Cultural Surgery and Truth Telling

When Alan Mulally became CEO at Ford, people were hesitant to share hard news. In a meeting of senior management, the first person who shared difficulties received a standing ovation from Mulally.

Why would he do such a strange thing? I believe he was trying to do cultural surgery.

I sometimes think of my work as cultural surgery. My job is to turn the organization more positive by cutting out a cancerous condition. I am regularly asked, for example, to help senior management teams. These are brilliant, successful people with years in business. Their salaries are often staggering. So what could they possibly need from me? The invitation comes because they know they need to make a fundamental change that they don’t know how to make. They need to turn themselves into a collaborative system. Yet they cannot do this because they do not know how to tell the truth, surface the resulting conflict, and transform it into creative collaboration. They do not know how to build a culture of trust.

While truth telling and transforming conflict are critical to the organization’s health, the task is fearsome and often ignored. The consequences are serious. Without a cohesive team all we have is self-interested individuals. There is a building full of people but there is no organization.

There are several things that strike me about this. First, some senior executives are simply without vision. They are so tied to conventional assumptions that they cannot even imagine a top management team functioning cohesively. So they expect to have self-interested people working together pretending to be a team. It is common but deadly assumption.

Second, there is no accounting mechanism to show the absence of synergy. The accountants do not measure and report cohesion levels. Administrators are free to destroy cohesion with abandon.

Third, the weakness does not mean that executives are bad people. It means that they are like the rest of us. They do not know how to appreciate and elevate their own culture. We should remember that it is difficult to perform surgery on ourselves.

Cultural change requires bringing conflict out in the open and transforming it. It is natural to flee from or try to dominate conflict—to succumb to the “fight or flight” impulse that is as old as human experience itself.

So what is cultural surgery? I focus on the collective intelligence—looking at the neural pathways that are misfiring or broken, determining which synapses need rehabilitation to reconnect properly. The task of the cultural surgeon is to rewire the collective brain, to move the group from one mindset to another. This transformation represents tangible, sustainable change with impact far beyond the team itself.

When the transformation occurs it has an inherent educational effect. People can begin to see the power of cultural surgery and they can begin to imagine more positive ways of organizing. Learning to transform conflict can be an acquired skill.

Reflection

What conflicts hold us back?

How could we come to a collective admission that we need help?

How could we use this passage to become a more positive organization?

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