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Woke at work, storm in a teacup?

July 14, 2021

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A federal minister recently took a very dim view of morning teas in support of diversity, ordering his department to stop “these woke agendas”¹. As a result, he was accused of being either thin-skinned or a culture warrior. Regardless of where you stand on the “woke” agenda, culture is now a thing. And it’s a thing you have to deal with for a few reasons.

Conor Wynn

Partner

First, the Banking Royal Commission, gave us gobsmacking examples of what happens when culture goes wrong, so forcing us to take culture very seriously. Second, the emergence of the “woke” executive, hectoring the unsuspecting proletariat about the need for social justice and so culture change. And third, pushback against that “wokeness”, as displayed by the Minister. Ignoring or even paying lip service to culture is no longer an option. So, what is culture?

Let’s start with a definition. The godfather of organisational culture is Edgar Schein, who defines culture as artifacts – think documents, office layout, cufflinks versus ponytails etc, norms – think being expected to work long hours, Friday evening drinks, or do whatever it takes to satisfy the client, and underlying assumptions – the unnoticed or unconscious drivers of our behaviours.²

And you might be wondering what morning tea has to do with culture, i.e., artifacts, behavioural norms, and underlying assumptions? At first glance not much. But a second look with a behavioural science lens can help.

Believe it or not, morning teas, or wearing particular clothes or badges in support of a cause are cultural artifacts. Attending or wearing these symbols influence social norms. They are subtle but important influences on how we behave in an organisation. And that’s important to pay attention to because much of how we behave is either habit or unconscious. In many ways we act irrationally, sometimes predictably so.³

We’re influenced by behavioural cues from our environment, our personality, and our decision-making preferences. In other words, how you behave depends on who you are, the situation you’re in and the decisions you make.

So, if you have an ideological agenda and you want to influence an organisation’s behaviour you have three levers to pull, personality change, decision-making style, or context change.

Personality change is slow and difficult, so expecting people to change their behaviour because of personality change is a very long shot, particularly if as likely, time is short. Similarly decision-making style is hard to change, most of the time what we do is what we do most of the time. In other words, habit. And that’s hard to change too. But context, or the situation people are in can be changed.

It’s taken as axiomatic that changing context changes behaviour, so you can change people’s behaviour indirectly by changing context, like HR systems, office locations, rituals like morning tea, or social norms like encouraging “allyship”.

Those with power, not necessarily those at the top, build structures that send cues for people to deal with.There are many sources of power, such as hierarchy, competence, or social networks. But where there is power there is also resistance,⁴ and so a struggle between those who would be in charge and those who don’t want to be controlled.

So, a social movement that takes hold in an organisation is just as important to pay attention to as a directive from the top. Even more so if the messages from above clashes with those from below. That’s why it’s important to understand what culture is and why something like banning morning teas is far from trivial.

The battle for an organisation’s culture happens not just in the board room, but over cups of tea too.

1. McGowen, M (2021) Peter Dutton ridiculed for ordering end to morning teas celebrating diversity, The Guardian

2. Schein, E.H. (2009) The corporate culture survival guide, John Wiley & Sons.

3. Ariely, D. (2008) Predictably irrational, Harper Audio New York, NY.

4. Foucault, M. (1977) Discipline and punish : the birth of the prison, London: Allen Lane.

Conor is the founding partner of the boutique project governance advisory practice, Sein. With over 25 years complex program delivery experience and informed by the latest findings in the behavioural sciences, he helps projects make better decisions.

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