Thursday, February 12, 2009

Organizational Culture Lesson from the Life Textbook

In college I took a class or two on organizational culture and how it impacts the productivity of personnel. Some of my nerd friends (engineers, math wizards, etc.) always said management was too fuzzy. I always liked fuzzy but now that I am living the textbook so to speak I would argue that something like organizational culture isn't as fuzzy as we might think.

I remember an old study from the 1920's or something (can't remember who carried it out) that put in brighter lights into a manufacturing plant and the productivity of the workers increased. They put in even brighter lights and productivity increased even more. Supposedly it was studies like these that changed conventional management principles away from treating people as components or interchangeable parts of the overall system into unique valued assets that make 1+1=3.

Since I came into the Air Force as an officer, I have worked in an organization that was dysfunctional at best. Between cliques, constant fires (perceived), hostility, lack of customer focus, and he said she said type accusations, the place has pretty much been a disaster as a working environment. Coming from a long history of locker room brotherhood I could not believe the culture I stepped into. I was used to overachieving alongside 25 of my best friends towards a common goal for most of my teenage and short adult life. I always thought that I was just spoiled by the hockey background and that was the reason why my new environment was so shocking to me. But recently I was requested to fill a new position for the base with much greater responsibility, more personal growth opportunity, and in my eyes a greater impact and contribution to the base. Due to some of the politics and culture I have described above, my moving on was resisted. So a compromise was reached. I now work my new position three days a week, and my old much less enthralling position two days a week. The compromise, although not my ideal situation, continues to prove valuable in illustrating all those fuzzy concepts from back in the day.
I came into my first job ready to overachieve. I wanted to achieve competency quickly and be a valuable asset to the team. I think I did a fairly good job and I think that I made myself an important part of the team. I always figured that with my drive, personality, and work habits I would be successful in any environment. Was I successful? Yes, I think so. However it wasn't until I got into my new environment that I was able to see what I was actually like in the dysfunctional environment. The new environment is much less structured around rank, work product, and obviously it has much less conflict. The organizational culture is much more team oriented and centered around creatively coming up with the most effective ways to implement and achieve our goals. I would say it is almost as if we are running our own start up company. The overall strategic concept is always in focus, however we are left to our own devices to implement the strategy. It is quite rewarding. As I said before, I was successful in my first job. However it wasn't until I was inspired again and placed in a culture that set me up for success that I realized I was not reaching my potential. When you are passionate about what you are doing the sky is the limit. When you are fighting a battle every time you enter the office you may still be successful (I like to think that my destiny is in my hands) however it is likely that you will not surprise yourself with your accomplishments and actions like you are capable of in a great organizational culture.

A few things to think about organizational culture. First is what are you doing to help shape your culture or perpetuate the direction it is already going. I was very involved in my original job and did what I could to vector it in the right direction. Even through my various efforts, I think the most powerful thing that I did was just to treat others in a manner that they probably weren't used to in that environment by maintaining a positive demeanor. Hopefully that helped some people in the workplace. I think I could have improved by cutting down on the time I vented about the situation. Venting is normal and it helps to have a better grasp on what is actually taking place culturally, however there is a fine line between venting and playing the holier than thou worker who points out every thing that everyone else does wrong. Hopefully I didn't cross to far over that line.
The second thing that was fully illustrated in this scenario is the danger in falling into a self serving bias so to speak. A self serving bias is attributing your successes and accomplishments to internal factors (I, as well as most people who read my blog are probably guilty of this based on our desire to succeed) while attributing failures to situational factors beyond their control. Or in this case the abilities and failures of others to their internal factors while neglecting the presence of external forces. I learned that maybe some of the people in my negative environment were truly being impacted by the external forces or the culture more so that I originally thought they were. So I guess I learned some empathy. With that being said, I also took from my experience the importance of surrounding yourself with good people.....with winners. There is a balance between recognizing the impact of external forces such as culture, and with taking responsibility for ultimately being successful no matter what. There are some people who are a lost cause. Recognize who they are and if you have the power or are in a situation where you can cut ties with those type of people, do it sooner than later. If you aren't in that position seek to minimize their impact on your success and your contributions to the organization. What are you learning from your day to day life?

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