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The Building Blocks of Organizational
Culture: Part 1 (Patterns of Interaction)


Mark Bodnarczuk
Executive Director
Breckenridge Institute®

While most people think of organizational culture in broad, sociological terms, the cultural model developed by the Breckenridge Institute® indicates that patterns of interaction between small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s are some of the fundamental building blocks of organizational culture. Most managers 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. But what many managers don’t know is that the tapestry of these patterns of interaction that gets woven over time becomes the fabric of organizational culture in their work-group. In this article we argue that managers have two choices. They can either allow the culture in their work-groups to emerge naturally through autopilot patterns of interactions which sentence them to struggle against overly complex systems and human interactions, or they can consciously create, reinforce, and maintain an effective work-group culture that will help them achieve their goals and key performance indicators.

Patterns of Interaction

What exactly are patterns of interaction? Patterns of interaction are habitual behaviors, emotional responses, actions, and interactions that occur between people in the workplace. They often occur on autopilot and are based on the personalities of the managers and staff members involved and the tacit assumptions and unquestioned beliefs of organizational culture, e.g. “how it’s done around here.” While patterns of interaction can assume myriad forms, Paul Watzlawick has identified two key examples that have special application to the day-to-day realities of organizational life: a) symmetric versus complementary and b) content versus relationship (see Paul Watzlawick, Pragmatics of Human Communication, W.W. Norton & Company, 1967, pp. 51-54 and pp. 67-71). Each is described in more detail below.

Symmetric versus Complementary: Watzlawick argues that every relationship must be consciously or unconsciously defined (negotiated) by the participants as being either symmetric or complementary. In symmetric interactions, people tend to mirror each other’s behavior and emotional responses. Symmetric interactions are based on an assumption of equality that has been tacitly agreed to by the participants that tries to minimize the differences between the participants. In complementary interactions, one person’s behavior and emotional responses complements (is different than) the other’s behaviors and emotional responses. Complementary interactions are based on an assumption of difference that has been tacitly agreed to by the participants that tries to maximize the differences between the participants. Differences can include being assertive-submissive, superior-inferior, primary-secondary, or as Watzlawick refers to them, being one-up or one-down.

Content versus Relationship: Watzlawick also makes the distinction between the content element of communication which conveys information and is largely cognitive, and the relationship element of communication which is related to the emotions involved. He likens the content element to digital (verbal) communication, and the relationship element to analogue (non-verbal) communication, e.g. facial expressions, tone of voice, etc. Given the fact that 55% of communication is visual (body language), 38% is tone of voice, and only 7% is word choice, trying to resolve destructive conflict that exists at the relationship-emotional level (non-verbal) by interacting at the content-cognitive level (verbal) tends to increase the amount of destructive conflict and the level of cognitive dissonance in the interaction.

Managers and staff members involved in effective, highly functional relationships with constructive patterns of interaction can move seamlessly from one role or way of communicating to the other depending on the demands of the situation and the competencies, knowledge-base, personality, and organizational position of those involved. Those who are trapped in ineffective, dysfunctional relationships with destructive patterns of interaction, are often fixated and calcified in one of the roles or ways of communicating and their actions and interactions are on autopilot, e.g. they happen regardless of who is involved or demands of the situation. In other words, the patterns of interaction that develop “have them” rather than the people involved being able to use whatever role or communication style would be most effective to address the issues at hand. So while Watzlawick’s two examples describe mechanisms that are fundamental to all human communication, it is important to note that patterns of interaction can (and do) develop around any topic or activity: Who talks most in meetings, how decisions are made, whether decisions actually get implemented, the chemistry of people in work-group meetings, how a group members see and respond to their manager (symmetric versus complementary), or how top management communicates important business issues to their staff (content versus relationship). There are as many patterns of interactions as there are groups of people who interact.

When patterns of interactions happen repetitively, over time they solidify and become tacit assumptions and unquestioned beliefs about other people and the relationships we have with them. If patterns of interaction are typified by collaboration, teamwork, common purpose and identity, achieving group goals, and positive affirmation of team members, they solidify and create a group-chemistry and climate of positive energy, increased productivity, and high-performance. If the patterns of interaction are typified by destructive conflict, interactions can become spring-loaded with negative energy as group members feel like they have to “walk on egg shells” around each other. Not surprisingly, the relationships that emerge from destructive interactions are toxic so the group-chemistry and climate in these work-groups becomes unhealthy to all involved. If a work-group is more or less successful at achieving its goals and objectives, their patterns of interaction (constructive or destructive) go on autopilot, slip below the surface of organizational consciousness, and become part of culture in that work-group, e.g. “how it’s done around here.”

