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Survive and Thrive on Cultural Change

I just finished reading Ed Schein’s master piece, “The Corporate Culture Survival Guide”. Professor Schein is the elder state man at MIT’s Center for Organizational Learning. He brings a much needed realism to the scene of organizational learning and change management, where simplistic recipes and high ideals are promoted often without sufficient understanding and balancing weight of deeper complexities and consequently trigger unintentional disasters instead of successful transformations. Anyone who is serious about making constructive and sustainable change should take time pondering on the following insights by professor Schein.

 

  1. Function is the mother of all culture

Simply put, culture is the tacit assumptions (learned values and beliefs) held by a group of people about what works and doesn’t in order to reliably produce a set of desired outcomes. Once formed it is taken for granted, invisible and non-negotiable. This works great as long as the external conditions remain the same. When such conditions in the environment change, however, a given set of cultural traditions can become dysfunctional and must be changed. That’s why change is the primary responsibility and trademark of authentic leadership. Conversely, there is no use and there is indeed harm talking about culture in the abstract. Without concrete connections to the context, it’s impossible to evaluate and judge the virtue of a particular set of cultural values. The downfall of multi culturalism as a political ideology is that the simple fact that not all cultural values are functional in all contexts. In fact, many or even most are dysfunctional, which are at the roots of humanity’s toughest challenges today and in the 21st century (global warming, over population, terrorism, environmental destruction, budget deficits, social inequality, etc.)

 

  1. Leaders create culture and culture promote managers who fit the “mold”

“Leadership cannot really be understood without consideration of cultural origins, evolution, and change”. Leadership has become the hottest subject of our time and deservedly so given the massive scale of challenges facing humanity today. However, most focus on short-term outcomes out of changing cultural context. “From Good to Great”, “The Highest Goal” and a few other works are exceptions. Few people in positions of power (traditional definition of a “leader”) are driven by higher aspirations than money, power and at most social harmony. They are primarily promoters of existing culture and over time fail to steer the ship on a sustainable course. The so called “level five” leader is much needed but rarely survives the filters and pressures of the existing “mold”

 

  1. Cultural change is necessary but difficult and even dangerous

“Culture provides meaning and makes life predictable … Any prospective culture change launches massive amount of anxiety and resistance to change.” For those leaders who do survive the “mold” and are in a position to influence an existing culture, they must tread the territory extremely carefully. For most people, culture is their fundamental life line, the basis of their lives’ meaning, social networks and protection against survival anxieties. Cultural change means literally pulling the ground under people’s feet and is a deeply threatening experience. Few people could stand it without extensive help. The art of such help is still in its infant stage and involve balancing two fundamental anxieties of human existence.

 

  1. Change is a process of managing (balancing) people’s survival and learning anxieties

For most people, change will occur only when their survival anxiety is higher than their learning anxiety. This is a sad but true fact of life. Punishments and threats will certainly raise people’s survival anxieties but they are not effective ways of implementing change because they raise their learning anxieties even more! Without learning a new attitude and set of skills, they won’t be able to cope with and survive a new environment no matter how much they want to. So the only sustainable way of making changes happen is through lowering learning anxieties or increasing learning capacity of the organization. That’s the philosophical basis of the learning organization movement lead by the MIT Center of Learning Organizations. What factors could increase people’s learning capabilities and, conversely, decrease their learning anxieties? Education, the learning environment and leadership are the big three.

 

            Education

The love of learning is fundamental to the psychological health and even survival of an individual and civilization alike. Despite all its flaws and problems, America still has the greatest education system of the world. American graduates are still the brightest and best prepared to deal with the real world no matter what “hard” statistics say otherwise. What we need to make sure is not to let secondary concerns such as consumption, social security or even healthcare overwhelm and starve our investments in education.

 

Learning Environment

Workplace learning is at least as important as in schools. What we need to focus on is less “knowledge” or training and more on learning from doing. Most companies waste millions of dollars each year by sending people to attend canned training classes which are then quickly forgotten once they return to work in the real world. There need to be learning systems and investments in them to help people to learn from what they are doing. Such investments are rare because the prevailing “performance” culture focusing too much on short-term measures such as quarterly profits. The answer comes down to leadership.

 

Leadership

Leadership is not the same as authority. Certainly, people with authority can potentially make bigger impacts. Historically though authorities rarely make significant or even constructive changes at a cultural level, even if they want to. Most frequently, learning anxieties are the highest at the highest levels of human organizations. People at the top are faced with so many complex matters and their mistakes are so magnified that most develop the coping mechanism of sticking with what works and avoid risks of trying new things at all costs. Over time, such “leadership” behavior or lack of such result in greater strains between the status quo and the external realities. We are living in the wake of such neglects accumulated since WWII in developed countries. In today’s business and organizational context, few people in positions of power are not “squeezed” by drastically changing operating conditions and must find ways of adapting themselves and their organizations quickly or go out of existence. Throughout history, the most glorious achievements by humankind have always been made during time of drastic change. There is an ancient Chinese saying that “Hero’s are born only out of troubled times”. Our time is no different. There are great opportunities for those who understand this survival anxiety and have developed the skills to lower learning anxiety, even just by a little and for a short amount of time. They will then be able to tap into the true force of nature for break-through. That is true leadership.

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