs to get a better understanding of a complex current news story, I noticed the significant differences between each station with respect to the diversity of commentators. The breadth of perspectives points to research that often goes ignored:  when a task is cognitively complex or requires multiple perspectives to solve, diversity breeds better results.

According to research done by E. Mannix and M. Neal entitled “What Differences Make a Difference” published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, the extent to which differences can by productively utilized depends on the amount of information exchange that actually happens.  Interestingly, people more naturally share information they already have in common. Instead, people must hear from others about information they don’t have access to. More granularly, groups get better results when they have the (1) ability and (2) willingness to engage in (3) constructive task-focused conflict to integrate their divergent perspectives.  (Note:  no need to read “conflict” as equivalent to “argument”.)

I meet leaders who want to integrate diverse perspectives in order to foster a high-performing team.  The problem is that once the diverse team is assembled, they lead as if the group is homogeneous or have similar backgrounds.  But diversity without effective integration has been shown in research to produce below average results. In sum, leaders of diverse teams don’t produce average results but instead low or high results, depending on how the leader leads that team.  Homogeneous teams tend to yield mid-range results.

Now add to the mix a simple, but powerful, leadership insight I’ve learned as a leadership consultant:  Leaders must realize their role privilege.  This may sound obvious, but it’s the leader’s ability to set the agenda and manage the direction and duration of discussions that is unique to the leader’s role.  If leaders know the elements of integration of diverse teams they can be strategic about accelerating teams to be high-performing. How?

The authors of the research point out that leaders can set expectations that promote information exchange, as well.  Individuals behave more cooperatively when their business units emphasize group over individual values.  Because teams tend to focus on commonly held information, instead of exchanging uniquely held knowledge, leaders can help people overcome the risks in sharing their unique experiences, expertise, and points of view in the following ways:

  • strengthen social ties
  • improve group process skills
  • emphasize the group’s superordinate identity (i.e. “being the best at sharing information”, “being the exceptional customer advocates for the company”)
  • make time to talk about what the group members have in common and what each person uniquely brings to the team

Having a diverse team is not the same as leveraging a diverse team.  A skilled leader knows how to use the diversity for a competitive advantage in the marketplace.  Leaders can develop a robust skill set and orientation that can help them create a team that outperforms homogeneous teams.

Posted in: Communicating across cultures, Global teams, Leadership | Post A Comment

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