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 interactions 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. In fact, 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 (Robin Dunbar, Grooming, Gossip, and the Evolution of Language, Farber and Farber, 1996, p. 69 ff). 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.

The Role of the Manager

A powerful force for creating patterns of interaction in work-groups is the personality and management philosophy of the manager who leads the group. Many approaches to managing conflict in work-groups tend to view all members of a work-group as “equal,” but the influence of the work-group manager must be more heavily weighted because they possess formally delegated authority and are accountable for the work-group’s performance. Support for this view comes from neurophysiologic research on the human brain that has identified a specific part of the human brain (amygdala) that produces and senses emotions and functions like an open-loop system, e.g. our emotional connections to other people (like our boss) create shared moods and emotional responses for the entire group. Like an invisible wireless network, work-group members send and receive most of their communication through body language (55%) and tone of voice (38%). Daniel Goleman argues that employees take their emotional cues from the top – everyone watches the boss. Even when a manager is not highly visible their attitudes affect the moods and emotions of direct reports and this ripples down through the organizational levels like a domino effect creating an emotional climate throughout the organization (Daniel Goleman, Primal Leadership, Harvard Business School Press, 2002, p. 3 ff). Over time, a manager’s ability to resonate the emotions and moods of their employees creates either a constructive or destructive pattern of interaction within a work-group.

For example, Matilda is a sales manager in a medical equipment company. Some days she’s your “buddy” and wants to chat over coffee, and other days she’s a “high-chair tyrant” who pounds on the table in meetings and demoralizes her direct reports with criticism and contempt. “What mood is she in today,” whispers Jack as he gets to the office? “She’s been flip-flopping since I got here,” Jill responds also in a hushed tone, “one minute she’s asking me how my weekend was and the next minute she’s hammering me about my sales targets.” “Yea,” Jack laughs, “you can look at her face when she walks through the door in the morning, and tell what kind of day you’re going to have.” In any group of humans, the person in the leadership position has enormous power to create either constructive or destructive patterns of interaction, so managers like Matilda are like emotional guides for Jack, Jill, and the other people who report to them. When Matilda transmits destructive emotional messages, Jack and Jill begin to resonate on that frequency. When she sends constructive emotional messages, they resonate on that frequency. Over time, a pattern of interaction emerges and solidifies that is largely on autopilot where work-group members are drawn into a destructive cycle of conflict and rehash the same issues over and over again and don’t know why. When a manager understands how powerfully they resonate their employees and they use this fact to influence them positively and maintain a constructive atmosphere, the climate in the work-group will almost always be positive, with much higher levels of work productivity and efficiency.

In addition to resonating the emotions and moods of group members, the leader’s way of “seeing” their direct reports and the organization’s structures, systems, and business issues powerfully scripts group members about how they should relate to each other and the larger organization. More specifically, the purpose of culture (any culture) is to teach people how to see the world. All organizations have active but informal teaching processes by which culture is promulgated to new employees through more “seasoned” managers and staff members who act out and articulate the edicts and demands of the culture. For example, the formally stated policy of a company might be to always serve customers’ needs regardless of how demanding they are, but the specific cultural norm and pattern of interaction taught by one manager (Jeff) is to avoid conflict with customers at all costs. So a customer (Curt) walks into a store and a new sales person (Sarah) and her manager (Jeff) are standing at the register checking an order. Jeff comments quietly about Curt, “He always gives us a hard time,” so they ignore him, trying to avoid conflict. Curt reads this emotional message in their behavior and actually feels ignored. After a few minutes of just standing around, Curt snaps critically, “Hey, young lady! I need some help over here!” Sarah looks at Jeff and thinks to herself,

See – You said he’d give me a hard time!

Our knowledge and beliefs about the day-to-day activities of organizational life are powerfully shaped by how we are taught to see ourselves in relation to customers, top managers, other departments, and other business associates. Howard Gardner claims that leaders have the ability to “manage meaning” for others by promoting ways to interpret situations, and then suggesting acceptable ways for people to react to these situations (Howard Gardner, Leading Minds, Basic Books, 1995, p. 39 ff.). Because managers cannot help but influence their direct reports through their emotional responses to day-to-day activities and by the way they interpret the meaning of organizational activities, they are irrevocably the creators and transmitters of organizational culture, regardless of their level of awareness in doing so. Managers have two choices. The first choice is to allow the culture in their work-groups to emerge naturally through the autopilot patterns of interactions described above. This sentences them to struggle against an Invisible Bureaucracy™ of overly complex structures, systems, and human interactions that often frustrate and undermine effective performance. The second choice is to consciously create, reinforce, and maintain the elements of an effective work-group culture that gets managers the desired results of achieving their goals and key performance indicators.

