Performance – Culture – Agency

I’ve been exploring aspects of culture this week, and the following work is a reflection on the relationship between ‘Culture’ and ‘Performance’. In it, i am presenting a hypothesis more so than a comprehensive exploration, and the hypothesis relates to organisational change. It holds that Culture and Performance exist in a tension, a dynamic dance, but that within that tension we can create Individual Agency.

Much of the language i used in that sentence draws upon the language of the Dynamic Change work i’ve shared previously, and the Socially Dynamic Organisation work, also shared and published last year as the Guidebook.

Culture can be viewed as an artefact of dialogue and action: whilst we talk about it as if it were a real thing, most likely it is not, but is rather a shadow of the performances we make to each other through everyday. Historic performances frame and contextualise the performance today, but in no real sense do they determine or constrain it, beyond that determination or constraint that we hold in our expectation and experience of consequence.

Or to put it another way: nothing tangibly prevents culture from being radically different today, except the dominant legacy of the culture we had every previous day, which both frames and contextualises our most likely action today.

The legacy of culture is held within Organisational Myths: the stories that we tell each other, the bogeymen in the Institutional closet, the ‘he said – she said – they said’ stories that tend to persist, as well as the rituals that surround them. All social behaviour is controlled and framed by rituals, which become so pervasive that we fail to always see them i action around us.

So culture is a rather weird thing that is not truly real, and yet exerts a very real effect on behaviour, not through direct action, but rather our sense of action. Essentially we inhibit or enable ourselves largely around notions of belief and judgement of others. Which is another language for ‘culture’.

When it comes to measuring culture, there are varied approaches, which range from observation, to quantifying interaction, to gathering narrative reports of what we believe at the individual or collective level.

Performance, by contrast, tends to be rather more real, in that it describes action more so than thought alone (although i guess a Performance coach would say that performance starts by overcoming the self limiting effects of thought…). And Organisations tend to be reasonably good at measuring what they at least believe that Performance is about: outputs, quality, consistency, scale etc.

Performance also tends to correlate to power: if you perform, you gain. Same with systems as a whole: functions that perform come to dominate over support ones etc.

So in this strange sense, both Culture and Performance are real, but very different: one more easily observed and measured, both relating to power, both relating to control, both exerting real influence on the other.

Strong cultures (or the belief of culture – see, i am even driving myself mad now) can enable performance because they enable/permit/condone/reward certain behaviours that relate to performance. Similarly they can constrain performance (or e.g. Innovation or Change) for exactly the same reasons, through exactly the same effects, but reversed.

Similarly, Performance can build culture, but may also limit it: if you consistently miss performance targets, it is unlikely that you can maintain a belief of being a high performing culture (although perversely, as culture is not really really real, you may construct a culture that takes pride in the trying…).

To untangle myself from that mess, suffice to say the following: Culture relates to Performance, and Performance relates to Culture, in ways that exert influence, but do not determine outcome.

So back to the middle.

To change, at scale, beyond formal systems alone (beyond what you can make happen, or buy in from the outside), we need Individual Agency: space to get your elbows out, space to explore, experiment, and learn.

With Individual Agency we can take action, and find space to belong: and with belonging we may build belief in ourselves and others. So in that sense, maybe ‘Agency’ can substitute for both Culture and Belonging. Or maybe it IS Culture and Belonging.

When i look at it this way, it indicates to me that ‘Performance’ is the weakest of the cousins, because although it is the most tangible, it is also the least belief based. Possibly Performance sits in the space that we already inhabit, and Culture sits in the space of our potential?

In any event, any conversation about Culture requires nuance: both these terms are used as totems, and hence can lack meaning.

Possibly both can only be earned, more so than demanded. Possibly one sits more directly under your Organisational control, but sadly it is the least useful of the two.

I could loop all of this around to the language of the Socially Dynamic Organisation: it will be an entity not of Domain and Power, but rather of Story and Belief. If we write a story that others can believe in, perhaps we can create the space for Culture to form, and Performance to emerge?

About julianstodd

Author, Artist, Researcher, and Founder of Sea Salt Learning. My work explores the context of the Social Age and the intersection of formal and social systems.
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1 Response to Performance – Culture – Agency

  1. Pingback: The Strength of Culture | Julian Stodd's Learning Blog

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