BRIEFING #5: Cultural Hypnosis

“There’s not a single one of you who’s ever had an original thought.”

When I was in high school, my US Government teacher (yes, such study was required back in the day) told our room filled with twelfth-graders, “There’s not a single one of you who’s ever had an original thought.”

You can imagine the reaction by a bunch of kids who considered ourselves to be “free thinkers”, and whom, with our extensive experience of 17 or 18 years, thought we already KNEW everything that was important.

The thing is, in spite of our protests to the contrary…he was right.

We were all heavily influenced by the world around us at that time- the way we dressed, the length of our hair, what we thought was important.  Yeah, we were “individuals” all right, but we all pretty much looked and acted the same.

Cultural influence is alive and well, and it’s not limited to high school kids.  It affects all of us.  Our biases, what we find attractive, and our sense of what is acceptable (and not acceptable) are all [significantly] influenced by the culture in which we live and work.

Here’s an example…

Four years ago I had finished a series of presentations in China, and found myself in Beijing with a bit of sightseeing time.  I wanted to go see Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.  It was a Saturday morning and a multitude of Chinese parents were out enjoying some quality time with their kids.

To get from where I was to where I wanted to be, I had to cross the street through an underground tunnel.  There was a metal detector and x-ray machine at the entrance.  I put my backpack on the belt into the x-ray machine.  What was interesting lay on the other side- mass chaos.

Passing through the metal detector, I discovered that to retrieve my belongings on the other side of the x-ray machine, I had to abandon my perception of “politeness”.  It was literally a case of “every person for themselves”.  There was no orderly line, no waiting for the next person; it was jump in there and grab my stuff, or…not.

So I did.

Was I being rude?  In the US I would have probably been on the receiving end of a few colorful metaphors, or hand gestures, or at a minimum…dirty looks.  In China, this is simply how things are done when minimum space is allotted for many people.

In this case, my behavior was directly influenced by the culture around me.  I didn’t offend anyone.  In fact, it is expected in such situations.  And for the rest of my visit, I saw fit to “take care of myself” when amongst the crowds.  Of course, once I got back home, I needed to modify my behavior back to what is deemed an acceptable level of civility in the US.

So what does this have to do with current performance in your organization?

FACT:  Things are the way they are because they got that way.

Is there an “us-versus-them” attitude between management and the front line (or between one department and another)?  Things are the way they are because they got that way.

Has it become “impossible” to generate any sustainable improvement in safety or error reduction?  Things are the way they are because they got that way.

Consider this…

If you pay attention to the news (let alone social trends) in the United States today, it becomes obvious that there is a LOT of BLAME going around.  This becomes acute during times of national elections.  BLAME is a classic VICTIM behavior.

Because this is so predominant, those of us living within this “blame culture”, this “epidemic of victimization”, cannot help but be affected by it.  If you are in the US, the members of your organization bring this influence to work with them every day.

How does this manifest?

Think about this.  Within your organization, do ever see any of the following?

  • Finger-pointing when something goes wrong
  • Frequent use of the word “they”
  • Worker sentiment of, “If management would ever get their act together, life could be good around here!”
  • Management sentiment of, “If workers would just do what they’re supposed to do, life could be good around here!”
  • Team members eager to raise problems/issues (but seldom, if ever, offering solutions)
  • Energy put into the age-old practice of “CYA”

These all represent classic victim behaviors.  Our society [unfortunately] endorses such attitudes, making it “okay” to dive in and remove ourselves from responsibility.

FACT:  Cultural influence has played a huge role in HOW your organization arrived at your current levels and modes of performance.

Cultural influence has many sources: the country in which you live, your community, your corporate organization, your local organization, and even the different departments/crews/teams within your organization.  These sources of influence have worked together, over time, to generate the current mindset and perceptions of the people involved.

Mindset and perceptions influence thoughts, thoughts generate feelings and feelings manifest as behaviors.  The collective behaviors of the members of your organization create the culture of your organization.

Unguarded, cultural influence becomes cultural hypnosis.  And when the underlying forces and influences are less than positive, it will stagnate and degrade organizational culture.

And here’s the key:  culture determines results.

What can YOU do about it?  That will be the topic of my next BRIEFING.

Please offer your comments and insights below.

Until next time,

*****
 CRITICAL UPDATE…

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