Unique Culture

I was slated to visit the Republic of Georgia in Eastern Europe. I had been asked by my son-in-law, who was the cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy, to help with a cultural challenge in a work section at the embassy.

In the embassy work section that I was asked to help, there was a large group of Georgians who had worked there for years. They were managed by Americans who typically served for only two to three years at a time. The Georgians were described by the Americans as being resistant to change. The Americans, on the other hand, were described by the Georgians as having a tendency to come in with a change agenda, as generally not listening to the Georgians, and as rarely being able to get them to talk in the first place. Since external resources were shrinking and the workload was increasing, there was a need for the Americans and Georgians to collaborate more fully, but such collaboration was prevented by the existing organizational culture.

They patiently explained that American approaches to engagement would not work in their country. I should simply plan to present information. I was strongly advised not to anticipate meaningful participation of any kind.

These were two invitations to live in the conventional mental map. I have had many such invitations. The pattern is usually the same. The sponsors or authority figures patiently explain their “unique culture” and the constraints embedded in the culture. Typically, the constraint is that the lower-level participants in the culture have spent their lives passively listening to teachers, bosses, and other experts. When asked for their opinions, which isn’t often, they never speak up.

The statement made by the Georgians about my “American” approach makes me smile. Everywhere I go in the United States, I run into people who want me simply to present information. They also patiently explain why in their supposedly “unique” culture the people do not necessarily speak openly. Often, the explanation is that an authority figure will be in the room, and it will not be possible for people to speak up. After all, the organization is a political system.

While nationality does play a role, the real issue is not the geography of the planet but the geography of the mind. People in organizations across the planet live in fear. Staff people who plan events tend to take the safe route. They design events to be processes of information dissemination and the people are thus further trained to be passive recipients. No other alternative can even be imagined, for it would be outside the conventional mental map.

The misconception across the planet is that positive organizations cannot be created in a given context. What we believe determines what we can imagine. What we believe determines the reality we will continually bring into existence by our behavior. To turn an organization positive, we have to increase consciousness. Exposing people to a surprisingly positive context does this. It opens them to the positive mental map.

The Positive Organization – p. 65-66


2 thoughts on “Unique Culture

  1. I’ve been stuck in a couple (or a couple hundred) such organizational cultures, including the one in which I was a mother who thought her job was to “manage” five children and a household. The miracles that occurred when I let go of that idea in my home and in my college classroom astonished me. The catalyst for change came from Parker Palmer’s book The Courage to Teach. As I read that book, and felt the amazing spirit behind it, I couldn’t keep living and teaching as I had for many years. Over the ensuing decades, scores of teachers in print have showed up for me. It’s a privilege to live one’s life consistently with one’s highest values–a notion I, at one time, thought impossible to achieve.


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