Replies to Questions and Comments posted during our 50th Anniversary Webinar (Part 2)

This is the second installment of my two-part post with quick answers and more in-depth explanations in reply to questions and comments we received during or after our 50th Anniversary webinar on April 28th. The webinar focused on the state of the art of organizational culture today versus half a century ago—with an emphasis on the Organizational Culture Inventory®.

We’ve posted the video here in case you missed the webinar or would like to revisit all or parts of it. Part 1 of the Q&A is available here.

Question/Comment: Please pass on my comment to Dr. Cooke that I very much enjoyed his talk and would like to hear a follow up talk on how he came to choose aggressive passive and constructive as the basic dimensions for culture.  I concur with this but there are many other psychological and sociological dimensions that could’ve been the basis for the questionnaires that he used so it would be interesting to know why he selected the particular ones as the theoretical basis for organizational culture.

Submitted by: Ed Schein, USA

Brief Answer: Hello Ed!  Thanks very much for your question and for joining my anniversary webinar.  And, as I mentioned during my presentation, thanks for the invaluable books on culture and leadership—and for getting and keeping the fields of organizational behavior and development on the right track with respect to culture!

To get the conversation started: The statistical analyses we ran years ago to assess the reliability and validity of the Life Styles Inventory™ (LSI) identified three dimensions underlying the twelve thinking and behavioral styles measured by the instrument.  We labelled these factors Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive for the Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®), then under development, and later applied them to the Life Styles Inventory (LSI), which originally had been designed around four factors.

More Specifically: Clay Lafferty’s “clock-like” profile for the LSI was inspired by Timothy Leary’s interpersonal circle and based on a two-by-two matrix—reflecting Maslow’s higher-order satisfaction versus lower-order security needs (on the vertical axis) and concern for tasks versus people (on the horizontal axis).  Twelve inter-related personal styles were identified and placed around the clock, based on classic writings in the fields of management and psychology—including those by Henry Stack Sullivan, Karen Horney, Carl Rogers, Albert Ellis, Rensis Likert, Douglas McGregor and David McClelland).

Originally, the twelve styles were categorized into four personal orientations—Task/Satisfaction, People/Satisfaction, People/Security, and Task/Security.  However, our analyses showed that the first two converged into a single satisfaction category.  We posited this was the case because “Concerns for people and tasks may be compatible with each other and even mutually reinforcing when the individual seeks self-expression or satisfaction.”  More recently, I’ve proposed that people demonstrating the satisfaction-oriented styles display relatively great “balance”—not only in terms of the importance they place on themselves versus the organization but also on their concern for tasks versus people.

We devoted a lot of thought to selecting the best labels for the three orientations.  I personally wanted words that could also be used to describe organizational norms and group styles—and finally proposed to Clay that we go with Constructive, Defensive, and Aggressive for the Satisfaction, People/Security, and Task/Security orientations, respectively.  Clay liked this approach but felt that the labels should communicate that both the Task/Security as well as the People/Security styles were defensive.  Thus, we went with Constructive, Passive/Defensive, and Aggressive/Defensive.  We began using these designations almost immediately for the OCI (1984) and completed the conversion of the LSI to the new framework in 1986.

Finally, I agree that, per your note, “there are many other psychological and sociological dimensions that could’ve been” included in the LSI and/or the OCI.  Though I’ve occasionally thought about expanding our framework to encompass additional styles or dimensions, we’ve decided against doing so for a couple of reasons.  With respect to the LSI, our focus has always been on personal styles—which can change over time and are conducive to development—rather than personality characteristics, traits, or types—which are relatively intractable.  Thus, we’ve excluded factors such as Learning Approach (Hogan Personality Inventory), Thinking/Feeling (MBTI), and/or Neuroticism (Big Five).  We’ve kept the focus exclusively on behaviors that reflect (a) the various needs identified by Maslow, McClelland and others and (b) task versus people leadership orientations and concerns (Stogdill and Blake & Mouton) and group functions and roles (via Bales and (Benne & Sheats).  Like needs, task and people orientations can change over time and are conducive to growth and improvement as a result of not only personal development efforts but also organizational cultural change initiatives.

Question/Comment: Good afternoon.  Although culture is mentioned more nowadays and its importance is widely recognized, organizational culture changes are failing in almost 80% of the cases.  Why?

Submitted by: Marie Clouet, Germany

Brief Answer: Hello Marie–As I have said many times over the years, organizational culture itself is the greatest obstacle to culture change.  Ironically, organizations with the greatest need for culture change (i.e., those with Defensive cultures) may be not only the most likely to initiate change programs but also the most likely to fail.  This reality skews the overall success rate for the larger population of organizations in a negative direction. 

