Culture Gaps: Changing the Culture – or Not

(3 min 40 sec Audio File)
THE MAIN POINT (93 seconds reading time)

Gaps are important. What gaps? The gap between what you have and what you want. The gap between where you are (WWA) and where you want to be (WWWTB). The gap between the culture you espouse and the culture you use. Gaps are the key to system stability. Gaps are necessary for balancing cycles (as we talk about in the systems thinking workshop) to limit the growth or decline of reinforcing cycles. Without a gap and a motivation to close a gap, a system will spin out of control. Here, we’ll discuss cultural gaps and the idea that managing or changing the culture is about closing a cultural gap.

We can get an intended or an unintended gap between what the culture is and what the culture should be. When you react unfavorably to the ethics, appropriateness, or worthiness of the values, norms, or practices (i.e. rituals) in an organization, you’re recognizing a culture gap. This gap is between your sense of what’s right and what you’re interpreting in the organization. When values, norms, and traditions aren’t consistent throughout an organization, you have a culture gap. When the organization doesn’t practice what it preaches, you’re dealing with a culture gap.

I’ll define four types of culture gaps. First, the most commonly discussed type of culture gap is a gap between what exists and what is desired. Some will say actual or practiced instead of existing. Some will say preferred rather than desired. Some will say the gap is between the used culture and the espoused culture. The idea is that by design (changing a culture) or mistake (dysfunctional culture) what you want and what you have for an organizational culture don’t match.

In the second type of gap, the organization lacks value or norm congruity. The people or workgroups of an organization don’t believe in what the organization stands for. Units that have value congruity with top management have more power in the organization. Another way to lack value congruity is for different subunits in the organization to have different values with little or no respect among those subunits.

In the third type of gap, the organization has a double standard. In a double standard, managers ask for one kind of behavior and reward another. For example, if management asks for technical excellence and rewards people for marketing low quality, they’ve set up a double standard and a culture gap.

In the fourth, and most prevalent type of gap, the organization doesn’t practice what it preaches. The organization espouses one set of values (maybe even agreed upon by all members) but then uses or practices another set of values. For example, the organization may agree to and espouse equality and then practice unequal employment procedures.


THE FOLLOW UP (87 seconds reading time)

The worst situation is for people not to know there is a gap and the consequences of having a gap. Sometimes you want a culture gap. You can’t change from a dysfunctional culture to a healthy culture without beginning with a gap between the existing and the desired culture. Some subunits of an organization (e.g., accounting) bring values and traditions of their profession to an organization (e.g., a marketing-based organization) that constitute a useful culture gap. You don’t want people in the subunit to turn their back on what their profession stands for; but, at the same time you want those people to believe in what the organization stands for.

Sometimes, these gaps are intended. One person or group of people (e.g., management) plans to pull the wool over someone’s eyes. These practices are insidious and we’d like to believe will lead to the destruction of the perpetrators. Other times, the gaps are unintentional – even the double standard. People are unaware or don’t know any better. Information and training can cure the latter situation. Even so, sometimes people are unable to catch on. They’re so conditioned that they can’t change. Your only solution in this case is to put as much distance as possible between yourself and that unhealthy situation.

The obvious first step in changing a culture is to figure out the culture you have (WWA). You can diagnose the culture according to one of a number of taxonomies or you dig into the basics. My favorite example for learning the existing culture is from a marriage education course we taught. We were discussing norms in a family resulting from merging two cultures (the families of origin of the mother and father). A woman screamed out in the middle of the discussion. She exclaimed that she had just recognized an unwritten rule she had brought to her nuclear family from her family of origin: “Never admit a mistake and never apologize.” What might be the value? Perhaps hiding from reality. Perhaps arrogance. Only she could connect with the deeper attitudes in her own family to ferret out the value. Was her recognition of this unhelpful contribution to her existing family culture helpful or harmful? The answer is: helpful; and, in fact, powerful. That is, knowing something about the basics of her culture was helpful in that it gives her the power to change.

Try to get a handle on the culture you have. Answering these questions should help. What is everyone expected to give first priority to? How are people expected to respond to changes from outside the organization? What is common about people who do well in the organization? How would you characterize the organization’s decision-making processes? What are work assignments based on? How is conflict dealt with in the organization? What is the primary factor influencing motivation in the organization? When is it legitimate for a person to tell another what to do? If policies or procedures get in the way, what do people do? What’s the first advice you’d give a new person on how to fit in well? What do you wish you’d been told about when you first joined the organization?

Next time, we’ll consider how  to  influence  culture  change  in an organization.