There Is Culture (in an organization), And Then There Is Culture (in larger context).

The January issue of National Geographic has an article about genes in explorers and how a culture and a certain gene may have evolved around exploration.  Of course, typical of scientific discoveries, this one is still in the works, and no firm conclusion should be drawn.  What attracts me, a social scientist, are three notions:  1.  The gene alone, 7R variant specifically, doesn’t direct some of us to take the risks to explore…anywhere and anything.  2.  We need to develop skills with which to explore.  3.  People carrying 7R will lead less satisfying lives residing in settled communities while thriving in changeable environments.  In other words, it’s a matter of fit.

A desire, or a strong motivation, doesn’t get us far.  Maybe this is one of the reasons I have always felt wary regarding motivational speeches.  Doing/Acting requires skills.  Of course, even before acquiring and developing skills, we also need to know what specific skills to aim for.  I take decent-to-good pictures, but have never really seriously engaged in understanding how to take great pictures.  I have only myself to blame.  In contrast, a friend of mine, in less than three years, has taken methodical steps to propel herself into being a semi-professional.  To each her/his own…ultimately, it’s the matter of fit that’s really important and most difficult.

Going up

Going up

An organizational culture in which issues of fit between employee and her job gets little attention is likely to favor rules and regulations; the converse is true as well.  An organizational culture that’s obsessed with rules and regulations would probably focus on what and how an employee should perform, instead of concentrating on how to develop the said employee.  An organization that does not value its own people isn’t likely to put customers at the top, despite superficial claims.  Apple and Google are known for valuing customers and encouraging employees to think outside of the box (not withstanding the current NSA brouhaha).  They don’t just say so; they demonstrate through products and customer services, and they give employees “free” time where they can design whatever project/product they fancy.

Managers not only need to make their (good) intentions known, they have to show, through organizational structure, what their intention truly is.  Saying that the organization values creativity is empty.  Giving employees “free” time to explore and allowing certain types of mistakes would be true communication.  In an organization where the whole culture seems to impede employees’ daily work, the burden on lower-level managers (to give their people more room to maneuver) is heavier, but it is not impossible for lower managers to do good for their people.  A lower manager can still empower her people, by taking the institutional impediments onto her own shoulders.  If mazes and volumes of paperwork are in the way, a manager can help expedite the otherwise sluggish procedures.  If a direct report feels bogged down by layers of bureaucracy – and lets loose some frustration upon colleagues – his manager can help by giving the frustrated employee more responsibilities and authority.  In this manner, the frustrated employee gains better understanding of where the impediment actually lies in the procedures.  This then could in turn lead to better working relationships with others and help diffuse tensions.

We perceive and receive cultural values through informal learning, either within an organization or outside in a society.  However, as the size of the cultural confine reduces, the values tend to erode more quickly.  Cultural values are much more robust at the national level, much less so in big organizations, and are further diminished with the decreased size of an organization.  A lowest level, a manager can attempt years of good by instilling empowerment in his people, but there is little guarantee that the spirit will remain with the next manager.  Sometimes, the spirit quickly dissipates even as the manager is preparing to exit; people start strategizing to protect themselves against the unknown incoming replacement.

In the National Geographic article, the exploration culture got spread across the globe through tribes’ migrating patterns and marriages.  This is not likely to take place within organizations.  Migrating individuals within and between organizations can spread values only so much.

Going down...looks worse.

Going down…looks worse.

As I recuperate from my surgery and begin the rehabilitation process, I have noted the staying power of my cultural heritage.  Chinese emphasize moderation and modesty (bragging is a huge sin!), and when I grew up in Taiwan, physical prowess was deemed inferior to intellectual pursuit.  Despite the decades of immersing myself in the American culture – and embracing it – I am finding myself in need of injecting intellectual analysis into my physical prowess in this rehab process.  My recovery is pretty remarkable, according to both the surgeon and physical therapist.  If I say great things about my physical state, I feel like bragging.  So I temper it with some analysis or levity to ease my conscience.  However, if I were involved in some team sports, my team’s culture would definitely have impact on how I see the recovery and how it is received.

Life should be less complicated than that.  What happens to simple joy?  Since I am my own boss these days, I am veering toward the direction of “simple joy.”  I am impatient with my recovery but am happy with the rate of my recovery.

May you find joy around you in the coming week.  Till next time,

Staying Sane and Charging Ahead.

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2 thoughts on “There Is Culture (in an organization), And Then There Is Culture (in larger context).

  1. Elena,
    Thanks for the great article. and including us as a link to your post. Most people aren’t willing to state the obvious about management at the majority of companies. We often deal with these same issues when people tell us that they have great hiring practices because they do it all the time! Let us know if we can help you with anything.

  2. Most people are smart enough to know what to say, but acting on knowledge is another matter. I believe that if we can help people, including myself, act more than just talking, that’d be a huge step.

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