However, the success rate is higher for the subset of organizations whose leaders, consultants, and members actually do something to change the culture; combine qualitative and quantitative tools and approaches: persevere over time; and approach new priorities or disruptions (e.g., with respect to strategy, diversity, technology, etc.) as opportunities to apply, practice, and institutionalize Constructive thinking and behavioral styles.

More Specifically: Culture is an important topic of discussion across organizations—but relatively few make a meaningful and concerted effort to change it. Beyond talking about culture and maybe assessing it, too many organizations do little or nothing  to effect change.  While others get off to a better start with meaningful developmental activities and initiatives, leaders and members may get impatient or discouraged with the slow rate of improvement and give up too soon.  Their organizations therefore miss becoming one of the many that we’ve worked with that finally show change only after 18 months or two years!  Similarly, in yet other organizations, attention spans are limited, priorities shift, and people simply move on to the next pressing initiative—for example, agile, customer experience, diversity and inclusion, strategic planning—without the benefit of a more adaptive culture that would have rendered it easier to make progress on those fronts.  While the failure rates for such organizations are in fact quite high, the results for those that effectively make a long-term and concerted effort are significantly better.

Toward the end of my webinar, I focused on some of the factors that make culture change difficult (slide 15 at time 43:00) and the tools and feedback options that we have developed to overcome such impediments (slide 16).  Over the decades, we’ve had the opportunity to observe the change and development progress of organizations that have used these surveys, methods, and processes.  In many cases, we have longitudinal data documenting improvements over time with respect to leadership styles, impact, climate, and culture—sometimes over a period of 10 or 20 years.  For some organizations, we also have data on measures of effectiveness, ranging from employee satisfaction to hard measures of financial performance.  While systematic cross-sectional studies are needed, my observations suggest that the success rate is notably higher than 20% for these organizations.

Of course, there are a myriad of reasons why certain organizations have been able to successfully change their cultures, beyond their use of particular tools or standardized processes.  These reasons often have to do with the capabilities of and consultation provided by those guiding the organizational development journey.  While we have shared numerous case studies illustrating how consultants make things happen, I’ll share just one here.  It focuses on overcoming one of the threats to culture change that I alluded to above—that is, the tendency for leaders to get distracted, shift from one initiative to another, and in effect abandon the culture change agenda. 

The case focuses on a leadership team initiating a major strategic planning effort in the face of an increasingly turbulent business environment.  While this initiative could have easily lead to the premature death of the culture change journey they had previously launched, consultant Cathy Perme offered the team another, better idea—that is, using what they had learned about the organization’s culture to continue reshaping it while carrying out the strategy work.

In her blogpost on “Does Culture HAVE to eat strategy for Lunch?” Perme notes:

“Oftentimes, the way we do strategic planning simply reinforces the current culture. And if that culture is already defensive, we are probably fortifying those defenses instead of breaking them down. Today, as an integral part of my strategic planning with a client, I start with Human Synergistics’ Organizational Culture Inventory® (OCI®). I need to determine the current culture, establish why it is that way, and identify levers for changing it.  From there I can design a strategic planning process that actually begins to change a client’s workplace culture while helping them plan their strategy.”

Here is the post explaining how Perme integrates strategic planning and culture change with clients—and, more generally, how new initiatives can by managed in a manner that continues and advances, rather than derails, culture change journeys.

Question/Comment: Given that it’s difficult to change cultural norms, is it not even more difficult to identify and change the tacit assumptions that underpin culture?

Submitted by: Management Consultant, Canada

Brief Answer: Yes, given my experiences with writing and using surveys, I agree that it is more difficult to measure and identify assumptions than norms.  I also believe that it is more difficult to change culture by focusing initially and directly on assumptions than by starting with feedback based on reliable and valid measures of norms (current culture), values (ideal culture), and the factors leading to and the outcomes resulting from the current culture (i.e., climate: perceptions and attitudes).  Qualitative approaches are then required to use, and expand on, that feedback to identify implicit assumptions.

More Specifically: Via surveys, we offer organizations (in particular, those embarking on a culture change journey) feedback that helps to surface assumptions, tacit and otherwise, and can ultimately lead to an “adjustment” in those assumptions. In the worst-case scenario, this feedback can include data demonstrating:

A disconnect between the current operating culture of the organization (per the OCI) and the culture deemed ideal for it (per the OCI-Ideal and stated values),

Organizational climate factors (e.g., perceptions of systems, structures, job design, and members’ skills) that are out-of-alignment with stated values and communicate and reinforce the suboptimal cultural norms,

Leadership styles and strategies that promote Defensive rather than Constructive behaviors on the part of subordinates and peers,

Outcomes at the individual, group, and organizational levels (e.g., motivation, teamwork, and perceived adaptability) that are below average due to the climate and culture.

