One artefact of culture is to create spheres of consequence: if you are within the sphere you experience the consequence that the culture imposes upon you, whilst if you are outside of it the consequence is almost entirely irrelevant. One culture does not have one sphere of consequence: there are many, overlapping, and sometimes contradictory spheres in play. The degree to which one experiences the effects are both the function of our place within the formal hierarchy and a degree of attachment we have to the organisation itself. Put simply, the more we are reliant upon, or invested in, the organisation, the more deeply we are likely to be embedded within the sphere of consequence.
I found myself swept up in a perverse example of the misapplication of power this week which relates to this effect: whilst flying to Berlin, i tried to check in at the airport desk, but was told there was a problem with my ticket. I was sent to the other end of the hall to speak to a Customer Service Agent: having queued for this, it turned out that there was no problem, she had simply misread the system.
The Customer Service Agent insisted that i walked back across the hall with her to point out the person who had made the mistake, then proceeded to tell that person off in front of me, despite my protests that it was no problem at all.
The end result appeared to be this: the person who made the mistake was doubtless annoyed, maybe embarrassed, or possibly angry. I was annoyed, at being coopted into putting down someone for making a mistake. And presumably the Customer Service Agent thought they had somehow made things right, despite actually having made almost every aspect of the experience worse for everyone involved. The action that they had taken projected a sphere of consequence both over themselves and the other person. From my perspective, I was fully outside the sphere, observing the fractured culture at play within it.
Aside from the obvious things at fault here, consider wider aspects of culture: in what type of corroded culture would this be considered normal or fair? To me, the symbol of a troublesome culture is not the actions of the individual so much as the lack of ability to protest the actions. In other words, it’s not specifically the actions of either of these individuals that count, so much is the aggregate experience of culture that defines the sphere itself. Neither the lady being ‘told off’, not any of her colleagues watching, felt able or willing to call out the behaviour, leaving it to me, who existed outside the sphere of consequence, to do so.
In other words, the observers were also within the sphere of consequence, or possibly within slightly different spheres, but nonetheless unwilling or unable to challenge the behaviour. By failing to challenge, the behaviour, and the sphere of culture that sits around it is reinforced.
I’m still, a few days later, bemused by the whole thing. From the outside, it was so obviously abnormal, but from within, it was accepted and acknowledged. Maybe even normal. And that’s the thing about spheres of consequence: from inside they may be opaque. Behaviour is reflected back to us as normal, whilst in fact from the outside, where the walls are transparent, we can clearly see the microcosm of a dysfunctional culture.
In the Social Age, it’s only through high trust and engagement that we can build the Socially Dynamic Organisation: a culture of blame, humiliation and stagnation is unlikely to provide the foundation we need. Consequence is a key component of this: we need to shine a spotlight on consequence and actively vary its application, something I explore further in the Dynamic Change Framework. Left to chance the spheres of consequence can radically impact not specifically the behaviour of individuals, but the ability of the organisation to affect change. As we know, spheres are an incredibly strong shape, highly resistant to pressure from the outside. Cultures can only evolve from within, through the deconstruction of the spheres of consequence to the actions and co-created narratives of every individual.