‘Culture’ is a much used byword for ‘effect’: we talk about ‘learning cultures’, ‘toxic cultures’, ‘agile culture’, and so on, describing the culture by the effect that it demonstrates, or perhaps we could say by the behaviours that it permits. Learning Cultures are ones in which learning can take place beyond constraint, toxic cultures are ones that permit harm, and agile ones demonstrate an ability to learn and change.
I take a rather pragmatic view of culture: it’s co-created in the moment, but influenced by the Dominant Narratives in which we swim (the Dominant Narrative is the term used to describe ‘the way that things are’. These narratives feel fixed, but are actually remarkably fluid, if pushed in the right way). So at a behavioural level, it’s just about people, but at an Organisational or Tribal level, it’s about the stories we are trapped within.
All this week i am working around culture, so i sketched out the illustration above to indicate some of the internal tensions at work: whilst we often consider culture to be a thing, perhaps it is best to view it as a Polaroid photo, snapped across a landscape, capturing the zeitgeist and emotion of the moment.
I started by showing the ‘C’ and ‘E’ as separate towns, or fortresses, which reflects the meta-tribal nature of must communities, and hence Organisational cultures: we are not dealing with one thing, but rather an aggregated set of battling identities. Other factors i have tried to capture here are the mechanisms of culture (the gears), which we need to understand (forces of identity, pride, power, etc). But we should not seek to understand them simply to try to force or influence them, but rather to enable or inform them.
The anchors represent the tension that culture keeps us safe (within a know tribe), yet also holds us back (because it silences quiet voices, or views, and can inhibit difference). And the sparks represent the power, the electricity: i think we can reduce most social systems to an understanding of power, and the ways that it is generated and held.
The question marks remind us that culture is always contextual: if you feel that you exist within one Dominant Narrative, a space that is good, kind, and enabling, it’s worth remembering that this is just the common, consensual delusion, that you share with your tribe. Others may not feel the same: others may live in uncertainty or doubt: ‘Culture’ is rarely unified, but rather the illusion of a few.
One final aspect of culture is important: we often describe it as the thing that we want, failing to recognise that it is generally the thing that we deserve: we get what we generate. This is the truism of culture: if we are passive, we inherit what we are given, but if we lead through action, in the moment, then we earn something more positive. But the culture we are judged to have is exactly that, a judgement. To have something better, we must build it.
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