Culture and Questions – a philosophical meandering as I look back at 2010…

Bear with me … “stream of consciousness” posting… inspired in part by Dang Ray’s recent post about the poem Invictus and partly by Indranath Neogy’s post on culture here.

Reflecting back on what has been a very intense year, perhaps the theme that has most clearly emerged is the most ephemeral – that intangible yet palpable intersection of organisational  “values” with “culture” and “behaviours”.

This is really what, in many ways, any “talent communication” is all about – whether about attraction, motivation, retention – it’s about what an organisation deems acceptable, permissible, desirable, punishable.

When I was finishing my thesis for my master’s degree, Jeff Rutenbeck (head of the new media school at DU and my thesis advisor) asked a very searching question for me to ponder – it sticks with me to this day when it comes to meetings, measurement, proposals, presentations – it was:

DOES THE NATURE OF A QUESTION DETERMINE THE NATURE OF ITS RESPONSE?

The answer is obviously a resounding YES, but so often we fool ourselves into believing otherwise.  (As an aside, my father was a lawyer, then a judge, and of course was past master at the art of asking incredibly effective questions as well – seldom one he didn’t already know the answer to…).

I’ve been pondering this topic again, and it’s interesting to make connections between this and values, culture and behaviours – in other words:  What are the kinds of questions that an organisation asks itself, or indeed allows itself to ask itself?  All too often the default level of “surface manifestations” of organisational culture create immense barriers to people actually behaving in a way that is not only consistent with “values” as such – but indeed are not consistent with basic ethics, morals and communicating as human beings.  A culture of fear, or a culture of confrontation, or a culture of irreverence, or a culture of precision, or a culture of bonhomie  – any of these cultural “blankets” may well resound with “surface manifestations” that, if not carefully shepherded, can actually be incredibly toxic and allow some pretty shocking behaviours to surface.  An as Indy says more  eloquently in his blog there’s fast culture and there’s slow culture – and over time some “fast culture” elements can evolve into “slow culture” elements.  You can probably see if from the outside a lot more easily than you can see it from the inside.

I guess what I am trying to get at is this: it is incumbent on leaders of people to make sure that not only are the positive “fast culture” elements championed, but just importantly the less positive elements confronted and eliminated (a far greater challenge) to preserve an organisation’s values.

But either way a long, hard look in the mirror is a good exercise for any organisation, its leaders or any individual within it:  What am I saying?  How am I saying it?  What questions am I asking and how am I asking them? What am I doing? How would my actions be perceived from without? What questions am I not asking that I should be?  What behaviours and activities am I permitting to take place, or turning a blind eye to?

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3 thoughts on “Culture and Questions – a philosophical meandering as I look back at 2010…

  1. Interesting, Kevin. Two provocations for you:

    1. If it’s easier to see from the outside, why would we expect leaders themselves to be able to gain from navel-gazing? Surely what’s needed is wise counsel (despite all offers, the ‘wise’ bit is in short.supply).

    2. Perhaps you’d welcome the following challenge to your own ‘question’: is it simply a coincidence that the answer you arrive at is ‘more self-awareness among agents’ … in a historical moment in the West that some sociologists term “therapy culture”?

    1. Interesting thoughts, Adam.

      1. Is it easier to see from the outside? I did say “probably” … I wonder. But you may be right … “wise” external counsel that goes beyond invoice-raising box-ticking is indeed scarce as hen’s teeth these days. Funny how in the most successful client projects the feedback is almost invariably “The advisor got under the skin of our organisation and told us some truths we would never have been able to surface or to put so clearly” – and in the “failed” projects it tends to be either “the advice was relevant – but it wouldn’t work here since you don’t understand our business”.

      2. I’m intrigued by the “therapy culture” idea. It makes me slightly uncomfortable as it conjures images of wooly-headed sensitive new-age types sitting with the board in a circle saying, “Yes, Tim, but how do you FEEL?” – (joke) – but at the same time again I’d concur that “self-awareness among agents” is an obviously essential element of the culture/behaviour mix in any sustainable business.

      Thanks for replying to what was a stream-of-consciousness sort of post. This goes pretty deep … might be worth considering plumbing the depths?

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