Organizational Culture

A colleague wrote: I quote from page 23 of the Chapter “No mere Ape’ in *Ramachandran VS (2010) The Tell-Tale Brain ? Unlocking the Mystery of Human Nature, Random House India.*

“….By hyper-developing the mirror-neuron system, evolution in fact turned culture into the new genome. Armed with culture, humans could adapt to hostile new environments and figure out how to exploit formerly inaccessible food sources in just one or two generations – instead of the hundreds or thousands of generations such adaptations would have taken to accomplish through genetic evolution. Thus culture became a significant new source of evolutionary pressure, which helped slect for brains that had even better mirror-neuron systems and the imitative learning associated with them. The result was one of the many self-amplifying snow ball effects that culminated in Homo Spaiens, the ape that looked into its own mind and saw the whole cosmos reflected inside…”

To which I replied:

Thanks for this reference. I look forward to reading the book. To the extent the following is true, it helps explain why culture is so seductive. Once we are part of it, it is hard to see it for what it is or to resist simply fitting in. Layer on the deep rooted desire to be part and identify with whatever we are part of (nations, work groups, etc.) and we are prone to being blind to other possibilities. I see this with groups that have only formed within the last few minutes or hours…invite critical feedback from another group and people reliably bristle at the comments and defend their own (to the outsiders the first response is something like, “you just don’t understand…” rather than exploring the feedback for learning, even when they have been trained to do so).

Going back to earlier threads in this string, the concept of fields in organizations is rooted (as I understand it) in the work of Murray Bowen and Edwin Friedman. They talk of an “emotional field” which gets activated whenever anyone bumps up against the norms of the group (no matter how dysfunctional those norms may be). Essentially there is a moment of stress (as in a moment of awkward silence in a meeting when someone has said or done something outside the norm), which is an unspoken (although words may be spoken) and unaware invitation to get back in line with what is “acceptable.” This is the pull, like a magnet on iron filings (a metaphor I first heard from family systems expert Denny Minno back in the early 1980s…he possibly got it from Bowen) that requires great presence of mind to resist.

Finally I just have to say that of course culture (for want of a better word) is real and directly impacts productivity. A famous example is the behavior in Toyota of immediately thanking subordinates when they raise issues or even stop the production line for perceived issues (a behavior I hear they may have slipped away from in recent years at least on some of their engineering decisions). The opposite behavior, that of punishing subordinates that raise “disturbing issues” literally or more likely with an unintentional yet still damaging cold shoulder (see “emotional field,” above), is a plague in most organizations. That is culture at its most insidious and it is absolutely a function of leadership to either mindlessly support what they are used to or to intentionally create something better (i.e. an environment where peoples true perceptions flow upwards and are known so that the choice of exploration and action exists).

And it is a function of OD to help leaders (at all levels) see what they are not seeing, including the possibilities for something better.

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