The Best Kept Secret about Organisational Culture

The quality and coherence of organisational culture is the prime asset that makes or the liability that breaks an organisation. The content and quality people’s relationships with each other, the coherence of people’s relationships with their roles, the organisational objectives and with the organisation itself, defines the organisational culture.

Culture is difficult to define or measure, yet it determines the ability of the organisation to be robust, appropriately and creatively responsive and adaptive and to seamlessly meet the challenges of a complex and ever evolving business environment. The culture of an organisation is determined by the interrelationships of people. The key differentiator of competitive advantage in a global market today is people and more particularly the capital that is generated from optimally functional human relationships. More particularly it is the acquisition, continual development and strategic deployment of the qualities, talents and attributes of character that people bring to their relationships that determines the health and sophistication of the organisational culture.

Well functioning constructive human relationships and the personal attributes that give rise to them create conducive environments in which people can effectively leverage their skills, talents, ingenuity, creativity and qualities of character as the source of competitive advantage. Creating an optimal environment in which people and productive relationships thrive has to be the top priority in the strategic plan of any company that wants to raise productivity in order to drive higher company value.

Relationships contain within them complex webs, levels of experience, politics and communication that we refer to as dynamics. Only the proverbial tip of the iceberg or all of complex dynamics are seen or understood by most individuals or organisations. What lies under the surface, unseen and yet the source of all ineffectiveness and ultimate failure is referred to in this approach as the “blind-spot”. The blind spot is also a potential source of power and effectivemness. To effectively initiate, maintain and develop good relationships you need to be managing the hidden aspects even more than the surface aspects of interpersonal dynamics. For example you might think that you are saying and doing all the right things to get the other person to understand or respond to you in the desired way and yet do not. This could be because of how you are making the other person feel. What you are doing to make the person feel that way remains a mystery to you, until you are clearer about aspects of you that you might be revealing without reason it or aspects of the other person that are opaque to you. An example would be when you think that you are being solicitous and in fact you are being controlling. People also interpret and react to the behaviour of others on the basis of past experience. The person’s behaviour may evoke memories of particular behaviours, personality traits that inform the person’s perception of the current circumstance. People also react to the symbolic value of a person like an authority figure. Others examples are people filter their perception of others through the lens of belief, stereotype or prejudice that you have about that person’s gender, race, physical or mental abilities or attributes, culture, generation or age.

“We see things not as they are, but as we are.” Anais Nin

Your blind spot is the composite of everything that:

1. you don’t know that you don’t know

2. or that you either implicitly or explicitly have decided that you do not wish to know, because it will force you into some uncomfortable acknowledgement, experience of discomfort or responsibility that you would prefer to avoid

3. or that which you do implicitly know on some level but cannot access because you have not integrated the awareness into your explicit body of inner knowledge.

This category accounts for “gut feel” or the experience a strong sense of knowing that cannot be articulated or explained. The best example is psychological knowledge; any effective person has a vast mainly untapped store of psychological knowledge and understanding. Because the person does not have words with which to frame their experience, the knowledge and insight remains inaccessible and therefore seems unknown. A person would not for example know how to identify a power play or passive aggressive manipulation if the concept of power politics being part of every relationship did not exist for them.

In order to perceive power politics you need to first have knowledge of the concept. Once the basic principle is established it can then be generalised to include permutations of different types and causes as well as ways to deal with or resolve power struggles. The elements of the blind spot are many, and which elements are relevant or important at any one time depends on the demands of challenges of the situation. Your blind spot can be defined with terms like “the unconscious” or the “not at this moment conscious”, the shadow, or the possibilities that lie in the wings. It is like the negative space that until recognised remains opaque and yet defines the positive space. If one considers for example the work of artist M C Escher whose work plays with the concept of figure ground that tricks and plays with blind spots in perception.

