Diagnosing an Organization's Culture for Dysfunctional Behavioral Norms

by Ralph H. Kilmann

 

This article is adapted from R. H. Kilmann, Quantum Organizations: A New Paradigm for Achieving Organizational Success and Personal Meaning (Newport Coast, CA: Kilmann Diagnostics, 2011), 97–107.

 

ABSTRACT

During the past few decades, there have been extensive efforts by both academics and practitioners to identify and manage an organization’s culture. Regrettably, however, the term “culture” is often spoken without clarifying its meaning or making it operational for use. Not surprisingly, therefore, efforts to improve corporate performance by changing corporate culture have been severely limited—and largely disappointing. To rectify the current situation, this paper revisits a fundamental aspect of culture, behavioral norms, and shows how such norms develop and gradually become dysfunctional. Next, in order to accurately diagnose behavioral norms in troubled organizations, this paper presents several guidelines and techniques for interviewing individuals and groups—making use of organizational storytelling. This paper then concludes by illustrating a cultural diagnosis of a disguised company and suggesting the types of organizations that are likely to embody a similar intertwined set of dysfunctional behavioral norms.

Social forces are transforming our groups. Cultural norms develop, teaching us what is expected, supported, and accepted by the people we live and work with. These norms exert powerful pressure, causing us to behave in ways that often run counter to our real wishes and goals.
                                                      Allen, 1980: pp. 31-32

INTRODUCTION

The likelihood that an organization will achieve success in a dynamic and complex setting is not determined just by the skills of its leaders, nor will its adaptiveness be primarily determined by the strategy, structure, and reward systems that make up its visible features. Rather, every organization has an invisible quality—a certain style, a character, a way of doing things—that ultimately determines whether success will be achieved. Ironically, what cannot be seen or touched may be more powerful than the dictates of any one person or any formally documented system. Thus, culture is the invisible force behind the tangibles and observables in any organization, a social energy that moves the people into action. Culture is to the organization what personality is to the individual—a hidden, yet unifying theme that provides meaning, direction, and mobilization. 

In the most comprehensive review of organizational culture to date, Trice and Beyer (1993, p. 33) define culture as “shared, interrelated sets of beliefs about how things work; values that indicate what’s worth having or doing; and norms that tell people how they should behave.” While beliefs and values help to understand many salient features of culture, behavioral norms (the unspoken, unwritten rules of the game) provide the most useful means by which to diagnose and change an organization’s culture.

The first two sections of this paper explore two interrelated questions: (1) How do cultures form—what brings them into being? (2) How do cultures persist—what forces keep cultures intact? The third section presents several guidelines and techniques for diagnosing behavioral norms—primarily by encouraging individuals and groups to tell organizational stories during their diagnostic interviews. The case of American Gas & Electric (AGE) is then used to illustrate the dysfunctional behavioral norms that can be uncovered when employees are asked to speak the unspeakable. As a result, this company was able to see its intertwined, interrelated behavioral norms that would get in the way of any effort at change and improvement. Indeed, unless the intricate web of dysfunctional behavioral norms are surfaced and changed, it is unlikely that long-term organizational success can be achieved. This paper concludes by recognizing that similar dysfunctional norms are most likely operating in many other traditional organizations—and, therefore, these hidden barriers to success must first be diagnosed and changed before any other efforts at systemwide improvement (Kilmann, 2011b).

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HOW DO CULTURES FORM? 

A culture often forms rather quickly in response to the organization’s mission, its setting, and what is therefore required for survival and success: quality, efficiency, product reliability, customer service, innovation, hard work, and/or loyalty (Kotter and Heskett, 1992; Peters and Waterman, 1982). When the organization is born, a tremendous energy is released as members struggle to make the company work (Deal and Kennedy, 1982). The culture reflects everyone’s drive and imagination. As the reward systems and rules governing work are formally documented, they begin to have a more specific impact on shaping the initial culture, suggesting what behaviors and attitudes are important for success (Trice and Beyer, 1993). 

Such forces in shaping culture are further heightened by the impact of key individuals. For example, the founder’s objectives, principles, values, and behavior provide important clues as to what is expected from all members both now and in the future (Schein, 1992). Other top executives follow the founder’s lead and pass on the culture of the company to their subordinates (Nadler and Tushman, 1990). 

Employees also take note of all critical incidents that stem from any management action—such as the time that so-and-so was reprimanded for doing a good job just because he was not asked to do it beforehand. Incidents such as these become the folklore that people remember, indicating what the corporation really wants, what really counts in getting ahead, or how to stay out of trouble. Work groups adopt these lessons as norms on how to survive, how to protect oneself from the system, and how to retaliate against the company for its past transgressions.

