Talent Management: The Role of Culture? Some Personal Musings Part 2

In this post I will explore how Quigley’s thoughts  (yesterday’s post) on culture have prompted me to rethink my own perspectives on how culture plays out in the organizational context.

First: Should we be talking about mono/plural organizational cultures?

Quigley’s comments sparked a thought regarding what is a culture in an organizational context. More specifically do organizations have(should have) a mono-culture or are we more realistically contemplating cultural pluralism?

My experience has suggested that in larger organizations that have complex divisions of roles and labour you will observe cultural pluralism. In fact  would argue that when we see siloing in organizations we are in fact seeing a facet of cultural pluralism.

What causes cultural pluralism?

For me the answer begins with the notion that the definition of culture necessitates it. The working definition that I subscribe (and so does Quigley) is that it represents the way we do things around here (and all that implies). Let’s just contemplate this for a moment. In our society at least we as individuals have considerable latitude over what cultural settings we wish to associate ourselves with (what companies to work for, what careers to pursue, what clubs and societies to join, etc.) each of these institutions has a unique “way of doing things around here.” Hence there is an imbedded assumption that we gravitate (as much as we can) to those settings where we feel comfortable and can attain satisfaction, pleasure, etc. So as  much as we are shaped by culture(s) we are shaping them to (in terms of them being reinforced by membership – healthy memberships mean sustaining cultural norms). This explicit insight is a new one for me and the ramifications are not entirely understood.

I have observed that what vocation we choose to get engaged in suggests that we will be adopting some directly related cultural norms. Example, many of us have noted the clear differences we typically see between engineers and technical trades people. The whole attitude towards work is similar – a passion regarding technical excellence. They both have a strong allegiance towards their technical based affiliations (the profession, the trade, the union, etc.). But there are remarkable differences too (e.g., how they describe their role in doing their work). The mindsets of executives is very distinct from many other parts their organizations too (often means they have difficulty communicating with other work groups).

Conclusion for me is: We (as OD people) are missing the mark if we consider culture a monolithic entity in organizations. If we do this we miss the fact of reality. If we do we are using a crude version of a subtle organizational tool to do the job. If we do we will find ourselves disappointed in the outcomes. Besides, if we subscribe to the diversity value e must hold a cultural pluralism as a natural and necessary outcome.

Cultural diversity if properly acknowledged and utilized can bring tremendous benefits to organizations including:

  • helps clarify what is necessary to be shared by all and what doesn’t – won’t waste time pursuing an inappropriate or non-useful strategic goal
  • helps clarify what engagement means for different sub-cultures and doesn’t inappropriately expect what isn’t useful
  • helps organizations perceive the goings on in their environment from a diverse perspective – more likely to see something that is important to the organization
  • helps us understand how to shape performance management in a more useful, respectful and insightful manner.
  • prevents us from the dire consequences of monolithic cultures


Let’s think about the last point a bit more:

Have you ever had to deal with an “officious” person in their work? Guess what – you are seeing the dark side of culture in action. The dark consequences of strong cultures include:

  • insularity (there is only one truth or way of doing something (and that’s my, my organization’s way!)
  • unable, then likely to be unwilling to acknowledge, accept and adapt to environmental shifts (because to do so would cast doubt on the veracity of my cultural beliefs)

So my suggestion to those who are keen to develop a strong monolithic organizational culture: be careful of what you ask for, you will deserve the outcomes.

Second: How much engagement do we really need and really want?

Quigley discusses the importance of seeking stronger engagement in organizations. Can we have too much engagement?

Oh, yes! The logic of this answer is imbedded in the discussion above on cultural pluralism.

That officious official I asked about above – this too is a person who has an over abundance of engagement for the process, procedure, rules, etc. The dark side of engagement is blind compliance: “Our way is the one right way!”

Again, I believe that OD people often don’t consider that we can advocate for something without any explicit appreciation for limits. We seem to more easily see the lack of something but we seem to be oblivious to the notion of excess.

Yet, though, because we mostly subscribe to systems theory we have the conceptual tools for seeing this. All systems have a follow through capacity regarding system performance. This is not only a notion of insufficiency (inadequate usage) but also the notion of over capacity. Yes systems can have too much of a good thing.

