Monkey see, monkey do.


Greek philosophers often opposed culture to nature, stating that culture was a transformation of, or differentiation from, nature. The cooked vs. the raw if you will. I had started discussing the matter in A K.P.I. Culture., it is time to dig in the matter further.

Let’s pay tribute and simply define culture as “the way one does things”. We all often come across different definitions of the word. Here’s what Wikipedia says:

•    Excellence of taste in the fine arts and humanities, also known as high culture
•    An integrated pattern of human knowledge, belief, and behavior that depends upon the capacity for symbolic thought and social learning
•    The set of shared attitudes, values, goals, and practices that characterizes an institution, organization, or group

My personal understanding is that the third definition is superfluous, it is merely an application of the second one to an organization, while the first one is just the second one pushed to the extreme. We could even simplify what is left:

•    An integrated pattern of behavior

(that may possibly depend upon the capacity for social learning).

Why so? Because behavior is driven by knowledge and belief, and social learning depends heavily on symbolic thought. There can also be culture without social interaction. I may adopt a specific behavioral pattern A out of fear while I live alone in the jungle…

A few examples to support our new definition: I eat you because I know it will stop my hunger. Or because I will acquire your strength. Or because the head of the tribe does so or orders me to do so. And I go to the office every morning for about the same reasons, actually…

After such a boring introduction, let’s apply our new knowledge to Corporatia.

I often say culture comes from the top and is auto-filtering. There are many cracks culture seeps through, often non considered as such.

Imagine a business in which the new boss, appointed by the respected CEO, calls her team members by their last name, including publicly and in front of them. “Smith, you’ll need to come and see me, bring Johnson and McArthur along”. Quite soon said team members will start calling each other by their last names, too, be it as a joke or mimicry.

Let us say that this boss is also very keen on details and does not emphasize the big picture with her reports. Always dotting the I’s, barring the t’s, changing the color schemes, asking for documents, presentations, setting the directions… Fairly soon, her direct reports will start behaving in the same fashion with their teams so as to save their own energy and shelter from the leader’s wrath. If the boss is impatient and sends reminders every 3 hours, possibly reshuffling priorities even, then the direct reports will pass this pressure along to their teams.
All three examples illustrate the “culture comes from the top” part. One can easily imagine, for instance, what would happen if the boss were not to allow mistakes

But auto-filtering? Soon managers who, as true knowledge workers, fancy to have their autonomy rather than execute will show their discontent and leave; others more prone to execution will stay, or be promoted since they give satisfaction, no question asked. Vacancies will need filling: capacity of applicants to execute will be probed. And if a bad job at selecting the good grunts is done, the new joiners will anyways not feel too happy and leave soon.

From that we can infer that the longer a boss at the helm of a team, the more obvious his or her cultural traits and trade-offs.

Nowadays systems, such as processes, sets of values, communication, organizational decisions… are as many tools that help expand this picture to wider organizations. In other words, leaders make their teams. If they complain about them, they complain about their management style. As I answered to a manager who recently shouted me “I don’t want to hire internally, they are no good”, “either you hire them this way, or you make them this way. Which will it be?”

The saying is true: managers have the teams they deserve. And it is certainly not new. Just watch the Planet of the Apes movies (1968 – 1973): monkey see, monkey do.

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One Response to Monkey see, monkey do.

  1. Pingback: When I hear the word Culture… or is it HR? | Corporatchik

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