Lewicki (1981: pp. 8-9) suggests how the double standard—managers asking for one type of behavior while rewarding another—motivates employees to develop the necessary unwritten rules to survive and prosper:

What an organization says it expects should be consistent with what it rewards—but that’s not always so. If an organization says it wants to aggressively develop new businesses, then presumably it should reward those who are the most aggressive in new business development. However, if it consistently promotes those who have done the best job in nurturing current accounts and ignores the entrepreneurs, employees will soon get the message that an organizational double standard exists. Employee discontent about this duplicity will soon find its way into lunch table or cocktail circuit conversation, where the “dos and don’ts” of organizational life are shared, evaluated, and communicated to new members. “Don’t listen to what management says,” oldtimers will warn; “do what others have been rewarded for.”

As a culture forms around a recognized need, setting, and specific task requirements, it may be very functional at first. But, over time, the culture becomes an entity unto itself, independent of the initial reasons and critical incidents that formed it (Schein, 1992). As long as it is supportive of and in harmony with the mission of the organization, the culture remains hidden in the background. But if management attempts to make significant changes that impact on everyone’s behavior, the culture quickly rises to the occasion (Allen and Kraft, 1982; Kilmann et al, 1985). 

The hidden power of the culture is apparent when management attempts to make a major strategic shift or tries to adopt entirely new work methods (Tichy, 1983). Management cannot pinpoint the source of apathy, resistance, or rebellion and is puzzled as to why the new work methods are not automatically and enthusiastically embraced by the membership. To management, it is obvious that these proposed changes are necessary and desirable. Why cannot everyone else see this? The reason is that the changes run counter to the culture that underlies the organization.

Top management is also caught in the grip of the firm’s separate and distinct culture. Employees from below wonder why managers “play it so safe” and why they keep applying the same authoritarian styles even though these simply do not work. Employees wonder why management is so blind to the world around them. They wonder if management is “mean” or just “stupid.”

HOW DO CULTURES PERSIST? 

Behavioral norms become embedded in the organization when a strong consensus develops among group members concerning what constitutes appropriate behavior (Moch and Seashore, 1981). If a norm is violated—if someone behaves differently from what the norm dictates—there are immediate and strong pressures to get the offending party to change his behavior. For example, one norm in a company might be: Don’t disagree with your boss in public. Consider an individual who insists on presenting his reservations about the company’s new product at a group meeting just after his boss has argued for making a large investment in an advertising campaign for the product. The individual is stared at, frowned at, looked at with rolling eyes, and given other nonverbal messages to shut up and sit down. If these efforts do not silence the individual, he will hear about it later, either from his coworkers or from his boss.

Every person’s need to be accepted by a group—whether family, friends, coworkers, or the neighborhood—gives a group leverage to demand compliance to its norms (Trice and Beyer, 1993). If people did not care about acceptance at all, a group would have little hold, other than formal sanctions, over individuals. The nonconformists and the mavericks who defy pressures to adhere to group norms always do so at a considerable price.

Why does one organization have a very adaptive culture while another has a culture that lives in the past? Is one a case of good fortune and the other a result of bad luck? On the contrary, it seems that any organization can find itself with an outdated culture if its culture is not managed explicitly (Kotter and Heskett, 1992).

If left alone, a culture eventually becomes dysfunctional (Allen, 1980). Human fear, insecurity, suspicion, oversensitivity, and dependency seem to take over unless a concerted effort to establish a healthy, adaptive culture is undertaken (Schaef and Fassel, 1988). People have been hurt at one time or another in their lives, particularly in their childhoods. It is, therefore, rather easy to scare people into worrying about what pain or hurt will be inflicted in the future, even in a relatively nonthreatening situation (Kets de Vries, et al., 1991; Kets de Vries and Miller, 1984). As a consequence, people cope by protecting themselves, by being cautious, by minimizing their risks, by going along with a culture that builds protective barriers around work units and around the whole organization (Schein, 1992).

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DIAGNOSING CULTURAL NORMS 

If we understand how cultures first form and then persist, perhaps we can prevent them from becoming dysfunctional. And if we can diagnose an organization to uncover its dysfunctional culture, perhaps we can then make it more adaptive (Beer and Spector, 1993).

