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CULTURE IS NUTTY…AND VERY HUMAN

Way back in my hippie days as a graduate student I taught a course called “Interpersonal Dynamics in Groups”.  That’s a fancy title for a T group.  You know, those early, unstructured laboratories of human behavior run amok.  To say that I “taught” it would be an overstatement.  More accurately, I sat passively and watched it unfold…which was what I was instructed to do.  The theory was that left to our own devices without adult supervision a group of people would behave in some rather predictable ways.  Two things were bound to happen.  For one, individuals would adopt certain roles to attempt to bring some order to the chaos.  And secondly, over the course of 14 weeks the group would establish some norms then fight with each other to change them and ultimately leave the experience scratching their heads about what the hell just happened.

Here’s what I learned from that course and the rest of my studies.

Put a bunch of smart, sane and well intentioned people together in a group, team or organization and you will ultimately get loads of stupid, crazy and bad behaviors. 

And I’ve been learning that lesson over and over again during the ensuing decades working with individuals, teams and organizations.  As human beings we walk into new environments, scan the landscape and then decide how much we are going to adapt to our surroundings or try to change things to adjust to our pre-existing needs.  There is much trial and error involved as we try some new behaviors or push on the system to bend to our wills.  At some point we find a comfortable enough stance.  Adaptation to our new habitat is complete.

And then along comes Change trying to mess with our world order.  This is where the stupid, crazy and bad stuff comes in.  The protest signs and slogans can be heard up and down the halls.  Hell no, we won’t go!  Who died and made you God?  Down with the Flavor of the Month!  That’s the Stupidest Idea ever!  Edicts are met with resistance and Change is able to achieve two steps forward and one step back.

And then six months later it starts all over again.

Every day in every organization people are demonstrating “Interpersonal Dynamics in Groups”.  The problem is that very few leaders took that class in graduate school so when they hear all that “resistance to change” they think it’s a bad thing rather than what you would expect under the circumstances.  And then it’s the leaders’ turn to be stupid, crazy and bad.  They pound their fists and offer up their own zingers.  What kind of idiots do we have working here?  Get on The Damn Bus!  Don’t you see The Burning Platform?  These people have no sense of urgency!  Get rid of these morons and find me some decent people!

It’s not likely that the leadership team is clueless or that the staff is senseless.

What we’ve got is a bunch of human beings doing what human beings are wired to do; responding to their environments.  In organizations there are explicit guidelines for appropriate and expected behaviors posted all over the walls and intranet sites.  We call these Mission Statements and Rules of the Road and Annual Goals and Competency Models and Three Year Strategies and Policies and Procedures.  Collectively these declarations tell us what we can and cannot do.

Ah, but if it were that simple!  To a great degree people will behave according to these expectations…at least overtly.  While the leadership team extols the virtues of these remarkably well worded and nicely choreographed pronouncements the staff operates on a meta-level that is widely accepted but never acknowledged in speeches or writing.  It is this covert activity that defines Culture.  And it is Culture that ultimately trumps Mission Statements.  And it is Culture that confounds us because it deals with the complexities of human nature and most of us don’t have an instruction manual to sort that out.

So let’s establish a few baseline tenets about human beings to help navigate through this morass we face every day in our organizations.  I find Abraham Maslow and Erik Erikson most helpful in defining what we humans need.  According to Maslow we have a “hierarchy of needs” that must be met in sequence:  physiological (food, water etc.), safety/security, social (connection to others), self esteem, self-actualization (making a difference).  You can’t feel good about yourself until you have other basic needs met first and you can’t make a meaningful contribution unless you have positive feelings about yourself.  Erikson adds that as we develop we need to experience trust, mastery, attachments and autonomy repeatedly over the course of our lives to achieve maturity…his way of describing self-actualization.  Put together, people need to have some basic sense of security and trust to establish good relationships and become competent at many things in order to feel we are having a positive impact.

In spite of all the technological advances, human beings have not (yet!) been reengineered.  This is what makes us tick.  It’s pretty basic and straightforward.  If you want to complicate things we can bring Freud into the picture.  He suggests that we are forever working through our mother and father issues so that at any moment we can project our unconscious crap onto others.  Imagine that your boss is just an amalgam of your unfinished business with your mother?!  But let’s not go there…let’s keep it simple.

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