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Building Blocks of Organizational Culture

While most people think of organizational culture in broad, sociological terms, field experience has shown that one of the fundamental building blocks of organizational culture is patterns-of-interaction between small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s. Most managers in an organization know that effectively leading a work-group takes an enormous amount of time and energy because they have to maintain a balance between conflicting or competing interests in a complex system of coalitions of small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s who see themselves, others, and the world very differently.

The complexity of these interactions increases exponentially when moving from small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s, to groups of 20 or more people because the amount of information processing needed to keep track of the patterns-of-interaction becomes enormous. For example, in a group of 20 people, a manager has to keep track of nineteen relationships between them and others, plus 171 third-party relationships. The dynamics of these third-party relationships change again when they combine into coalitions of 3s and 4s that may have conflicting or competing interests. In a department of 50 people, a manager has to keep track of 49 relationships between them and others, 1,176 third-party relationships, plus myriad coalitions of 3s and 4s that may have conflicting or competing interests. Robin Dunbar has correlated the size of the neocortex with group size and claims that the ideal limit for the number of relationships a person can effectively manage is about 150. The computational power of the human brain begins to overload when the number of interactions gets too large, so as the quantity of interactions goes up, the quality and depth goes down because the human brain only has so much processing power. When we reach cognitive overload, an unconscious cognitive sorting process occurs where we tend to be drawn to people who create the least amount of cognitive dissonance for us because understanding and juggling this many different ways of seeing becomes too complex and time consuming. While we can store data and information about hundreds or even thousands of people outside of our brains using files and computerized systems, actively interacting with more than about 150 people pushes the computational limits of the human brain, and the quality and depth of those interactions and relationships decreases proportionally. The exponentially increasing complexity of patterns-of-interaction between small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s is one reason why organizational culture seems so complex and difficult to understand.

A more concrete way to understand the complex patterns-of-interaction in a work-group of 20 or more people would be to video-tape a series of staff meetings and then analyze them. During a one-hour meeting there are a finite number of interactions that could occur and understanding the patterns-of-interaction over time would reveal important information about the nature of conflict (constructive or destructive), patterns-of-interaction, the formal power structure, and informal-personality power structure within a work-group. Here are five kinds of information that might be analyzed in a video-taped recording:

  • The number of interactions and who initiated them.
  • How many were characterized by constructive, versus destructive conflict.
  • How many decisions were made based on these interactions.
  • The number of interactions that were actually implemented.
  • The degree of impact that implemented decisions had on either maintaining or reconfiguring the performance and day-to-day operational reality of the work-group.

The number of interactions and how forcefully people advocate for their positions and press for solutions and decisions can be correlated with a person’s managerial level, levels of informal authority, and the personality types of the manager and staff.

What is important for managers to note is that over time the tapestry of these patterns-of-interaction is woven into the fabric of organizational culture. As such, managers have two choices. They can either allow the culture in their organizations to emerge naturally through autopilot patterns-of-interaction which sentences them to struggle against overly complex systems and Invisible Bureaucracy, or they can consciously create, reinforce, and maintain an effective Intended Culture that will help them achieve their organization’s goals and objectives.

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