An effective way to diagnose an organization’s culture is to ask its members to discuss openly what has been undiscussable and to write out what previously was unwritten. I have done this activity many times with a variety of organizations. I have found that members are willing and able to surface their behavioral norms under certain conditions: (1) no member will be identified for stating or writing a particular norm (individual confidentiality), and (2) no norm will be documented when one’s superiors are present (candid openness). The consultants and managers who ask members to surface norms, therefore, must foster valid information, free choice, and internal commitment (Argyris, 1970). 

Many organizations make use of various employee-opinion surveys to learn what members think about their jobs, their division, and the well-being of the whole organization (Cummings and Worley, 1993; Huse, 1980; Nadler, 1977). While the information gathered from questionnaires is easy to quantify and tabulate, research suggests that this approach provides little insight into the underlying dynamics that shape key decisions, actions, and outcomes (Harrison, 1987). Sometimes bottom-line measures (such as profitability and productivity) are used to signal the existence of organizational problems but, just like surveys and questionnaires, these measures fail to identify the root causes of problems.

Experience shows, however, that only a face-to-face discussion can hope to surface the full range—and depth—of cultural norms that impact on employees. At the same time, face-to-face interviews facilitate the exploration of cause-and-effect relationships and the interconnected dynamics among many organizational variables (Beer and Spector, 1993). And if it seems more efficient to interview groups of members instead of individuals one at a time, it is important to remember that people will not voice their true feelings in front of others unless the organization has already established an open and trusting culture.

Expert consultants (internal or external to the organization or both), with the aid of key managers (who have access to organizational charts and job positions), develop a detailed plan to gather diagnostic information from members throughout the organization (Harrison, 1987; Levinson, 1972; Weisbord, 1978). The objective is to sample each level in the hierarchy—and each division and department—in order to get a representative, unbiased sample of the organization (Armenakis, Mossholder, and Harris, 1990). If there are more than 10,000 employees in an organization, interviewing about 350 members should provide enough information to diagnose the organization’s culture (due to the “law of large numbers” with stratified random sampling). For smaller organizations or business units, conducting 50 to 150 interviews should be sufficient—since most members will have internalized their organization’s culture via interpersonal interactions and internal “mental dialogues” (Harris, 1994). See Kilmann (2011a) for the detailed logistical guidelines for scheduling and arranging the diagnostic interviews throughout an organization. 

In the case of conducting a one-on-one interview with each employee, the process begins with the consultant briefly reviewing the background and expectations of the meeting. He (or she) lists the specific questions he will be asking and indicates what will be done with the responses. Then the essence of the interview proceeds: Can you suggest some of the unwritten rules that reveal how things get done around here? How do you get ahead? How do you stay out of trouble? What do you get rewarded for? What does the boss really want? What have you learned by living here and surviving here all these years? 

During the interview process, storytelling seems to be a natural and accepted way of describing life in the organization (Covin et al., 1994). In a recent improvement effort, for example, the consultant asked the interviewee: “You just mentioned ‘bait and switch.’ I don't believe I understand how it operates here. Can you give me an example of this practice?” The person responded with this story: 

I’ve been working for this company for almost twenty years and during this time I’ve been a victim of the bait and switch. It starts when a manager decides who to promote to a supervisory position. Next, the Human Resources Department posts the job and goes through the official job-interview process, even though the person has already been chosen. A few years ago, I applied to such a job and, are you ready for this, the same day of the interview, when I got home from work, there in my mail was the rejection notice. It was postmarked the day before! They could have waited a few days after the interview took place before they informed me that I didn’t get the job. I know of at least four or five other cases where the same exact thing happened. It has become common practice here for managers to encourage people to go after jobs and other opportunities that are already a done deal. And then they (managers) wonder why so few employees trust them. 

Stories also enable the consultant to understand organizational practices that are difficult for the interviewee to define. For example, Wilkins (1984) found that managers could not define the “company way,” but they could define it using stories that were well known in the company. Or if any interviewee is having a difficult time knowing what to say or what is relevant to discuss, the consultant can say: “Why don’t you just tell me what life is like here. Just give me some actual examples of what led up to someone (1) getting angry or upset, (2) voluntarily leaving the company, (3) getting fired, (4) being lied to or given false information, (5) becoming embarrassed or being humiliated, (6) trying very hard, but not getting the job done, (7) not satisfying a customer—or (8) feeling like celebrating or throwing a party because something great happened. Try to recall the people involved and the series of events that led to such experiences in this organization.”

