What is culture and how does it change?

Culture Change

by Andrew Day

16 March, 2017

What is culture?

We are always engaged in a process of relating to others. The sociologist Norbert Elias observed that we live in patterns of interdependence that enable and constrain how each of us act. It is the social patterns that are created and maintained as people interact together than we tend to think of as ‘culture’. The  anthropologist, Clifford Geertz, evocatively observed that these social patterns create webs of meaning in which we are suspended. Implicit to the webs of meaning are tacit taken-for-granted-assumptions and beliefs which function as models for:

How we see the world and how we act in it
What we value, care about and see as important (and what we do not)
How we interpret others’ behaviour and decisions; and
How we relate to and interact with others and objects.

Culture is a ‘grand narrative’ that we are all creating and maintaining that gives order to organisational life and helps us to make sense of our shared experiences. Without some cultural anchors for collective meaning social and organizational life would be impossible. Culture therefore is the ground for our perceptions, experience and behaviour.

Most of the time, our participation in maintaining cultural patterns  is outside of our awareness. We simply do not notice how we assume meanings and enable or constrain the behaviour of others.

Culture – a symbolic process

Geertz thought that ‘patterns of meaning’ are created, transmitted and maintained through symbols. A symbol is anything that signifies meaning in a given social context (Geertz, 1973). A red flag is a symbol of danger on a beach, a white one surrender on a battle field. Symbols take many different forms including language, objects, rituals and the interactions between individuals. By means of symbols we create an image of an ordered world which will account for the ambiguities, puzzles and paradoxes of in our lives. This capacity to understand the world symbolically and to understand others symbolically is what makes human action distinctive. The gestures we make have the potential to bear meaning to people.

High and Low profile symbols

Adrian McLean, in his insightful book Leadership and Cultural Webs in Organisations, makes the distinction between high and low profile symbols. High profile symbols are the carefully crafted, grand gestures that are intended to convey a particular meaning. They include speeches, mission statements, logos, codes of conduct, formal artefacts (buildings, furnishing and fabric), etc. In contrast, low profile symbols are the spontaneous, mundane, unrehearsed, everyday actions and statements. The seemingly insignificant acts and utterances convey powerful messages about what and who is important, valued and significant in a given social context. We are more influenced by low profile symbols than high profile symbols, particularly when there is an incongruence between the two. This is reflected in the old adage “Do as I say not as I do”.

Most of the organisational literature reifies culture and talks about it ‘as if’ it is separate and independent of the organisation. Rather than being something an organisation has we need to think of organisations as being cultures. It other words something an organisation is, and that we are all perpetually creating and maintaining in our everyday interactions!

A deliberate and planned approach to changing culture?

Cultures are not static and change every moment of every day. They can also change through deliberate and conscious acts of collective endeavour. Although precisely how they will change and in what way is an emergent process that unfolds as people consciously attend to cultural patterns.

Over the years, we have crafted a methodology for culture change that is based on anthropology, ethnography and depth psychology. The intention of the methodology is to describe and interpret cultural patterns and make conscious and deliberate attempts to disturb and change them.

Step 1: Framing an intent and establishing the necessary conditions for change

All collective endeavours require an act of leadership to mobilise people to engage with the process of change. Leadership is itself a symbolic act and the starting point for any change effort needs to be a gesture on the part of a leader or a group of leaders to initiate a process of change. This act needs to have meaning within a given culture, be credible and to frame the intent of any change effort such that people understand and accept that an aspect of the culture needs to change.

Step 2: Discovery and deepening understanding of cultural patterns

Start with immersion & Inquiry

Most of us are unaware of how we act to perpetuate and maintain existing cultural patterns through low profile symbols. The necessary starting point for cultural change therefore is a process of collective discovery and shared sense making. We work with representatives of the culture to undertake ethnographic fieldwork and inquiry into the culture of the organization. Together we immerse ourselves in the culture of the organization to gather observations and others accounts of cultural phenomena, such as:

Rituals and customs
Status gestures
Myths and Folklore
Cultural breaches and transgressions

Representation & Thick Description of cultural patterns

The challenge in cultural change work is to develop a shared representation and understanding of the critical cultural patterns that influence the issue or challenge that the organization wants to address. We do this by inviting small groups of inquirers to share stories and observations, to surface underlying assumptions and to pictorially represent what they are discovering. To engage a critical mass of people large groups events and social media can be used to involve them in a process of sense making.

As cultural patterns start to be described, their implications for the organisation start to become apparent to those involved. Most patterns exist because they served some purpose in the past and to some degree in the present. They also have significant consequences for the performance of the organisation which only fully surface as the pattern is described.

Step 3: Developing cultural experiments & creating social movements

As cultural patterns are uncovered and understood, groups of employees are encouraged to design and lead micro experiments that are intended to disturb and interrupt existing cultural patterns.  Such experiments do not require the direct involvement of leaders in the organisation.  They do however require their sponsorship and sanction.  Each group is tasked with encouraging grassroots involvement and participation in the experiment and to seek leadership support where they feel it is required.

The intention of these experiments is not to directly bring about change but to create disturbances that start to bring cultural patterns into awareness for a wider population.  Experiments are symbolic gestures that invite different, non-typical responses from people. Many of these experiments tend not to work, and the ones that do, often do not work in the manner that was intended.  What they do achieve however is a great understanding of the culture and how to bring about change.

This phase of a process of change tends to evoke feelings of confusion, anxiety and frustration as people start to question theirs and others’ assumptions and behaviour.  Taken-for-granted ways of working become questioned which can be both exciting and anxiety provoking.

Step 4: Reviewing, noticing and amplifying emergent patterns

As a culture change process unfolds, we bring groups of individuals together with representatives from the organisation’s leadership to review the impact of the cultural experiments.  Again this involves a process of discovery and awareness raising.  As new, emergent patterns of behaviour are noticed they can be encouraged, supported and reinforced.  This process helps to amplify new patterns and the role of leadership is to cultivate their adoption.

The basic intent of this process is to support change from within the culture rather than to act to push change from the outside.  The later invariably results in ‘not invented here’ syndrome.

Please get in contact if you would like to explore how we might be able to help your organisation.


What is culture and how does it change?

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