Learning a New Language
Exploring the relationship between organisational and personal values is a good place to start the journey towards the workplace of the future. Cultural mapping tools are incredibly powerful aids, but if you attempt to address the human and cultural dimension of organisations from within the conventional command-and-control language of business, it can quickly lead down the wrong road, or set up false expectations.
A senior HR manager whose management had recently ‘handed down’ a set of core values to be adopted by all employees, asked me recently: “How do we embed these values in the staff?” She wanted to be certain the cultural change programme would work. Another wanted to know: “How do we make discretionary behaviour happen?”
Questions like these, though asked with sincerity, come from a mindset and language that has defined organisations as machines and in the process drained workplaces of purpose and meaning. Conceptually – and practically – people are arranged in easy-to-manage boxes and compartments with ‘inputs’ and ‘predictable’ outputs. They’re ‘re-engineered’, ‘relocated’, ‘benchmarked’, ‘upskilled’ and ‘downsized’.
And not surprisingly, they can be turned off.
The language of the quantitative, scientific mindset is problematic when applied to culture because it implies a false sense of control.
You can’t ‘embed’ values. They can only be willingly embraced. You can’t ‘make discretionary behaviour happen’. You can only create the conditions in which certain patterns of behaviour can evolve.
And ultimately, you can’t be certain of outcomes because you’re not dealing with predictable machines. You’re dealing with complex adaptive systems – living systems that come to life moment by moment, through the choices and decisions, actions and behaviour of many human beings.
Learning to work with the language and practices of complex living systems completely changes how you interpret cultural data, and how you approach the work of cultural evolution.