The consultant can also diagnose behavioral norms by posing this challenging question to the interviewee: 

If I were your favorite sister or brother and told you that I plan to get a job here, what would you tell me about what goes on, so I am not surprised or disappointed later? And remember, if you mislead me in any way, you’re going to hear about it for the rest of your life! Give me some concrete examples of: Whom can I trust? (Why? What happened?) What department (or people) should I stay away from? (Why? What happened?) What issues should I not discuss with others, especially my boss? How should I approach my job? What can I expect during performance reviews and when I apply for a promotion? Remember: I’m counting on you to tell me the truth about what really goes on here.

In situations where it is felt that the existing culture supports an open dialogue among group members, the behavioral norms are revealed not only by the organizational stories that are told in such a group setting, but also by the reactions of members during and after these stories are presented. In a recent example, a group of ten employees talked about the following story:

A task force was put together to plan for the introduction of a new product. A highly respected employee was assigned to be the team leader. This person was known to be domineering and arrogant, but always got the job done. One member of the task force, a newly hired employee, just completed the company orientation program that encourages everyone to share ideas openly and come up with new and better ways of doing things. But he made the big mistake of taking the company seriously.

In the first meeting of the task force, the new employee briefly outlined a plan to design a consumer panel for testing the features of the proposed new product (rather than rolling out the same kind of product campaign that has become the company’s standard practice). After the employee finished expressing his ideas, the team leader, in no uncertain terms, proceeded to straighten him out: “How many products have you introduced here lately? In case you didn’t know it, I’m head of this team and I’ll tell you when and how we will proceed. You got it?” Although this public put down was bad enough, what was more shocking to the newly hired employee was that everyone else in the group looked the other way and simply ignored the team leader’s harsh tone. Even after the meeting, the other members said: “The team leader is a good guy, but a little rough around the edges. That new guy has got a lot to learn.”

As the story was being told, the other interviewees smiled, nodded their heads, and sighed. Apparently, this story was not unique but described a typical experience in this organization. The nonverbal behaviors of group members also suggested that while they have accepted such rude treatment, nobody liked it (or wanted to be on the receiving end). With a little prodding, they recalled more incidents that confirmed these cultural norms: “Don’t share your ideas if they challenge the way things are done here. Wait for the boss to present his plan. It’s o.k. to be rude to new people. Someone has got to teach them to ignore the company’s orientation programs.” Then someone said: “Now that we all know what it’s like, does anyone care to do anything about it?” There was a long period of silence, and then the discussion switched to another topic.

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AN INTRICATE WEB OF DYSFUNCTIONAL NORMS 

The tremendous impact of dysfunctional behavioral norms is best illustrated by seeing an elaborate diagnostic report for an actual organization. It is one thing to read some of the independent norms (and stories) that have been uncovered from one case or another. But it is an altogether different experience to see how an organization can be strangled by the intertwined, interrelated, interdependent norms that all reinforce and feed upon one another. Such an illustration painfully reveals why dysfunctional cultural norms must first be identified and removed before there is any real hope of improving—let alone transforming—an organization for long-term survival and success. Thus, a diagnostic report (versus a mere listing of dysfunctional norms) is needed to illustrate the intricate web of dysfunctional norms that may be operating below the surface, behind the scenes, and between the lines in an organization. After presenting the background of a disguised utility company, American Gas & Electric (AGE), attention will focus on the cultural norms that were revealed during one-on-one interviews between external consultants and organizational members.

Background of American Gas & Electric

AGE, an old established company in the utility industry, provides gas and electrical power to several urban and rural communities. Back in 1975, it expanded its operations by merging with two smaller utilities in the state that were providing the same services to other townships. AGE employs about a thousand people.

In the past, AGE enjoyed all the advantages of existing in a very regulated and protected industry: secure jobs, good salaries and fringe benefits, and not much pressure to improve. Employees expected (and in fact received) life-long employment. There was a healthy family spirit: The company took care of its people and the people were loyal to the company. Part of this family spirit, no doubt, was fostered by many family members who all worked for AGE: It was not uncommon for a grandfather, father, and son to have worked in the same or a similar job in the company.

Then, of course, just about everything changed—or at least the outside environment became more deregulated and competitive, which put a lot of pressure on the organization and its employees to change their traditional ways of doing things. “Do more with less” became the battle cry, although the troops did not fully accept, let alone understand, what that phrase meant. And management was equally perplexed about what to do differently. After all, they had been successful via their traditional—autocratic—style of controlling the organization.

