Aggregated Cultural Failure

This sketch is imperfect, but i’m trying to find a way to represent the aggregated effects of culture: how is it that cultures fail, when the individuals within them cannot all desire that failed outcome. It’s an exploration of the strange cultural effects of silent conformity, confirmation bias, and rifts in trust. Throughout this piece, i’ll reference a number of other pieces of early stage writing that may cast light on these effects, all part of a wider exploration of how our complex, dynamic, and opaque social systems operate.

Aggregated Cultural Failure

Individually, we have a moral compass, but it does not point to magnetic north: it’s influenced by our socio-cultural experiences, by our normalised views (on, for example, gender roles, wealth inequality, faith, etc), and, at times, it’s influenced by pragmatism and even aspiration. Broadly though, systems tend to be full of well intentioned individuals, even if their understanding of ‘well intentioned’ may vary. And yet systems at scale tolerate toxic behaviours. It’s that feature that i’m primarily interested in: how do high functioning systems tolerate this toxicity?

Ultimately, whilst the tolerance is held at a local level, it’s concurrently held at a community level, and it’s this tension that may let us understand the failure, because the pressures on each level are different. The Landscape of Trust work is influencing me here: people seem to rationally hold multiple, concurrent, and conflicting, versions of the truth, and we do so by holding it in different contexts. For example, i trust you in one context, but in another, when you are ‘wearing a formal hat’, i do not. I rationalise the two conflicting views (i trust you, and i don’t trust you) through projected context.

Landscape of Trust - Triangle of Trust

If i work in a team, where i see low level bullying, i have to consider the four elements of my ‘Triangle of Trust’, my individual values, my intention, my actions, and the impact i have. I may make a pragmatic decision to ignore it, i may take actions that prove ineffective to counter it, i may take actions that have no effect, or i may effectively address the issue. None of those outcomes are guaranteed, because cultural effects are cumulative, caused by actions and intent, but not determined in a direct correlation with either.

In other words, i may see bullying, it’s out of alignment with my values, so i intend to take action. I take action, but the outcome is not that the bullying stops. Because my intention, and even my action, are not deterministic of a social outcome: i may stop one particular instance of bullying, but i won’t make bullying something of the past at an aggregated cultural level. That’s why we see endemic bullying in the NHS, or some police forces: it’s an aggregated cultural artefact, not a deterministic relationship. It’s ‘many to many’, not ‘one to one’, or even ‘one to many’.

The real challenge in the example above is not specifically my intent and action (although both are important), but rather the wider cultural ecosystem in which those actions take place, and the way that others respond. Culture is a co-created artefact of aggregated group actions, so whilst i influence it, a lot of other people influence it more, because it’s a democracy where each action counts equally. That’s why leaders can’t eliminate bullying alone. And neither can the person being bullied (again, remember, we may be able to address a single instance, but not the pervading toxic landscape).

The Projection and Failure of Trust

In this recent work on ‘the projection and failure of trust’, i explored how ‘in group’ behaviours may perpetuate cultural failing, because the social consequence of standing up is that you stand out. I’ve also been looking at that, in a different context, in some other work on the ‘#TakeAKnee’ movement, the NFL protests against social injustice (or the imposition of fake patriotism, if you listen to the other view).

Culture is a perverse feature: the NHS has a challenge with bullying, but it’s full of amazing people who would never consider themselves bullies. How can this possibly happen? Within the formal structure, we typically take the view that the problem is the bully, but in a socially dynamic frame, we may take the view that the issue is the overall community that tolerates, implicitly, the bully.

This gives a different view of intervention: sure, we have to put the bully in the cross hairs, but not in isolation. We can shoot as many as we like, without draining the swamp. Instead, the way to inoculate against bullying is probably to build a culture where bullying is unthinkable, and where there is high social, as well as formal, consequence.

When trust fails, it doesn’t fail universally, like the tide going out, but rather fails in specific, often people centred, ways. I hypothesise that this is because it’s not held in a global structure, but rather in a diversified network of social ties, strong ties, that are what is directly impacted by the failure. So organisations grow in linear, one dimensional, visible structures, whilst trust scales in fragmented, tribal, invisible, multi layered, conflicting, dynamic, and pragmatic ways, which cross through the formal system. No wonder it’s hard to understand or influence…

Typical organisational approaches to toxicity are to counter it with rules, but rules are operating in the wrong space. You can probably use rules to pick off the perpetrator, but you can’t use rules to influence culture, because culture operates in a different space.

To really affect cultural change, we have to understand the interplay of rules and forces that permit, exonerate, or damp down, individual behaviour: social consequence, social authority, social capital, trust, pride, fear, and so on. And, on top of that, we have to understand how they aggregate into dominant cultural effect: so we have to look at forces that exert upon the system, but also as system wide effects. Culture is felt as a system wide effect, which, coincidentally, is why you can’t really change it with a targeted solution of, e.g., a leadership programme. Because it’s not the leaders who are fully to blame: it’s an aggregated blame for an aggregated problem.

Incidentally, i have focused on negative cultural effects, but i think it’s true of positive ones too: you can’t mitigate for innovation, or even fairness, because both are emergent features at scale of a high functioning system.

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About julianstodd

A learning and development professional specialising in e-learning and learning technology.
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