Your blind spot is the universe of everything that you have learnt or chosen not to pay attention to or have not yet had the opportunity or desire to examine and get to know. This implies also that as soon as you learn to pay attention to something, what you exclude through that narrowed focus or habit of attention becomes part of your blind-spot. The blind spot includes what you lack awareness of in the world as well as within your own history and experiences that inform your personal narrative. Someone might learn growing up not to pay attention to manipulation in a family ruled by power politics. This means paying attention only to what you are told to believe and not to what your experience tells you. You might be told to ignore physical and emotional needs and signals, for example with parents who are very controlling, perfectionist and value only succeeds and achievement and not “being”. Being valued for what you produce rather than for you are teaches someone to be machinelike and control production at all costs rather than being adaptive, responsive and human. This could extend to the bodily level, where someone in rigorous training is taught to ignore pain or discomfort or someone controlled with food could switch off to either hunger or satiety signals.

Blind spots occur in the physical, intellectual, emotional and spiritual realms of existence and are maintained by ignorance. In this context, certainty is the worst form of ignorance because it explicitly includes only what is known and excludes what is unknown. Ignorance however is really an effect of and not the cause of the blind spot. The cause of the ignorance is inertia. Inertia is the deep inner gravitational force in the human personality that manifests in a person wanting to conserve a current state and not be diverted or shifted out of it. It is the comfort zone of emotional, spiritual, physical and intellectual economisation, complacency, convenience and ease. It is the state that gives rise to expedience and other forms of dishonesty that justifies ones inner-inertia. It is the force that is expressed by the metaphorical notion or “every time I get the urge to exercise I lie down and wait for the urge to pass”. This inertia manifests as the refusal or resistance to initiating action or to changing direction or approach once action has been imitated. It is expressed by for example working even harder at a failing attempt at solution rather than cutting ones losses and going back to the drawing board. Inertia can therefore be seen in both non-performance and ineffective over performance. Inertia is supported by arrogance that leads to complacency and not paying attention to detail or believing too strongly in one’s own infallibility. Inertia is aided and abetted by its main accomplice and partner in crime, distraction. Distraction can aid inertia by, for example keeping people in planning and consideration by inviting them to focus on the unattainable perfect rather than allowing them to get started with good-enough ideas and then strive for perfection through progressive self-correction. Distraction expresses the desire to avoid facing brutal facts and simply paying attention to conveniently selected facts. This shows through debate and speculation, or offering and competing to come up with best solutions before any deep or clear understanding of the basic problem has been achieved. Distraction can keep people working hard at the wrong things, like going on a fun team build to improve performance when what you really need is a deep understanding of and confrontation with the factors that contribute to poor performance like lack of engagement brought about by cultural differences and misunderstanding between management and employees. Inertia spawns habit, which is the rigid, mechanical, unthinking, unresponsive, mal-adaptive, fake imitation of discipline. Distraction conceals inertia through the pretence of purposeful focus and exertion. This is the zone in which many consultants make their living, either being incompetent and supporting inertia or providing distraction through ill conceived or shotgun interventions. Either way, such consultants provide a superficially credible alibi for inertia. Inertia is more than satisfied with superficiality, not disrupting the status quo and therefore inevitably colluding with mediocrity.