For almost a decade, starting about 1980, management tried one new remedy after another to get everyone to be more cost, customer, and safety conscious—besides being more innovative. Speeches were made on productivity improvement, newsletters were distributed on valuing the customer, and discussions were held on empowering employees by moving decision making downward.

When nothing seemed to change, the senior management began administering employee surveys to learn what was really going on. The results were always neatly tabulated, but senior executives did not know what actions to take. So they collected more data, put some task forces together, and hoped that their recurring problems would eventually be addressed.

The process of surveying employees, tabulating data, and putting task forces in motion continued year after year. Yet nothing of significance was being done differently where it really counted: on the job. Finally, senior management came to the conclusion that it just did not know much about changing—transforming—an old successful utility into a market-oriented enterprise. Management only knew how to provide gas and electricity like it always used to do. 

With the continuing complaints by the employees (as revealed by the latest opinion surveys), management decided to proceed with a more professional—and systematic—approach for improving the organization. After studying different methods and talking to many consultants, they decided to initiate a culture-based program (Kilmann, 1989; 2011b; 2011c). 

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The Culture of American Gas & Electric

Here is the cultural diagnosis for AGE—just as it was delivered to the senior management group and then to the rest of the company. It was developed by having six outside consultants interview 150 people (one-on-one for an hour each) who represented all areas, levels, and locations in the thousand-member company. During these interviews, it was not very difficult probing employees to find out “what really goes on around here.” From these enlightening discussions, the following fourteen norms—in the form of do’s and don’ts—are offered as a way of capturing the experience of working in AGE. (Note: The actual diagnosis also included assessments of the company’s strategy, structure, reward system, and other formal systems and practices—in addition to culture. See Kilmann (2011c) for the complete diagnosic report.)

1. Do Not Trust Across the Boundaries 

There are cliques, factions, turfs, and kingdoms in AGE (choose your favorite term) that make it exceedingly difficult for people, groups, and departments to work together—cooperatively—across the boundaries. The factions include union employees, nonunion employees, temporary workers, contracted workers, marketing, finance, personnel, technical, information systems, divisions, plants, home office, field, supervisors, managers, customers, old, young, women, men, minorities, Merger #1 people, Merger #2 people, and so on. Within each faction, people mostly take care of themselves at the expense of the whole company. Such self-serving—hurting—behavior breeds mistrust.

These factions are fostered by some of the following cultural norms: "Do not trust anyone who is not in your group. Second-guess any decision made by another group—they probably made the wrong decision. If you are part of a decision-making group that includes some of these “other” people or groups, pretend to go along with their decision in public but kill it behind the scenes. Express hostility toward the members of other groups—covertly and overtly. Stereotype each group in disparaging ways: Marketing people are arrogant, finance people are picky bean counters, personnel people are against all the employees, technical people do not respect the customer, union people want to take the company for a ride, and management only takes care of itself.

Continuing: "Don’t expect any person within any group to be different, let alone capable of changing. Interpret everything you experience in the company to support your stereotypes of other factions. The other groups are distractions from the primary work of the organization (your work) and you could easily cut costs in their area—if only given the chance. And you certainly can’t learn anything from other groups: If it wasn’t invented in your group, it doesn’t apply and shouldn’t be used." But acting out these dysfunctional norms in one way or another, by one group or another, reinforces the idea that people cannot be trusted. 

2. Refuse to See the Big Picture

There is a widespread practice that seems to permeate all levels and areas in the company. Instead of knowing what other people do, most members take a narrow view of what leads to organizational success. While some of the satellite locations must, by necessity, take a more general view of their job, even here there is a tendency to underestimate the value of the home office. Thus, people see the company with self-serving blinders and, in fact, devalue and negate the important—but different—roles that other people and departments play in the larger scheme of things. Of course, the refusal to trust across the boundaries simply reinforces the tendency to see only a small piece of the whole company. 

3. Pick Your Favorites and Promote Them 

Employees perceive that at least 95 percent of all decisions regarding hiring, job transfers, promotions, and performance reviews are based on favoritism. It’s who you know, not what you know. Employees describe many situations in which they experienced the impact of being favored (or not) by management owing to criteria other than performance. These criteria not only influence promotion decisions but breed “self-fulfilling prophecies” that determine subsequent promotions and other rewards—unfairly. For example, it has been said that senior management has its favorites. They are assigned the interesting and challenging work while others, who presumably are able to do the same work, are not given the same opportunity. Thus, over time, the favorite ones have the relevant job experience to meet additional challenges (for subsequent transfers and promotions) while the others are at a disadvantage. As a result, the favorites get richer while the nonfavorites get poorer—quite literally—in AGE.