I believe we can usefully consider the overcapacity notion from two perspectives:

  1. At what point will engagement create predictable dysfunctional outcomes? Such that the organization becomes self-induced blind to the need to consider change to how it operates.
  2. What roles need lots of engagement (they really do need to whole heartedly commit to – low risks for adverse consequences resulting from insularity) and what roles need moderate amounts (committed but have the capacity to question – commitment to our wellbeing is unquestioned, but they need to make the brutal calls) and what roles need no/little engagement at all (we can deal with our performance needs most efficiently from a transactional perspective)?

I have seen so much attention to maximizing cultural norms and engagement, I have seen proportionally minimal attention to understanding, discussing and implementing insightful limits.

The value of these learnings for me is in the area of organizational design

Third: What about values in all this?

This inquiry brings me to one final loose end for me. How might we more usefully think about values in all this?

The increased clarity for me is the recognition that we choose organizational values for two reasons:

  1. Utility reasons: holding specific values enables us to be successful in our business activities (e.g., customer relations, reputation related, etc.).
  2. It’s who I am reasons: we adopt and live values that reflect the kind of people we want to be regardless of their business usefulness.

The utility based reason is the safest and most easily disseminated and ascribed to by those in the organization:

  • the relevance to the operating model manner is most easily seen and accepted
  • the easier set for those with diverse backgrounds to accept and abide by (they won’t stay otherwise
  • these values can easily be operationalized into behavioural expressions as they can all be directly connected to business activities.

The who I am reasons, though powerful are the ones that run a greater risk of being less inclusive. So what? Well if you have a strong desire to make your organization multidimensionally diverse you will be dealing with value diversity. the who I am reasons are adopted from a personally eccentric perspective and this may not be a wide spread set of shared values. An example:

If you have a strong value around accountability that extends into the area of restitution, reparation, and negative consequences. I suspect you will find many other people will be uncomfortable with your sense of justice. If you have a very forgiving sense of accountability, I suspect again you will find many  other people who question your lack of standards around accountability and responsibility.

I use the above examples deliberately (not because they were easy to think of). I have seen many values statements that embody the notion of accountability and responsibility in a very “slogan like” manner. I wonder if this is a value circumstance that quickly runs into deep water once you wade into it?

What is the implication of having a “stern” notion of responsibility? Well, you will not be attractive to those talented peep who hold a fundamentally different perspective. So what? It depends on how valuable accessing that talent is to you. Actually it is ore important if you want to access that talent in an employee like form.

One last learning for me.

I now view the who subject of culture, engagement and values from the perspective of system permeability.

Maximum system permeability will seemingly run into the question of “What’s our identity?” This is because the distinction of what is in our system and what isn’t is almost invisible.

Culture, values and engagement are ways we establish system boundaries concerning affiliation and allegiance.

How do we choose what is the most appropriate degree of boundary impermeability? Use the two criteria hinted at in the discussion on values above. Being clear on what is needed (or we won’t succeed as an organization), what is useful from the persecutive of performance (role[s]), and what we want because we want to is the necessary foundation to making a knowing strategic choice.


About 123stilllearning456

As a management consultant I am passionately interested in talent management and risk/uncertainty issues. In the area of talent management I propose that we seek strategies that look beyond the staffing/employee centric frames of reference. I have been frustrated at the "closing down on possibilities" by these more conventional staffing/employee centric approaches. I have been impressed where people have found systematic solutions to their talent management issues by going beyond the conventional approaches. In the area of risk and uncertainty, I am interested in making this topic relevant to more normal decision making situations. My conceptual foundation is to use the micro-economist's fixed/variable cost theme. I also think it is important to look at these issues for people through their emotional and psychological lens. As a premise I think risk and uncertainty only exist where there is a person who cares about possible events and its consequences. Hence, risk and uncertainty are social based concepts (no sentience, no risk and uncertainty). A major influence on my thinking in this area is Nassim Taleb of "Black Swan" fame. This BLOG provides me with an opportunity to express my thoughts on topics that interest me. As this is an online diary, content is more important to me than polish. I apologize if this distracts from readers' enjoyment and learning. Still I find this a useful way to live up to my namesake, learn more from others and hopefully provoke creative thoughts and ideas in others.
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