The blind spot is also cultivated through what you explicitly leant to pay attention to. This includes aspects like taken for granted beliefs about otherness like culture, generation, race, authority and gender as well as explicit beliefs like prejudice and stereotyping. It also includes personality aspects of experience like the Enneagram concepts of pairing, self-preservation and social domains of existence, where one predominates, another is less developed and the third is part of the blind spot. The same principle applies to the arenas of thinking feeling and action. Each person has preferred ways of paying attention to, making sense of, and responding to the world that, over time become habitual and entrenched. This is what is referred to as personality. Each personality mode is underpinned and informed by particular themes and the values embodied by those themes, like perfection or achievement, peace and harmony or power and control. Part of the personality mode can be described as the person’s general approach and worldview as in the conceptualisation offered by Spiral Dynamics. Woody Allen said “My parents had only two values in life, G-d and carpeting”. People can be taught to see only through the eyes or religion or believe exclusively in empirical science, effectively closing off the entire universe of knowledge’s and ideas contained in what they have been taught to reject. Growing up in a dominant culture or a marginalised culture creates certain taken for granted beliefs, habits of attention and interpretation that remain opaque to those who reside outside the realm of that experience. Ironically, so called ”personal growth” and self-help projects can reinforce and lend intractability to the blind spot, because people choose to grow in the areas that are comfortable and familiar to them. The habit of attending conference presentations or workshops by people you like or admire or are in the same school of thought as you may serve to reinforce your blind spot. When people study for an exam by repeatedly going over a text, they tend to focus upon and reinforce what stands out and is familiar to them because of repeated focus on those points. This is why the secret of effective study is to ask oneself question, set exams for oneself so to speak, test what one knows but also expose the gaps and missing parts of one’s knowledge. This is a good metaphor to describe what is required if one is to overcome a blind spot in general.

The importance of understanding the blind spot is two-fold. The obvious reason is explicit in the notion of how you lose power and effectiveness because a blind spot is self-limiting. The other reason is that through understanding and decoding your blind spot you are able to access endless reserves of resourcefulness and effectiveness’. The first step towards appropriating the knowledge and wisdom implicit in your blind spot is the admission of ignorance. This admission opens the field for the most effective antidote to ignorance-curiosity. Implicit in curiosity is openness, flexibility and humility. As long as you know what you don’t know, you will have the respect for others and perceive them as potential sources of knowledge for the missing pieces of you blind spot.

“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” Mahatma Gandhi

The less of a blind spot, the more of a grasp you have on reality and truth. Reality and truth cannot be limited or polar. Rather, reality and truth have to be both transcendent and inclusive. The more exclusive, individual and homogenous the view, the more limited if not delusional the perspective it embodies. It is for this reason that no fundamentalism or extremism or any ism for that matter can be anything but a partial limited truth. An individual, because of their blind spot, can only arrive at a very limited partial view of reality. By combining, reconciling and integrating many partial views, one is able to arrive at a more encompassing view of truth and reality. It is for this reason that reality can only be grasped through relationship. This is in my mind, the pre-eminent business case for paying real attention to and grappling with and wholeheartedly embracing issues of diversity.

Organisational blind spots occur when certain views or voices or ideas or approaches are privileged to the extent that contradictions or opposing approaches are neglected, negated, punished, ridiculed, disqualified, marginalised, eliminated or drowned out. What people call reality is really the consensual reality of people agreeing to a set of common assumptions, values, beliefs and approach. Homogeneity of personality styles, cultural, social and educational backgrounds, generations or cohorts facilitate the creation of a cohesive and comfortable shared reality with a proportionately concealed and entrenched shared blind spot. It is in the realm of your blind spot that you lose personal or organisational power and effectiveness. It is the ghost in the system that stands between the seemingly intractable problems of present state and achieving your desired outcomes.

It is in the realm of the blind spot where the potential for true excellence and greatness remains hidden, waiting to be discovered and claimed. It is through bringing your blind spot into focus and sharp relief and appropriating its many elements and making it part of the explicitly known that you reclaim and exponentially increase your capacity for power and effectiveness. What helps individuals and organisations to overcome their blind spots is firstly to build in learning about culture, personality, world-view, generational theory, group dynamics, and power issues to name a few. Secondly feedback loops need to be created that promote for introspection and reflection on an individual, team inter-personal and organisational level. This further implies the facilitation of healthy conflict and robust debate to challenge taken for granted assumptions, and consensual realties or majority beliefs and views. Through this leveraging of all aspects of diversity the wealth of wisdom, resourcefulness and creativity that lie dormant in the organisation can be harnessed.

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