Furthermore, it also seems that there are men’s jobs and women’s jobs. (Few women hold management positions.) This outcome seems to reflect an implicit conformity to traditional male/female job categories, which is just another form of favoritism.
While supervisors and managers are in the best position to pick their favorites, employees are in the right position to play the game. It is apparent that employees have purposely (but sometimes unknowingly) tried to become the favorite one, rather than concentrating on the job itself and letting their performance do the talking. Employees, in fact, gave numerous examples of creative strategies to become more visible to their managers—such as writing a lot of internal memos, joining the right committees, belonging to the right clubs, laughing at the right jokes, participating in the right sports, and arguing for the boss’s opinion in order to wear the prized halo. 

4. Play the Job-Posting Game

Some managers seem to have developed a covert procedure to ensure they get their favorites promoted or transferred while appearing to follow the accepted procedures for job posting and the laws for equal opportunity employment. Essentially the pattern seems to be something like this: First pick the winner (your favorite), write up a job posting to fit perfectly with the talent, experiences, and interests of that person, go through the motions of welcoming and then interviewing a wide variety of applicants (to support affirmative action as well), and finally announce your previously selected candidate. Regardless of how the job-posting system was designed to function, the culture has slanted the selection process to promote favoritism. In fact, most members believe that the best candidates for the job (promotion, transfer, or otherwise) are often not selected. 

5. Do Not Confront Poor Performance 

There appears to be a cultural tendency not to confront performance problems and not to replace consistently poor performers. Perhaps this whole issue is avoided since management cannot defend the personnel selections that were made and must now cover for its mistakes. Several members have stated: “Management just cannot admit that it placed the wrong person in that job.” On a continuing basis, therefore, performance problems weaken the culture and the morale of the organization.

It is not just managers, however, who nurture this cultural norm. In many cases, employees themselves cover for low performers in their group for all kinds of reasons: comradeship and loyalty among union members, us (employees) versus them (management), and “I’ll cover for you, if you’ll do the same for me.”

6. Make Decisions in a Total Vacuum

This cultural norm (undoubtedly ingrained from decades of autocratic management) suggests that people should make decisions about things they know little about. Why let a lack of information or expertise get in the way of decision making? Managers, for example, sometimes make decisions without getting input from the most knowledgeable people in the organization: the employees who are living the problem! Instead of gaining their valued input, management proceeds to operate in a total vacuum. Then management wonders why morale is so low and why employees complain about their working conditions. As several employees have said: “Management seems to spend more time trying to make people happy after some incident than working with thembeforehand so they don’t get mad in the first place.” In the worst cases, employees see management as totally out of touch with reality and living in an ivory tower. (Obviously, such decision making results in poor performance and severely affects the quality of life for employees.)

The problem of making decisions in a vacuum, however, is not exclusive to managers. Over the years, it has spread throughout the organization. Employees do not bother to examine—beforehand—the potential effects of their decisions on their fellow employees in other departments or work units: They just go ahead and make decisions as if they were alone on a remote island. Even when employees are selected for a committee assignment to represent their coworkers, they proceed to make decisions without first seeking information from the very people they are assigned to represent!

7. Do Not Listen Across the Boundaries

Employees have brought numerous problems to management through discussions and surveys. Management hears (a physical process) but does not listen (a cultural process). It seems acceptable in AGE to go through the motions of getting some input from others, planned or not, but then no real response is given to those who have taken the trouble to provide the input. This leads to frustration, anger, apathy, and low morale. At some point, management will not be told of some critical problem because no one expects management to listen. Even if there are good reasons for not acting on an idea or suggestion, employees—like most people—expect some acknowledgment that they exist and their message has been received. Otherwise, they will assume the worst—that their ideas fall on deaf ears—which is reinforced by the lack of trust across the management hierarchy. 

Employees do not always listen to their fellow employees either. While some of this not listening is certainly a result of the tendency to see the small picture (as noted earlier), numerous employees admitted that they regularly ignore requests from other departments, do not get back to their coworkers as promised, and, on occasion, do not even return phone calls!

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8. Avoid the Tough Problems at All Costs

This cultural norm adds to the previous one and offers one more reason why employees do not get an adequate response to their comments and concerns. There appears to be a high avoidance mode operating in AGE. It is, perhaps, consistent with individual tendencies to shy away from uncomfortable situations and encouraged by these cultural norms: "Don’t take risks, don’t stick your neck out, don’t assume responsibility, and don’t take the chance of being caught with a mistake." Even if managers really do listen to what employees say, the collective avoidance mode encourages them to ignore problems, especially controversial problems that might get them into trouble. So they listen—somewhat—but avoid any decision or action on the topic, hoping that the whole thing will go away on its own accord. Similarly, employees often find it easier (and safer) to avoid confronting their bosses when questionable decisions are made—especially decisions that, ironically, are most important to the success of the organization. 

