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Let’s look at the basic components of an organization that help to inform how the culture will be defined.  Processes, systems, rules, goals, resources, services or products, money and people.  How do these elements fulfill the basic needs of the human beings that work the processes, systems etc?  I think we can agree that the structure, money and guidelines provide a sense of security and safety.  Working side by side with others creates loads of opportunities to establish meaningful relationships.  And a decent job with the possibility of new assignments will lead to mastery that may ultimately create self-actualization.  So there are many things about an organization that could satisfy the basic needs we have as human beings.

But the moment that security, safety and trust come into question, say it with me, that’s when stupid, crazy and bad behavior comes out of the woodwork.  In business language, when a change occurs (great or small) productivity goes down and people resist making adaptations to the new order.  In psychological language, if there is a threat to basic needs people will struggle to focus on being competent until they return to their prerequisite comfort level.  We can say the leaders are behaving in stupid ways when they expect people to simply change course without offering any safety nets.  Or we can say the staff is acting crazy when they passive aggressively undermine the new direction.  I believe that they are all just being human.

Here’s what typically happens in organizations.  Things are going along just fine and then some sort of shift occurs.  It is a change in market conditions or new leadership or a critical event or a major reorganization.  The leaders huddle behind closed doors to discuss the situation.  Initially they are anxious about the New Thing but they spend weeks and months sorting and planning and aligning.  By the time they emerge with their prepared slide presentations and shared talking points they have already re-established their own equilibrium.  They are long past the moment of disruption and have confidence in the plans to move forward.  When they go before the staff to announce the New Thing they are met with mass discomfort and push back.  Rather than building into the plans a transitional period to allow people to take the same journey they just did, leaders tend to hammer away.  Exasperation takes over and they can’t understand why people don’t see the clear logic to the New Thing.  And this is the moment when Culture kicks the door wide open to run wild.

So Culture is the altogether very human element of an organization that is expressed through mass behaviors that are either productive or counterproductive.  If an organization is rather stable with minimal disruption, Culture will abide by and augment the prescribed guidelines.  If there is continuous change, Culture will rebel in a variety of ways to ward off the impending change.

Culture is not just about moments of change.  It is the set of behaviors that have become acceptable over a long period of time that may never have been spelled out in an employee handbook.  Some of the behaviors are quite helpful and align well with the objectives of the company.  Others are work-arounds that are idiosyncratic but still achieve the goals.  While others are passive or hostile or undermining or power grabbing…not exemplary but accepted nonetheless.

As previously stated, we have some basic needs and once they are met we can do remarkable things.  Another important thing to know about human beings is that we have great capacity to change but it happens slowly and in small pieces.  In the event of an overnight conversion type of change (usually due to a crisis) there is usually a reversion to the old ways or haunting reverbs from the trauma.  In other words, don’t trust someone who flips a switch.  And finally, the company we keep influences our behavior.  Peer pressure, groupthink, herd mentality…all real phenomenon.

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