Organisational Culture Revisited

Yikes, I’ve been a HR practitioner for nearly 25 years now! ):

During this time, an ever-present theme in my work is the notion of organisational culture and how to change it. culture While I don’t disagree with any of the classical definitions of organisational culture, I have found the systemic approach the most compelling. As conversational beings, members of organisations co-create meaning through social interaction, in particular through language. From this dialogical perspective, organisational culture is simply the domain of understanding that has been created in a given workplace context.

The power of inquiry

“An answer is always the part of the road that is behind you. Only questions point to the future.”  Jostein Gaarder

The theory…

Good questions are catalytic and generative. They stimulate thought, curiosity, learning and are able to open up possibilities.

Identifying meaningful questions is an art that can be cultivated and learnt. The right questions can lead to the proverbial ‘paradigm shift’ and bring about transformative change.

Rather than write a long blog about the power of inquiry, I thought I’d just give some examples of what, in my view, are generative questions.

“How do questions shape our reality?

“What is lost when we just take majority decisions and don’t hear minority voices?”

“How do we create meetings (conversations) modelled on how people naturally communicate?”

“Why are we re-creating ways of talking (conferences, meetings, forums, committees, etc) that limit our creativity?”

“Why are we not bringing in the collective intelligence of hundreds of people but rather choosing over and over again to just listen to a few expert voices?”

On second thought, perhaps it is more about developing an attitude of curiosity rather than the questions themselves but I think a combination of the two is essential for anyone wanting to facilitating change.

I always try to ask questions at meetings but this is countercultural. More value seems to be placed on the person with a lot to say and who seemingly has all the answers and solutions.

Rather than listening to respond, I make myself listen in order to ask questions that open up alternatives or possibilities.

The practice…

In my experience many people (those who’s opinions are seldom sought) appreciate the collaboration that such an approach engenders but some (usually those who’s voices are legitimised by status) may not!

I used a variation of one of these questions at a meeting where an influential member of staff wanted to implement an initiative that he had heard about. He talked about running “vision casting” conferences, and bringing in experts on the subject to speak at these conferences, etc.

At an appropriate time, I asked what we would potentially lose if we only asked the ‘good and the great’ for their input and not use the significant talent, knowledge and experience of our own people? This question caught the imagination of others at the meeting and the intervention changed the trajectory of the conversation.

I thought it was a significant moment that illustrated the power of inquiry.

However, the person with the idea told me afterwards that he wanted his ideas to be simply accepted and implemented and that my intervention made the situation overly complicated and changed the essence of his suggestion.

This was in stark contrast to feedback I received from others who felt that the intervention helped generate support for the idea because it (a) addressed the issue of contextual appropriateness and, (b) generated ownership for the idea by invoking the collective wisdom of the group.

The Blame Game

I never liked watching “The Apprentice” but my family loves it. So I thought I’d give it another try, but had to stop watching after 10 minutes, when Sir Alan Sugar said to a group, who lost a particular challenge… “Go away and find out who’s to blame”.

That is a cameo of traditional macho management that takes its values from the playground and the marketplace.

The following is a description of the show from the Personnel Today blog:

“Sugar revels in his role of business demigod and wields his stubby finger with relish each week, and the audience figures suggest that this celebration of blame his gripped the nation.”

The blogger goes on to share his opinion that like ‘greed’, ‘blame’ is good… and that we (HR) should do more it!

Hang on. Let’s hit the pause button. Or better still the ‘reflect’ button in our minds.

What kind of society do we create by this kind of thinking?

  • Identify who is to blame.
  • Get rid. Replace. Tell them off. Give them what for.
  • Discuss the problem and find the solution.
  • Get in a consultant/expert in to solve the problem.

My sense is that this leads to (and maintains) a macho management, negativity, dog eat dog, survival of the fittest, blame environment.

It’s not jut conceptual. This ‘worldview’ encourages certain types of behaviour. In a blame culture, people behave in blaming ways. These behaviours are self-sustaining and self-perpetuating. It breeds a suspicion, politicking, backbiting, draconian organisational practice and non-risk taking. In these cultures, feedback such as “you should do better next time”, and even training and development events are seen as threats.

I am now going to make a bold claim!

We can change our social world by changing our organising grammar to:

  • Let’s discuss a helpful process for creating change.
  • How can we inquire into and build on the best of what is?
  • What can we help people to learn?
  • How can we value everyone’s contribution?
  • Who else, amongst us, do we need to involve?
  • What processes do we need to put in place to help us improve continuously?
  • How can we develop, coach and mentor people through a project?

In the words of one of my favourite song, its ‘more than words’. It’s about an attitude and a particular perspective on life and how we want our human communities to be (including our work communities).

In the workplace, this counter-cultural way of thinking can potentially help our organisations become more life-giving and supportive places to be. This in turn leads to productively, innovation and creativity… through a sense of collaborative endeavour.