9. Believe in External Control and Hope for the Best

One contributing factor to the AGE’s avoidance mode could well be an underlying—collective—belief in external control: What happens to you (and your organization) is largely determined by outside forces—such as luck, fate, politics, and other people’s behavior: “You can’t do that! Who said you could? It can’t be done. What’s the use of trying? They’ll never approve it!” Such comments suggest that external forces—for example, the weather, the parent company, the regulatory commissions, or top management—have taken away all the degrees of freedom. Most problems, therefore, are met with a reactive, avoiding, helpless response. In contrast, a more proactive approach is fostered by a collective belief in internal control: What happens to you and your organization is largely determined by what you do—your decisions, actions, attitudes, and efforts to change things for the better. 

10. Blame Others When Things Go Wrong

One way to avoid problems is to divert all the attention to someone else, preferably another group inside the organization, ideally a remote group outside the organization. In fact, the further the problem can be removed from the person, the better. Since most problems today are extremely complex and have roots that spread across the artificial boundaries in the organization, it is relatively easy to deflect such complex problems onto others. Fostered by low levels of trust toward other work units and a desire not to be the victim of a mistake either, most managers and employees are very quick to blame others well in advance of discovering the true nature of the problem. To be “quick on the draw” in AGE is to give the problem to others—right after refusing to see the big picture, treating everyone (and everything) as the same, making decisions in a vacuum, not listening, and avoiding the problem at all costs—and then blame them as soon as anything goes wrong. Because so many people have removed themselves from addressing the problem, it is certain that something important will be overlooked, which makes it all the easier to blame others. 

11. Punish Others Every Chance You Get

If you can blame someone else (or some other group) for making a bad decision, seize the opportunity to punish them severely. Ridicule them whenever possible, but do it nicely. And remind them of their error every chance you get. If you are successful at punishing people and groups for making mistakes, perhaps they will never try a different approach again. Perhaps they’ll continue to do things the same old way—cautiously and according to all the other cultural norms. Better yet, if you can punish others enough that they’ll work to maintain the status quo, the pressure will be off your back to change and improve! Maybe then we can all return to the good old days when we were accountable for nothing and could go about our business as we pleased: “Let’s make it acceptable to keep everything the same. I never did understand all the talk about cost containment, having to do more with less, and customer service.”

12. Do Not Communicate to Employees

Managers often appear to behave as if they do not owe employees any explanation, rationale, or reason for a decision: “Do as you’re told! You don’t have to know why. If you don’t like what I’m telling you to do, go find another job. We’re paying you plenty here. If you’re not happy, there are a lot of people who’d be happy to take your job.” If employees were just tools or children, such unacceptable communication might be more understandable. But in today’s world, employees prefer to be treated as adults—responsible adults—and it is hard for them to understand why this rather obvious preference is not recognized by their management. With today’s more educated, enlightened, and informed work force, only a two-way exchange between people in the organization is considered acceptable—and simply good etiquette. Incidentally, employees know that management has been informed about the lack of communications through one forum or another. But somehow they have not listened, or maybe they have avoided the problem. Or, ironically, maybe they really do understand but forget to communicate this back to the employees. 

In the worst cases, some members are convinced they have been lied to on a few occasions when management was asked to explain some event. Or perhaps they confided their personal views about something with management, and later discovered that the promise of confidentiality was violated. Any such lying, condescending, or unethical behavior by anyone in the company will continue to erode trust and make it even more difficult to heal the many fractures in AGE’s culture.

13. Joke Whenever You See Fit

Given all the pressure to change and improve the company, it is natural to use humor to relieve pent-up anxiety. But joking of the wrong kind tends to spread mistrust by hurting people—when the joking is at their expense. Employees note that some joking is very offensive to some people, particularly jokes that make fun of gender, race, religion, ethnic background, age—in short, all the things that touch upon prejudice and discrimination. 

It seems that the culture does not support people rejecting humor that is offensive—perhaps due to the avoiding tendency. In addition, since joking may be an important criterion for being a favorite, why cut off any chances to be positively evaluated for the next “job posting”? Instead of expecting management to be people oriented and sensitive, employees should expect everyone—including themselves—to respect everyone’s dignity.

