The Renewal of Culture

Organizational culture tends to be self-perpetuating. Patterns exist, people experience them, and, regardless of the desirability of the patterns, the people tend to mindlessly repeat them. I think of two illustrations.

A friend told me of four young men who went through military basic training in four different countries. They used similar words to describe the training process: “Harsh, unkind, unfeeling, and brutal.” They all expressed resentment. Yet three of the four were promoted to a position in which they were providing the same military training to others. They behaved just as their predecessors behaved.

I know of a company where the CEO’s is a bully. He delights in intimidating his direct reports. Nothing they do is good enough. Meetings are almost always marked by episodes of screaming. It is a miserable place to work, and turnover is high. While his direct reports deeply resent the way they are treated, a remarkable thing happens. The mental map of the boss becomes the collective mental map. The direct reports tend to look and act like their boss. They dress and groom themselves as he does. They bully their own people. They do to others what they hate having done to them.

A fundamental assumption of social science is that the past determines the present.

Social scientists call this path dependence: what we do today is influenced by what we did previously. Culture is powerful because the path of least resistance leads us to replicate history.

The positive mental model raises a radical question. When does the future determine the present?

The answer is when we have a compelling purpose and organize to it. Purpose makes us conscious of what we are doing in the present and leads us new choices. We align our present behavior with our desired future. In positive organizations there is a great emphasis on purpose and it frees people from the mindlessness that dominates conventional organizations. Conscious choices lead to new patterns and the culture is continually renewed and aligned with the highest collective intention.

Reflection

When have I seen negative patterns mindlessly perpetuated?

When have I perpetuated such patterns?

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

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