In my humble opinion, this approach is more likely to lead to the achievement of organisational goals than a culture based on shame and blame. Who would you rather work for… Pixar or Amstrad – take your pick.

In a Christian setting, we could and should go further by asking ourselves… “How might we create a ’forgiveness’ rather than a ‘blame’ culture”? What can we do to enable and help our people behave in constructive, encouraging and forgiving ways?

Appreciative Inquiry

4I always thank my God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. 5 For in him you have been enriched in every way—with all kinds of speech and with all knowledge —                                                                                              1 Cor 1:4-5

18 There is one who speaks like the piercings of a sword, But the tongue of the wise promotes health.           Proverbs 12:18 NKJV

Like it or not, we are, to some extent all influenced by our history and culture. In the UK, it is a tradition of the House of Commons at Westminster that front bench politicians are required to speak from behind a red line drawn on the floor, calculated to keep them at a distance beyond a sword’s length from their opponents. This strange tradition is yet another example of the adversarial basis of politics in the UK. Prime Ministers’ Question Time has achieved a huge following among television audiences worldwide. Apparently people love to witness the spectacle of leaders verbally tearing into each other.

Are the decision-making processes in Christian organisations that much better? If so, why is the mere mention of the General Synod or Parochial Church Councils or just the word ‘meeting’ enough to set eyes rolling?

We all long for something different. However all too often, we find ourselves caught up with negative and sometimes destructive ways of talking about ourselves.

From a communication perspective, an organisation is a network of conversations. If we take this as axiomatic, anyone wishing to facilitate change will do well to have some understanding of the role of language in the reality/meaning-making process.

AI is one method of exploring and creating life-enhancing possibilities through constructive and collaborative conversations. It requires a move out of deficit language into an appreciation of what works well in an organisation – with the belief that you get more of what you pay attention to. It seeks the best of “what is” in order to provide a shared platform for imagining “what might be”. For example, rather than asking “What is wrong with your team, what are your weaknesses?” We could instead ask people to “describe a time when you were proud to be a member of your team”, or, “What do you value most about being a member of this team?” “What are you most proud of?”

In a community setting, this knowledge and insight that we all “have been enriched with” is meant to be shared.

‘Knowledge is an aspect of relationship, of interaction between human beings. It doesn’t belong to any one of us’. Stacey 2002

Traditional management focusses on what is wrong, on the negative. In my view, this only serves to make us more eloquent and articulate about what’s wrong with our organisations, families, churches, etc. It also breeds a culture of blame.

To say that “our organisation is a problem to be solved” perpetuates the notion that our organisations are only problematic. This way of thinking inadvertently draws us into a downward spiral of ‘problem-talk’. In contrast, AI concentrates on what works. The idea is that you get more of what you pay attention to.

As Christians we believe in grace, affirmation, encouragement and diversity. AI is one method for putting these values into practice. You would be amazed (maybe not) as to how little we do this. In one AI exercise I was involved with, someone said “this is the first time in 20 years that a colleague and I are talking with the specific purpose of appreciating each other and each other’s work!”


One technique for developing an appreciative spirit is ‘re-framing’… words, issues or situations.

For example, “my organisation is woolly”or “we suffer from paralysis by analysis” can be reframed to… “we are reassuringly diverse, refreshingly balanced, realistically complex, reflective… and proud of it!”

Consider, also how power, control and accountability can be instantly changed by re-framing say, an appraisal or performance interview, by inviting the people instead to an ‘INTER-views’ session.

Of course, in all these examples you have to mean it!

An appreciative spirit is an art. When done well, it can contribute towards an organisation’s capacity to apprehend, anticipate, and release positive potential.

By first identifying the best of “what is”, it is possible to create a positive framework for working together on “what might be”. People have more confidence and comfort to journey to the future (the unknown) when they carry forward parts of the past (the known).

Appreciating the Fragile

In my experience the meaning of appreciation must not be simply reduced to the encouragement of positive talk and the discouragement of negative feedback. Rather, genuine ownership of visions, goals and tasks amongst a diverse group of people is more likely to be the outcome when appreciative processes are carried out in the context of, and draw from, the complex, emotional and emergent nature of social interaction and communication in organisations.

Appreciative Leadership

Some years ago, I had the privilege of working with Diana Witts, former General Secretary of CMS on a major ‘Change’ initiative.

Back then the Directors Team thought long and hard about why perceptions of a hierarchical management continue to persist despite various attempts to change this. There was a feeling of ‘stuck-ness’.

Moved by a conversation about the need to value everyone, Diana met with all staff. She told those gathered that everyone had a responsibility to make this happen. She then publicly apologised for the times when she had consciously or unconsciously not valued anyone and invited people to join her in trying to change the culture. This took people by surprise and created a real buzz. Listening to the conversations that followed, it dawned on me that this was a moment of relational action that will facilitate the achievement of organisational goals far better than any institutional mission or value statements.