14. Keep Wounds Open 

The merger of AGE with two other utilities is still a living part of the company's internal environment. But by avoiding “the problem,” management (and employees) have not allowed the company to address the issue directly, understand and accept what happened, undo what still can be undone, mourn any injustices that cannot be undone, feel sad about what happened, and then put the matter to rest. Many years after the merger, members are still labeled according to their previous affiliation—which interferes with trusting, sharing, cooperating, and getting the work done. If the wound does not heal, energy and talent will continue to be diverted from the primary work of the organization. Avoiding, not listening, not communicating, and blaming others will not heal the wound in a manner that will enable people to move forward and adapt to today’s challenges. Living in the past is not very productive or psychologically healthy: It’s like living in a vacuum.

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Summary of Dysfunctional Behavioral Norms

All the foregoing cultural norms generate widespread inconsistencies and inequities in AGE. Being removed from the organization’s problems, seeing small pieces of the problems anyway, not listening to those who do know about the unique features of the problems, avoiding the problems besides, not trusting other people to help you (except your favorites), believing that someone else controls the outcomes, blaming others for having created the problems in the first place, punishing them so they won’t create these problems again, and not explaining why various solutions were chosen in the end—such cultural norms just do not work in today’s world. The result? Inconsistencies and inequities throughout the organization that lower both performance and morale.

Without belaboring the point, it should be evident that AGE is caught in a vicious cultural cycle. If this cycle is allowed to persist by enacting the identified cultural norms habitually and continuously, trust and confidence will continue to erode—making it ever more difficult to heal the wounds and solve the problems. This cultural cycle must be broken. Otherwise, any change initiative is likely to fail.

CONCLUSION

All organizations have unwritten rules that affect how members interact with one another and how the work gets done. Usually, these below-the-surface “cultural norms” are so unconscious that employees—especially those who have been members for many years—do not even question them anymore. Norms that prescribe how to get ahead, how to stay out of trouble, what the boss really wants, and how to treat other groups in the organization are simply accepted as normal: “It’s just the way we do things around here.” 

New members are taught these particular ways of seeing, thinking, and behaving—otherwise they will not be accepted in the organization. Indeed, social pressure is applied to “deviants” so they follow the accepted modus operandi and do not question the wisdom of the past.

When the company finds itself facing an entirely different external environment, however, the out-of-date cultural norms negatively affect performance and morale. The old ways—the unwritten rules—no longer lead to satisfactory outcomes. At some critical juncture when the organization’s future success is at stake, it becomes essential to examine the actual norms: the tried-and-true “rules of the road.” By seeing them face to face, employees have the opportunity to assess what cultural norms are still functional (and should be kept) versus what aspects of the culture are clearly dysfunctional (and need to be discarded or changed). The whole process of seeing and discussing cultural norms for the first time is a somewhat painful experience. But if the company plans to develop a more adaptive culture for today and tomorrow, that process is essential.

Some readers may wonder whether the dysfunctional cultural norms that were revealed for American Gas & Electric (AGE) are really unique to that company or, alternatively, if these norms are actually quite similar to what is operating in many other companies that were successful—and protected—in the past. Indeed, my consulting experience suggests that any organization which fits one or more of the following conditions will probably evidence an intricate web of dysfunctional norms (similar to what was reported for AGE):

  • The firm is old, large, and entrenched with bureaucratic procedures (which seem to come with age and size—and efforts to control people and costs).
  • The firm has experienced large doses of autocratic leadership in the past and, therefore, has thoroughly demoralized its employees (or, at the very least, has taught them not to take responsibility for their decisions and actions).
  • The firm was very successful prior to the turbulent 1980s and, as a result, habitually clings to its out-of-date formulas for success (instead of realizing that an altogether new paradigm is needed).
  • The firm has encountered a sudden shift from a very stable to a mostly dynamic environment and, therefore, is still living in the past (or, at a minimum, is under considerable pressure to catch up to today’s world).
  • The firm has implemented numerous cycles of singular, quick fix approaches and, thereby, has failed to transform itself (and has, as a consequence, taught its employees that it may not be possible to transform an organization).

If subsequent research finds that dysfunctional norms are indeed entrenched in these types of organizations, it will be essential to focus more attention on understanding what causes dysfunctional cultures and how to change them. Otherwise, it will be most difficult for the old successful companies to succeed at corporate transformation when their unwritten rules of the game are all working against systemwide change and improvement.

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