Organisations are Social Institutions
I saw a meme the other day from the safety sphere that stated: ‘We, all of us, are just one new executive away from having to start again at the very beginning’. Of course, this is utter nonsense. The idea that ‘we’ (the organized) are shaped by the shifting of an individual is simply not true.
The reason why humans organize is to stop the interruption and disruption of social life, as Weick (1979, The Social Psychology of Organizing p. 3) states, organizing as: ‘consensually validated grammar for reducing equivocality by means of sensible interlocking behaviours.’
Humans organize so that social being is not disrupted (equivocality) by the movement of any individual, including that of a manager, GM or CEO. The meme is premised on an individualist idea that completely ignores all we know about culture, social psychology and organizing.
Organizing is like a grammar because the process over time creates a ‘collective unconscious’ that develops a life of its own much more than the sum of its parts. This is how rules, conventions and interlocking behaviours work. In many ways, we organize by social contract and receive a shared sense of meaning by participating consensually in that organizing. Often when we don’t fit, we leave but the organization remains the same.
Try reading some of Weick to get a hold of how Sensemaking in Organizations works (https://archive.org/details/trent_0116403577194 ).
Interestingly, all of the CEOs, GMs and Executives I have spoken to over the last 30 years all proclaim their frustrations in NOT being able to affect change, change culture or affect the organizations way of organizing. Indeed, many felt powerless against the ‘forces’ embedded in the organization more so at the frontline.
These ‘forces’ we speak of have a life of their own that we sometimes name ‘archetypes’ or what Jung called ‘the collective unconscious’. It’s why we use the language of ‘the market’ to designate this amorphous thing that acts according to itself. The high priests of ‘the market’ who like to tell us that they can move and control it make as much sense as a zero lunatic who tells you they can predict events through predictive analytics. Delusional stuff as any student of History would tell you.
Jung demonstrated conclusively that even between civilizations, organizations and societies that have never engaged/interacted with each other that they shared common modes of organizing, thinking and decision making. We know this simply from studying disconnected civilizations, societies and places that share the same religious rituals, semiotics and worldview who have never come into contact with each other (eg. Eskimos and Indigenous Australians).
Another flaw in this meme ignores the way executive sub-cultures create and recreate a similar worldview (recreate and confirm themselves). Certain kinds of personality types, temperaments and sub-cultural norms are sustained by the executive industry itself. Indeed, in the Commonwealth Public Service (APS) for example you can undertake coaching, mentoring and training to make yourself more likely to be selected for the Executive service (https://legacy.apsc.gov.au/executive-coaching; https://legacy.apsc.gov.au/leading-productive-people-managers-seven-steps-success; navigating to- senior-leadership-in-the-australian-public-service-identifying -barriers-and-enables-for-aboriginal-and-torres- strait-islander-people-in-aps-employment/file). The sub-culture of executive thinking and social organization actually self-replicates itself. In that way if you lose an executive role they are most likely to be replaced with someone with the same or similar worldview, just as that executive can quickly find a similar role in a new organization.
This is the same in the private sector, the drive for conformity, security, comfort and fitting into common executive sub-culture is the same. In the same way is in the APS one can be ‘groomed’, coached and trained on how to conform to the corporate world. This has been well documented by Mintzberg (managers not MBAs) and many others:
Rather than being diverse of ‘different’, there is no difference in worldview or paradigm in executives, just changes in cosmetics and structures, but no real cultural difference. Unless there is a fundamental change in philosophy or ideology, regardless of how many times the word ‘different’ is uttered, there is no difference. Any difference if there is one is cosmetic.
And this of course has been one reason why there has been such stupendous collapses of companies in the corporate world, who can’t adapt, innovate or learn, because they have been organized not to (https://www.valuer.ai/blog/50-examples-of-corporations-that-failed-to-innovate-and-missed-their-chance). Most often organizations don’t change, they are beaten by new organizations.
So, this idea that an individual CEO had all this influence on organizing is not supported by the evidence.
This is why my model of culture is semiotic (https://safetyrisk.net/culture-cloud/ ; https://safetyrisk.net/a-semiotic-understanding-of-culture/ ) and embraces the wickedity (https://safetyrisk.net/risk-and-safety-as-a-wicked-problem/ ) of culture. The moving of any one aspect of the culture cloud doesn’t do much more than flex the others. They all work together mysteriously under their own force to maintain identity, belonging and meaning.
All of this is why in Safety, the silly definition of culture as ‘what we do around here’ is so pathetic. Without a sophisticated understanding of culture as a wicked problem most of the stuff that passes for culture in the safety industry is simply about systems. Adjusting and moving systems and behaviours doesn’t move culture and doesn’t comprise the nature of learning. Most of the current propaganda circulating at the moment in the risk and safety industry about learning is NOT about learning, it’s just schooling and ‘banking’ (https://envs.ucsc.edu/internships/internship-readings/freire-pedagogy-of-the-oppressed.pdf ).
This is why the safety culture surveys on the market don’t work (https://safetyrisk.net/safety-culture-surveys/ ). It’s why the discourse on ‘just culture’ doesn’t work. It’s why the chapter in the AIHS BoK on culture is NOT about culture. It’s why Executives are powerless to affect change on culture because they don’t understand culture beyond these weak definitions. Most of the stuff you read about culture in risk and safety is NOT about culture so, there’s not much likelihood that there will be culture change when it’s so poorly defined (https://safetyrisk.net/so-you-want-culture-change-2/ ).
Morseo, when the corporate world is captivated by the delusions and mantra of zero, you certainly know that the next executive is most likely to be just another zero acolyte. Such is the sub-culture of executive confirmation bias. Most think that injury rates define safety, confirmed by the mythology and delusion of zero.
So, executives come and go and culture stays the same and when the culture remains the same, you don’t restart at the beginning.