The Interaction Equation™

A more concrete way to understand the complex patterns of interactions in work-groups 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. If a large enough sample of video-taped meetings were analyzed over time, patterns of interaction between small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s could be identified that would reveal important information about the formal and informal power structure in the work-group and the degree to which conflict between group members is either constructive or destructive. The Breckenridge Institute® has identified five kinds of actions and interactions that should be identified from the video-taped meetings and these function like five terms in an Interaction Equation™.

  • 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 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 then be correlated with factors such as the personality types of the manager and staff, their level of delegated authority, their degree of self-interest, their length of tenure, the breadth of experience they have had working in the organization, and other key factors. These patterns of interaction are almost always on autopilot and based on the tacit assumptions and unquestioned beliefs of the work-group’s or larger organization’s culture. The results of this type of analysis often indicate which work-group members or small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s are actually leading and managing the work-group, regardless of their position on the organization chart. Understanding how this culture-building mechanism works enables managers to disrupt ineffective patterns of interactions, take them off autopilot, reconfigure them, and then migrate them back to autopilot operations that produce the desired results using repetition and by rewarding the desired behaviors.

At a higher (organization-wide) level the Interaction Equation™ can also be used to characterize patterns of interaction between work-groups (departments, divisions, teams, etc) that have specific organizational functions and these in turn become key elements of an organization’s overall corporate culture. For example, patterns of interaction that emerge within a specific work-group are powerfully shaped by the factors mentioned above (personality type, length of service, etc) plus the disciplinary paradigm (body of knowledge) and functional responsibilities within which a given work-group operates. If group members are part of a fairly homogeneous disciplinary paradigm (engineering, sales, IT, accounting, marketing, etc), then group members will tend to have similar education, training, experience, work-related tools, membership in professional organizations, disciplinary indoctrination, and technical standards. For example, group members in an accounting department will tend to see themselves and others through the lens of that disciplinary function. In addition to the work-group chemistry and climate mentioned above, the larger the overlap between people within a given work-group around a disciplinary paradigm, the more identified group members will tend to feel with each other, and the more they will have a sense of “shared meaning” and a “shared reality.”

So it is not unusual for two work-groups (Sales, Production, IT, etc.) to experience destructive conflict over how they see and carry-out their functional roles, especially if the small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s that lead and manage these work-groups are not aligned around a higher-level corporate purpose, direction, core values, and an company-wide set of goals and key performance indicators. As Deming points out, the structures, systems, and goals of the larger organization often cause functional units to unintentionally optimize their own performance and sub-optimize the performance of other work-groups or the entire organization (W. Edwards Deming, Out of Crisis, MIT Center for Advanced Engineering Study, 1986, p. 62 ff). When inter-organizational patterns of interaction happen repetitively over time and the company and work-groups are more or less successful despite their misalignment, a company-wide pattern of interaction emerges between the work-groups, goes on autopilot, slips below the surface of organizational consciousness, and becomes a key element of the company’s corporate culture, e.g. “how it’s done around here.” As mentioned above, while most people think of organizational culture in broad, sociological terms, the day-to-day realities of organizational life clearly show that the fundamental building blocks of organizational culture are the patterns of interaction and interdependent networks that form between small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s that cross the organizational boundaries of work-groups.

Bottom Line: Patterns of interaction at the small-group or company-wide level can be your best friend or your worst enemy. They can work for you when work-group members collaborate, handle conflict constructively, and are aligned with a company-wide purpose, direction, values, and goals. Or they can create self-defeating cycles that cause the managers and staff members that compose work-groups to spiral into the same destructive conflicts over and over again without knowing why. So managers are left with two (and only two) choices. They can allow the culture in their work-groups to emerge naturally through autopilot patterns of interactions which sentences them to struggle against an Invisible Bureaucracy™ of overly complex systems and human interactions, or they can consciously choose to create, reinforce, and maintain the elements of an effective work-group culture that will help them achieve their goals and key performance indicators.

Personality in Context®

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