Leadership and culture

Org Learning – Post 4

What whirlwind the past 2 weeks! After a long, slow decline my dad passed on, two weeks ago to the day. I can’t say that I’ve fully digested it. I know it will take time to adjust. I will miss him.

It’s interesting that one of the companies that Schein has selected in his text on org culture and leadership is DEC. My dad was quite an advocate of their computer systems and equipment and used them from early in their advent. Even today, the business he was involved in continues to use a DEC computers as a basis for their system. They also use PCs now for quite a few years, but the DEC has been an extremely reliable and stable computing platform for them. I have frequently heard praises of the quality and reliability¬† of their machinery and systems for years. I remember hearing about Ken Olsen and his visionary leadership, however, not so much about the DEC culture, except how they were innovators, and often on the leading edge for many years. My dad never talked about why or how they lost their leading edge. I guess we’ll uncover some of the factors in Schein’s exploration of their culture.

It’s fascinating to consider the roots of culture in an organization, even how culture is formed in the experimental T groups and how it is related to the early actions, attitudes and behavior of leaders. How so much of culture is tacit knowledge based on assumptions that are unrecognized and therefore, often unquestioned. When I think of organizations or even societies that I’ve been a part of or of which I’ve had a glimpse, I often recognized outer aspects and artifacts and even espoused values and norms. However, the underlying assumptions were not always clear to me. I can also see how culture is related to underlying assumptions.

At one time I worked in an organization where the leader was often very distrustful and there was an overarching fear that permeated the workplace and extended to other parts of the organization. I can see this evolved due to the behavior of the leader and underlying assumptions that he/she had that the workers could only be trusted so much, but they were more likely to ‘not understand due to their ignorance’ or something like that. The result was that there was very little trust which also impacted motivation, creativity, etc.

There were times when that when this leader trusted someone, it really impacted their ability to work in a positive way. The workers were then very empowered, enthused, creative, etc. I think the leader thought that he/she was thinking of doing the best for the organization. However, I don’t think he/she was aware of how their behavior and examples affected and influenced the entire organization. After some years, the leadership and structure of the organization changed and the culture also changed dramatically to be more open, inclusive and collaborative.

Thinking of time and space, a friend from New Zealand shared a perspective on time he developed from getting to know people from the Maoris, a Polynesian culture that pre-dates European culture in New Zealand by 500-1000 years or so. The Maoris had two notions of time – Polynesian time and European time. Polynesian time, my friend would say, was the time it took for the sun to set, a flower to bloom, to be with a child as it played. Whereas European time was considered the time to catch a train, to finish a project, to be somewhere or another… It’s not that one view of time is wrong or right, but that having a perspective of both views could really help to add quality to life…


3 Responses to “Leadership and culture”

  1. 1 Edward Howard 21 October 2009 at 1:42 pm

    Wow…I want to be on Polynesian time, for sure!!! I wonder if the Maoris are somehow connected to the Aborigines of Australia.

    My Grandfather worked for IBM for 35 years up in New York. I can still remember growing up how that company was the town for all intents and purposes.. and thus its culture was the town’s culture and vice versa. Once IBM left Poughkeepsie, the town was lost in may ways, economically and culturally. The still seem to be seeking for some defining characteristic on which they can hoist their flag and feel centered. Amazing how a community can define itself by and organization and thus it’s culture.

    • 2 bluesky55 21 October 2009 at 2:11 pm

      Yes, Polynesian time is also one that I feel is important for me. Another way my friend described it was, “the time that it takes”. It seems to me that Polynesian time is more about the quality of time and not necessarily just the ticking of the clock. About being fully present in the current moment of the passing clock, rather than being physically present and mentally or emotionally elsewhere…

      I think the Maoris actually originally came to New Zealand somewhere around 10-12th century on ocean going canoes similar to the Hawaiian people (Kon Tiki type rafts) and don’t think they are ancestors of the Aborigines (I think the Aborigines, or Indigenous Australians date back 40,000 years!).

      For more info on the Maoris:

  2. 3 yovhane 21 October 2009 at 9:10 pm

    I’m not sure if the culture affects the individual or if the individual affects the culture. I’m sure it’s more likely with the former, especially for an established culture. However, as in the case of Skilling and Enron, I believe that the overcompensating, bullying, self-absorbed culture was rampant at Enron because those were the personalities they attracted and encouraged.
    I have a friend in technology consulting. She and her co-workers get paid exhorbitant amounts of money to provide certain services to governmental and corporate agencies. The video indicated most of the personalities at Enron were former nerds, and I have gotten the same inclination toward this group. The money, power, and status act as validation, and the rest of the world is lesser than therefore vulnerable.
    This exemplifies the importance of scruples in the leader especially because it sends a message of intolerance for anything lesser than. There’s so much talk now about how banks are spending their money whether it’s on corporate retreats, conventions, or remodeling. The difference now is that this is blantantly public funds in the case of the banks who’ve taken bailout money. I don’t know if taxpayers who are unintentional investors in these banks can truly change the culture because that would require changing an entire industry and those that compose them such as business schools which influence much of the ideology of these individuals. I’d be interested to compare ethics classes across disciplines.

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