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Organizational Culture: Truth or Dare

  • 21 January 2013
  • Posted by Marcella Bremer

IntegrityAre you authentic? Do you show your true self at work? Or in any group...? We all play functional roles, up to a point. But there’s a difference between acting within your position as the CEO, the consultant or the HR-manager and make-believe: faking your consent, or lying, or saying you support a plan while you don’t, etc. In life and work, there may be a thin line between honesty - and “playing it smart”.

There’s a thin line between a banker and a “bankster”. What’s the difference between a cyclist and Lance Armstrong? The choice for the truth - or dare. And that choice is very much influenced by culture.

Human beings assess how much they share with others all the time, depending on how “safe” and appreciated they feel within that particular group, depending on individual norms but above all: depending on group norms. This determines whether they are open and trustworthy and tell their truth or “dare” to twist it, withhold it and act as an actor on stage...

Trust loves the Truth

How safe we feel depends on the group’s behaviors. It depends on trust, that secret elixir that makes some groups run smoothly and others get stuck in formalities, information hoarding and ritualized meetings that are really power plays on stage in the best Shakespearian tradition.

Trust is the condition sine qua non: without trust, nothing really happens en behaviors tend to be role play and acting on the outside, but on the inside, we stay closed and safe. We’re not open. We’re not sharing. We’re not learning.

Safety depends on tacit group norms and visible behaviors like how much others share with the group and how the response is: respectful or judgmental? Laughing out loud or supportive? Does this group agree to disagree? What is the norm here...? And how do I perceive this? An insecure individual might project disapproval where it is not - and thus stay low-profile. A confident person would feel safe enough to share his information in the same group.

If we don’t feel safe, we might not protest against the Board who orders you to not comply with the legislation... It is safer to remain silent because groups are powerful. If you’re not with us - you’re against us...

Competing Values: Truth or Dare?

Next, it’s our individual norms and criteria that determine whether we choose truth - or dare to gamble and take a risk. If you choose results above procedures - you want to achieve that result (winning the race) no matter what or how (violating the rules and taking doping). It is the Competing Values Framework again: choose between competing values. Do you prefer profit above people? Do you choose innovation or safety and efficiency? You can’t have it all to the same extent at the same time.

Apart from competing values, it’s your personal ethics that count. Do you value integrity? Do you sleep well when you play mean political games? Do you label “not telling all the details” as lying - or is it just what every realistic executive would do? Can you live with non-compliance to legislation? Do you value truth? Or do you dare to take a risk and achieve your goals in any way...?

Culture: What is normal?

Last but not least: group norms! Here is the powerful factor of culture. This fascinating multiplier to either misery or magic. If the group is taking EPO for doping, the one who does NOT take it is disloyal to the group. A lot of cyclists have been coming out, recently.... admitting they have been using doping. It may have started with one fanatic individual who valued winning above honesty - but it became the norm within many cyclist teams. As it was the norm for bankers to make money any way they could.

As individuals, sitting in our comfortable armchair, we might judge Lance Armstrong, Richard Fuld (CEO of Lehman Brothers) and others. But don’t underestimate the power of the group. We’re evolutionary wired to want to belong to a group. We’re afraid to be rejected or lose face. We depend on our bosses and teams to earn a living. There’s a lot at stake.

Though we absolutely have a moral, individual responsibility, in this blog post I’d like to understand what groups can do to individuals. Some individuals can’t live with lying, playing roles, being untrue - and quit that job, leave the group. Others collapse under the pressure and comply with the group’s norms - even though they might lose sleep at night.

Don’t simply Judge

The relation between individuals and groups is fascinating and complex. From our European perspective, we might judge corruption or bribery. But in some other countries, you simply can’t live without it. Group norms! What is right or wrong? It’s all to be seen within the context; it is the culture that creates meaning.

Some cultures define paying a bribe as “good business” while others label it as “unethical behavior”. In some corporations, it’s a taboo to argue with your boss or tell him the truth (because you can lose face). In other teams, it’s a felony to dare to lie... you should always tell the truth. Even if the consequences can be hard, here you are the hero of the team.

But Understand and Change the culture

I’m not arguing to let go of ethics and morality. Not at all. All I’m saying is that we should understand and be aware of the power of culture, be it national culture or corporate culture or any group culture. Individuals all make choices, depending on individual norms, on their assessment of the situation, their own strength, and goals - but very much molded by the group they belong to.

This is a plea for tolerance and understanding. Not for mere acceptance of lying, daring, bribery etc. But let’s understand how culture influences the Truth or Dare decision.

Let’s not simply sacrifice the sinner, but change the system.

Copyright Marcella Bremer