It was a seminal moment in which a dominant ‘deficit story’ or ‘conversation’ was edited. Leaders have a vital role in co-constructing such practical making of history/ies. The Hollywood film Sliding Doors illustrated how different versions of reality can be created by different actions. The same can be said about conversations.

For AI to flourish, there must be a commitment by everyone to develop an appreciative eye, and an appreciative spirit. Leaders have the added responsibility for modelling this; and creating a safe and supportive environment where life-giving conversations can thrive. You could say that it is about developing a ‘Barnabas’ ministry of encouragement.

… let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds. Hebrews 10:24

Human or Inhuman Resource Management?

I am old enough to remember hearing the term Human Resource Management for the first time. I was a young personnel practitioner in a blue chip company, sitting in the audience of an in-house Conference. I can still hear the Keynote Speaker say “The time has come for Personnel to decide whether you are here to serve the cats or the cat owners”. He bellowed, “I’m here to tell you that it is a no brainer. It’s the cat owners”.  He went on to say that Human Resource Management (HRM) was a way to maximise human potential by aligning the individual to the organisational goals, which at the end of the day was increasing profits for the shareholders.

HRM brought with it the thinking that employees are not merely overhead costs, but people were ‘resources’ or ‘assets’ that had a value/worth linked to their economic utility. My former tutor at King’s College, London, Tom Keenoy (1990) wrote that HRM’s prime objective was to legitimise the management ideology that strives to intensify work through the use of labour.

I guess this makes sense in the commercial sector where the employment relationship is characterised by employers’ desire to maximise profits. In this context, HRM is about increasing productivity. For me, this is at odds with its claims to be ‘human’, oriented for the good and well being of people. At best, it is an attempt to use psychology in a transactional context where the relationship is intrinsically unequal. Some argue that the move away from regulation to the ‘winning of hearts and minds’ merely masks the fact that the end game is still control and conformity. In this sense, HRM is a means to an end.

Is this too harsh? Judge for yourself.

In your experience, how has HR practices structured social relations in your organisation? How is power used, and by whom and for what purpose… particularly in the way that job analysis, job evaluation, work plans, selection & recruitment, performance appraisals, and disciplinary and grievance procedures are done?

A critical view is that these ‘management tools’ allow individuals to be objectified, classified, measured and ordered in a particular way, creating such things as leaders and followers; and then maintaining this social order?

Many Christian organisations have introduced HRM because this is the self-evident, professional thing to do. Surely it is time that we ask how the ideology of the market place (HRM) is influencing, even changing, our culture, ethos, beliefs and identity in the process?

Needless-to-say, I feel that Christians should be more discerning about what practice we adopt; and be proactive about exploring biblically based forms of organising (and leadership).

Why am I drawing attention to this? Am I biting the hand that feeds me? According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault “by showing that things are not as self-evident as one believed, transformation becomes very urgent, very difficult and quite possible”.

Gender equality: Moving beyond legislation and political correctness

This morning at our usual staff gathering, the person leading our time of reflection celebrated the significant achievements of the early “Heroines of Christian mission”. It was remarkable to reflect how much these great women of God accomplished  in spite of the inequalities that existed; and continue to exist today.

This session sparked a lively discussion on how we should continue to work towards gender equality today. This is my reflection on the conversation.

History has shown that if we simply replace women with men – say in leadership roles – without tackling that society’s underlying assumptions about gender, change will, at best, be superficial. We can all think of examples of women leaders who resorted to ‘masculine/alpha male’ forms of leadership in order to be “successful” in a man’s world. While legislative approaches to diversity has been useful in advancing the cause of women, I’m dubious about whether a regulatory approach will ever lead to a paradigm shift.  At best, criminalising behaviour can lead to compliance or political correctness, but it also does drives discriminatory practice and attitudes underground.

What’s needed are ways of creating transformative change. This got me thinking about how everyone can play a part in making real change happen. Something that we can all do is to ask questions – questions that generate something new. They have the potential to co-create new realities.

Successful organisations are characterised by positive partnerships across gender relationships in which both men and women contribute from their strengths, and are recognised and feel valued for their contributions.

Generative questions have the potential to socially construct such positive relationships. If you are interested in trying this approach, here are some examples of questions that can be used, say at a team building meeting or something similar. Ask people to answer the following questions in pairs:

1. Think of a time when you felt a genuine appreciation and valuing of diversity, particularly in terms of gender. What made this possible? What stood out as significant and meaningful? How was mutual respect and trust gained?

2. What would you like to see more of, in order to support or improve across-gender working relationships?

3. As you look to the future, what would you like our team/organisation to look like with respect to gender relationships? How should this be manifested in terms of leadership action and how can we ALL bring this about?

4. Having had this conversation what are you personally compelled to make happen? Who will you discuss this with? At the end of the session ask each pair to feedback the key points from their discussion to the whole group.

Remember, the success of this activity rests on people being ‘given permission’ to act on ideas that come up. So, at the end of the meeting you might want to ask for feedback to the whole group; and for ideas and actions to be written up on a flip chart.