Sometimes, this feedback merely confirms what members already know and believe.  A classic example is provided by organizations with aggressive and competitive cultural norms despite a constructive and cooperative ideal culture.  The problem is obvious to all concerned: Organizational reward systems that focus on individuals and pit members against one another lead to the culture and associated (and negative) outcomes around satisfaction, communication, and team spirit.  Similarly, Tom Kayers, author of Building Team Power and a Culture University blog post shares employee quotes that demonstrate how basic underlying assumptions drive behavior and culture, including:

“Even though the senior team screams that the customer is #1, we all know that revenue and profit numbers rule in this company because that is what determines our bonus.  So, make your numbers any way you can because highly bonused people get the promotions.”

In other cases, assumptions are more tacit (as described by Edgar Schein) or implicit (as described by Carol Weiss) in that they are not explicitly voiced and/or fully understood.  Qualitative approaches and discussions are needed to surface such assumptions and identify the causal factors leading to Defensive norms, culture gaps, and negative outcomes.  Thus, our Culture Quick-Start Program provides for facilitated sessions for groups to capture insights (stories, examples, etc.) about the current cultural norms, underlying beliefs about cause-effect relations, and the impact of culture and climate on outcomes and performance.  The narratives and specific language generated via this type of thorough qualitative assessment can be combined with quantitative data from the surveys.  Additionally, the survey data can be used as a resource by the groups to identify levers for changing norms and bringing the culture into alignment with the ideal.

Question/Comment: Thank you!  Self-Actualising is at the top of the Circumplex.  Security needs are at the bottom.  That is consistent with Maslow’s hierarchy and suggests there is an adult development context.  Has there been any work/research done on the connection with Dr. Robert Kegan’s work on growth at an individual and organisation level?  There appears to be a strong connection.

Submitted by: Karl Perry, New Zealand

Quick Answer:  Yes, as noted above, our Circumplex is very much consistent with, and influenced by, Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.  As leaders and others grow as a result of personal development programs or their own initiatives, their LSI profiles show shorter extensions at the bottom (on the Defensive styles) and longer extensions at the top (on the Constructive styles), paralleling movement up Maslow’s hierarchy.  And, yes, a good number of coaches and consultants accredited in the use of the LSI view individual growth (and movement from the security to the satisfaction styles) in terms of models of adult development—including Kegan’s Constructive Development theory.

More Specifically: The middle three stages of Kegan’s 5-stage model are the most relevant to individual development in organizations and roughly correspond to the Aggressive/Defensive, Passive/Defensive, and Constructive sets of styles assessed by the LSI. 

At Stage 2 (Kegan’s imperial mind and self-sovereign), the person’s own needs, wishes, and interests rule. Relationships are transactional as the individual views others merely as vehicles for getting what they want.  This stage corresponds to Aggressive/Defensive styles (particularly Power and Competitive) and individuals placing themselves “above” others. 

At Stage 3 (Kegan’s socialized and interpersonal self), the person’s thinking and behavior are influenced by others, the expectations they send, and societal norms.  Individuals are concerned with and take responsibility for how others view them and base their self-image on feedback and cues from others. This stage corresponds to the Passive/Defensive cluster of the LSI Circumplex.

When and if people reach State 4 (Kegan’s self-authoring mind), individuals have a true sense of identity, know what they stand for, and make choices for themselves. This stage (as well as Stage 5) corresponds to the Constructive styles, particularly Self-Actualization, on the Circumplex.

Coaches, psychologists, and consultants take a variety of different approaches to individual development and facilitating the movement of leaders, managers, and individual contributors from Defensive to Constructive styles. Most strategies involve (a) reducing the strength of specific styles on the left-hand or right-side at the bottom of the circle and (b) and strengthening corresponding Constructive task- or people-oriented styles, respectively, at the top.  Thus, for example, on the right side, a manager with strong Approval (Passive/Defensive) tendencies would be guided to practice and move toward Affiliative or possibly Humanistic (people-oriented Constructive) behaviors.  Alternatively, on the left side, a manager with strong Competitive tendencies would be guided to practice and move toward Achievement (task-oriented Constructive) behaviors.

Thus, in certain ways, individual development based on the LSI parallels upward movement through the middle stages of Kegan’s 5-stage model.  Similarly, administrations of the LSI over extended periods of time should show progression to Stages 4 and 5.  However, there is an important difference between the Circumplex and Kegan’s Development Theory with respect to the progression through the stages.  Kegan’ theory posits that movement from Stage 2 (Self-Sovereign) to Stage 3 (Socialized) is normal development and represents progress.  With the LSI, progress would be indicated instead by movement from either Aggressive/Defensive (Stage 2) or Passive/Defensive (Stage 3) directly to Constructive (Stage 4).

Question/Comment: Organizations have been shifting/shifted to remote work, automation, etc.  In significant ways due to Covid—we are operating in a new normal.  Are there any adjustments in the OCI instruments being considered to cater to new/future work environments that will impact work satisfaction, motivation/reward, culture and climate?

