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Why Culture Happens

Imagine you’re sitting in a restaurant with an important client. She has given you the wine list, but courtesy demand that you will make a suggestion, and ask if she agrees. Now you are a big fan of Californian wines. And on the list, you see a great wine from Nappa Valley. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – you really want to try it. But you know from previous conversations: your client is not a big fan of wines from the “New World”. She likes European wines, and especially Bordeaux – in her words the apogee of wines. What do you do?

You have two options. Either you try to evangelise your client on Californian wines, to convince her that her view is too narrow, and that she should give it a try. Or, you focus on another aspect of your suggestion. Bordeaux wines, too, are made of a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. So you say: “I remember you like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blends?” “I love them.” will be her reply. “I have here a wonderful blend, from 2010 which was a great year – shall we take it?”

What happened? Here are five observations.

First: Whenever we argue something – propose, defend, legitimise – it is less the facts that influence people’s opinion, but the aspects, or perspectives on the facts. Already Epictetus knew that. To each fact, there are many perspectives, so we have a relative freedom of choice. You may remember the Greek government-dept crisis in the aftermath of 2008. The essential facts on the table were not the point of dispute, but the perspective from which people looked at it. Was it a crisis of the greek population, their poverty, their loss of employment? Was it a crisis of the Greek government, their decisions and their struggle to assert themselves between democratic legitimacy and the pressure from abroad? Was it the crisis of the Euro? Was it the crisis of the European Union and its future? Or was it the crisis of foreign investments in the country? Depending on our assumption about which perspective is relevant, the same facts lead to fundamentally different conclusions. Whatever our choice of perspective, it is not the facts that suggest one perspective over the other, but our values.

So, coming back to our choice of wine, you can choose various aspects with which to “sell” your preferred wine. The wine itself does not tell you which of them you should choose.

Second: Many interactions with other people happen in a context of pragmatic interdependence. Pragmatic interdependence means that we have a goal, but in order to reach it, we depend on somebody else. Our interaction includes a claim, e.g. for agreement, contribution or tolerance. And our success depends on whether our claim is accepted or refused. We want a certain wine, but we need our client’s agreement. We want to start a project, but we need our boss to approve the budget. Even something as simple as a welcome includes claims. We extend our hand, and we implicitly claim “please shake my hand”. This looks very self-evident, but imagine you just had a row with that person, now you meet them again in front of important people, and you extend your hand. The claim now is “please join me in a gesture of reconciliation”, and you charge your claim with situational power, because now, the alternative for the other person would be to very publicly be rude to you – which may be not as far as they want to take it.

So the shaping of acceptable claims is part of our tactics in contexts of pragmatic interdependence.

Third: You cannot evangelise and sell at the same time. In situations of pragmatic interdependence, we want to make our claim acceptable, to “sell” it. If at that moment we choose to try to change the other person’s values, they tend to see all our “missionary” arguments just as an instrument to our salesmanship, and therefore won’t take them seriously. A missionary is only good as long as he doesn’t need to sell anything. As Castiglione observed in his Libro del Cortegiano in 1528: In social interaction, as soon as a technique is seen as a technique, it doesn’t work anymore.

Coming back to our context of pragmatic interdependence, where we have to “sell” our claims by choosing certain perspectives or attributes, this means that we will choose those perspectives which appeal to widely accepted values. In short, when we are pragmatic, we are conformist in our choice of values.

Fourth: Therefore, in a context of pragmatic interdependence, the more a value is being used, the more it is seen as being widespread. The more widespread a value, the more it is being used. It is like a deer path in the woods. The first animal to cross the wood has ample choice whether to pass this tree to the left or to the right. The next animal that comes, sees a slight trace where the first animal has passed – it has a 51% preference to follow in those tracks. With each animal that passes, more dead leaves get trampled on the ground, twigs are broken, young plants don’t grow in the path. After a thousand crossings, the path has become very evidently the easiest and fastest way across the wood, and no-one would think of passing the tree on the other side. The same with values. Think about evergreens such as customer orientation. Or cross-functional collaboration. Or attention to cost. Those values have the best chance to be strong in the future, which are strong now. And this is true with no regard as to the reason why those values have become strong in the first place. In complexity science, this is called an attractor basin. When a value is strong in a group, people use it in order to sell their claims to each other. This means that whenever we see strong cultural habits, and values which seem irrational, it is worth looking into the past, or to the local perspective, where we often find very rational reasons why they became strong – only the reasons have disappeared, while the value remains strong.

An example? BMW are a very successful company with some strong cultural habits. One of them is that every decision, before it is made, needs to be circulated and discussed with many people. If some have been excluded from the consultation, it is well possible that they disagree afterwards, and this can in fact lead to a re-elaboration of the decision. As one head of the board once said: he couldn’t implement a decision to introduce Six Sigma and have everyone schooled within six months – like Jack Welch famously claimed for General Electric – because their culture would not allow it. Now this habit, and some others with it, originated during a great trauma, when the company was in a huge crisis and nearly got sold to a competitor, and was saved by, amongst others, a great union of management and workers. The latter allowed for heavy cuts in their wages, but got a bigger place at the table in turn. When was that? In the 1950ies. Nobody who underwent that trauma is still in the company. But the culture is there, solid as rock.

So, strong values remain strong, because we tend to use them more often for pragmatic reasons.

Fifth: Culture therefore tends to be more conformist, or unified, if there is more pragmatic interdependence. If we have a group of salespeople who all need to achieve their individual targets, but don’t need to collaborate, and don’t need to convince anybody in the company to accept their claims, there are few occasions for strong conformisms to grow. Taking them out to a teambuilding exercise every year doesn’t change that. If, on the other hand, people depend a lot on each others agreement, judgment, and reputation, then the culture is strong. This information is key if, from a management perspective, we want to influence culture through structural measures. Make pragmatic interdependence strong where it depends on certain values, and these values become strong.

So, structural reasons for pragmatic interdependence reinforce culture.

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