Learning from the mundane, everyday and taken-for-granted

Culture Change

by Andrew Day

03 February, 2020

One perspective that informs our consulting practice at Metalogue is cultural anthropology. We see value in trying to understand the symbolic meaning of behaviour, language, artefacts, rituals and ways of working. This lens often reveals new and different ways of making sense of what goes on in organisations.  We’ve learnt to value being immersed in organisations, hanging out and observing first-hand what goes on between people.

Upon entering an organisation for the first time, we are confronted with the challenge of figuring out how things are done and what it means to be a member of the organisation.  This is rarely a comfortable experience, at least for me. Clients hire us to help them to achieve specific goals, and with this often comes an expectation that you understand or know what to do.   More often than not, however, we don’t know what to do because we simply don’t understand enough about the organisation, what actually happens or what’s happened in the past.

Rather than seeing this as a problem, I am learning that it’s precisely this ‘not understanding’ that is often required.  This is because helping a leader, team or organisation to change (as we all know) is not as simple as telling them what they need to do differently.  In most instances, people know what they need to do – that’s not their difficulty – it’s figuring out how to change.    This is only possible if they become aware of what they take for granted, their assumptions, beliefs and norms.

‘Outsiders’ often notice things that ‘insiders’ have stopped noticing.  Furthermore, being curious and asking simple or naïve questions about seemingly mundane events, can help others to question what they do and why.  With a little encouragement and support, managers and their teams are usually able to adopt a similar position of curiosity about themselves. This can be as simple as asking them to be aware of, over a period of time, a range of everyday expressions of culture (such as language, norms, social roles, artefacts, rituals and ceremonies, myths, dress codes, etc) and then exploring what they have discovered.  Groups usually become highly engaged when given such an opportunity to study themselves.  Such exercises can prove to be both sobering and hilarious, often at the same time, as contradictory and seemingly non-sensical patterns are surfaced and explored.  Bringing together my ‘outsider’ perspective and their ‘insider’ viewpoint can therefore reveal deeper levels of understanding of how work is undertaken and its consequences.

Some examples from the field

To give a simple illustration, I’ve been coaching a newly appointed Director in a public sector organisation who for the first time in her career was expected to participate in governance meetings around service provision and metrics.  In the meetings, she felt like she was an ‘outsider’ as she struggled to understand her role, what was happening, the language that was used and what was expected of her. I took the position that when she attended the meeting, she was crossing a boundary between her professional culture and the managerial culture of the organisation.    To help her to make sense of this transition, I encouraged her to take up the position of an anthropologist who needed to de-code the culture of the meeting.  In our sessions, I helped her to describe the patterns that she observed and experienced.  This led her to the following description (somewhat abbreviated for this blog):

– A lengthy report of over 250 pages that was prepared in advance of the meeting. This covered clinical and financial performance for each department.

– The most senior managers sat at the centre of the table with managers from the same department sitting together around the table.

– The meeting took on an air of formality with each department having a specific time bound slot on the agenda in which to present the data for their area.

– The presenter would be careful not to ‘show any dirty washing in public’.

– The senior managers directed the flow and pattern of the meeting by asking questions, expressing concerns and making demands on the departments.

– When ‘issues’ were raised, the presenter would always state clearly what was being done to resolve it.

– Discussion tended to be limited to a few clarifying questions with very limited challenge of the presenter or exchange of ideas or opinions.

– The general tone was one of muted responses and an absence of explicit displays of emotions.

The meeting’s ritualistic quality appeared to serve the implicit purpose of providing assurance to powerful stakeholders, such as the Board and different external bodies, that risks were being managed and were under control.  The scene itself reminded me of the Sociologist Erving Goffman’s delineation between front stage and back stage social interactions. The meeting was a theatre in which a public image was presented for an audience.   They were engaged in impression management, showing that they were in control of their services and that risks were known and managed.   My client experienced considerable frustration in these meetings because she felt their content and the tone did not reflect what was happening in the organisation.  Whilst, the above exercise did not resolve her frustrations, it did reveal to her that she needed to work backstage, behind the scenes, to surface difficulties and risks (rather than raise them formally at the meeting).

With another client, who I was working with for the first time, I was struck by how all my interactions were short in duration, fast paced and purposeful.  I noticed how I experienced a constant pressure to get to the point quickly or respond immediately.  When asked for my opinion about what needed to be done to support a transformation process, I shared my observations and experience of our interactions. This led me to suggest that people would need space and time to reflect together which would need some deliberate disruptions.  This hit a chord with those present who were quickly able to recognise the cultural pattern and that they needed to slow down and think about what the changes would mean for them.

In summary, inquiring into cultural dynamics can help managers to understand how they can get things done and help teams to understand how their norms and taken-for-granted assumptions affect what they do and how they do it.

If you are interested in reading more about organisations as cultures then please download our research report: Culture … where to start? The realities of Culture Change in Organisations


Goffman, E (1959). The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life.

Learning from the mundane, everyday and taken-for-granted

Related Articles