Submitted by: Sasha Dhoray, Trinidad and Tobago

Quick Answer: We’ve been working on various fronts to meet the needs of our clients during (and following) this unusual and demanding time.  New or derivative products that hopefully will be useful include the digital versions of our team-building simulations and the “Culture Mirror,” the latter designed to provide a snapshot of an organization’s interpersonal climate to check for its consistency with historical cultural norms.  The Culture Mirror is a derivative of our culture survey—the Organizational Culture Inventory® OCI®—and climate survey—Organizational Effectiveness Inventory® (OEI).

More Specifically:  We continue to work closely with high tech companies as well as more traditional organizations that have been facing all the new challenges over the past months on the technology, work-at-home, and other fronts.  While our materials are sufficiently broad to be relevant during these turbulent times, we nevertheless have created some new tools (or variants of or supplements to our proven products) that we hope will be of interest.  They include:

–The new, digital editions of the Subarctic Survival Situation™, often searched for online as the “plane crash survival game”, and the Project Planning Situation™.  While we were among the first to develop and offer online simulations more than 20 years ago, we have completely rebuilt the digital platform for these team development exercises—and will soon offer Desert Survival on this platform as well.  The digital versions of our simulations can be used for team building with face-to-face and remote groups and offer video enhancements, automated scoring, and new feedback options.  See our website for more information on the new online version of Subarctic as well as research on virtual teams carried out over the years with our online simulations and Group Styles Inventory™.

–The Culture Mirror, specifically developed for organizations facing technological and other challenges or disruptions over the past year or so.  As we note on our website, during times of crises and turbulence, it is critical to understand and capture whether the current interpersonal climate of an organization continues to mirror its culture.  We have found that, in some organizations, things have been “slipping” and moving in a Defensive direction; in other cases, organizations have done quite well in adapting to changes and the demands of the pandemic.  In fact, results for the latter on the Culture Mirror indicate that their interpersonal climates are more Constructive than their previous OCI profiles would suggest. Visit our website to read more about the Culture Mirror and its recent use by the Human Resources Certification Institute®.

Additionally, we are exploring the possibility of carrying out a research project to assess the way in which the climates, cultures, and subcultures of organizations have changed over the past months due to adjustments—such as those around employees working remotely—made in reaction to the pandemic.  This project would enable us to better understand and report on the magnitude and direction of the changes noted above (via the Culture Mirror) with the administration of the full versions of the Organizational Culture Inventory and Organizational Effectiveness Inventory on a research basis.

Many researchers and consultants have speculated on and written about the likelihood that the cultures of organizations have shifted as a result of changes during the pandemic.  For example, James Thomas at Strategy& notes: “The Covid-19 pandemic has had tremendous and swift effects on workplace culture.  The global lockdown and travel bans have upended assumptions about the nature of work and corporate interactions.“  Other writers, including Jenny Chatman and Francesca Gino, have posed questions about the impact of such factors on the strength (intensity) of cultures: “Will your culture take a hit because people can’t meet in person, making it harder to solidify their shared beliefs?  Will they be less able to use culture as a roadmap for making good decisions in a tumultuous time?”

Despite the importance of these statements and questions, there has been very little data-based research to address them in an evidence-based manner.  Thus, we’d like to touch base with our contacts within organizations who administered our organizational surveys prior to the onset of the pandemic.  We would select at least two work groups within each organization to complete the OCI and OEI once again.  The retest would enable us to estimate the impact of pandemic adjustments on organizational culture and climate, explore both the magnitude and direction of this impact, and identity organizational-level factors related to the degree and nature of the changes.  The participating organizations would be provided with invaluable feedback on the changes experienced within the units studied—positive and negative. 

In closing, we appreciate your kind words and feedback on the webinar as well as your questions and requests for additional information.  To those of you involved in organizational and leadership consulting for true culture change, thanks again for your collaboration, interest in our work, and use of the organizational climate and culture surveys, leadership assessments, and team-building exercises we’ve created over the past 50 years.  And, I extend a personal thanks to Kalani Iwi’ula, Cathleen Cooke, and Jessica Cooke for their contributions to the anniversary webinar and the Q&A blog posts as well as to John van Etten for encouraging me to write more about the history of Human Synergistics and our products.

About the Author

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Robert Cooke, Ph.D.

Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. is CEO and Director of Human Synergistics International and Associate Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Cooke specializes in the development and validation of surveys used for individual, group, and organization development. His surveys include the Organizational Culture Inventory®, Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Leadership/Impact®, and Group Styles Inventory™, which have been translated into numerous languages and used worldwide for developing leaders, teams, and organizations. He is the author of more than 75 articles, chapters, and technical reports in journals including Psychological Reports and The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Cooke received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, where he was a National Defense (Title IV) and Commonwealth Edison Fellow.