Culture—a Foreground Issue—Once Again:
The Perils of Getting Stuck
Stephen Byrum, PhD
As long as organizations are running well with plenty of money, few external threats, and a normal level of stress, “culture” is more of a background issue. All is going well, so we conclude that we must have a pretty good “culture” of shared values, common goals, and mutual objectives—at least that is the all-too-common assumption.
It is only when an organization is tested and challenged by some sort of adversity or some reality that creates fear that the true depth and credibility, the true power of “culture” can be seen. Numerous factors of potential negativity and uncertainty in modern life and work are making “culture” a foreground issue, once again, and it is very clear that simply throwing the word around in various shallow platitudes will not create a sustainable reality that really matters.
Sociologists have long talked about two types of “cultures” that appear under the challenge of adversity and fear. Now, they are talking about a third type that they believe is actually growing faster than the other two. In the intentional construction of modern “culture” paradigms, some knowledge of these three types can be instrumental in helping to have the right kinds of productive conversation and dialogue. If Jim Collins is correct, one of the most significant responsibilities of an authentic leader is to create a “culture,” and especially a “culture” in which people can thrive with insightful visions of what can be accomplished in the future.
First there is an honor culture. Problems that come up, especially between individuals and groups of individuals become a matter of honor in the setting. The “Old West,” modern urban street gangs, or overly zealous sports fans would be typical examples of an honor culture. In honor cultures, people actually fight, or find themselves advancing violent and hyper-belligerent attitudes toward individuals or perspectives that are “different” in belief or life practice. We see this kind of “defense of honor” in headline-making situations of workplace and societal violence that while perhaps exceptional it does make us feel uncomfortable at times, unsafe, or having the need to take some kind of preventative precautions. When circumstances of human interaction, on whatever levels, become “tribal,” the impact of honor culture is usually at hand. There is great division along lines of “difference” that once might have been more contained by the need of people to cooperate together to advance common goals. In Abraham Maslow’s terms, the “Me Generation” and the “My Group” generation has returned with a literal vengeance, and the highest water mark of human existence—Self-transcendence—has gotten lost in the process. To use Robert S. Hartman’s terms, there is a transposition of value in which intrinsic, human values takes second place to extrinsic process and economic values.
Second, there are dignity cultures which place a high priority on the dignity of all people, and act in ways to protect that dignity at almost all costs as a highest priority or highest value. When problems occur in a dignity culture, there are mechanisms in place for conversation, mediation, and mutual resolutions. The test, of course, of an authentic dignity culture comes when circumstances become so overwhelming in some way that actions based on human dignity are easily set aside or apply to only a select few. The interactions with Native Americans of the character played by Kevin Costner in the famous movie Dancing with Wolves is a prime example of how honor cultures with the right leadership can evolve into dignity cultures. In dignity cultures, intrinsic value leads the way.
Third and finally, new research describes what is being called a victimization culture. This cultural type shows up when in the midst of challenge and adversity. People feel that there is nothing they can do to improve a situation and that they are powerless, or that no one really cares about them and their situation as persons.
To feel like a victim is one of the lowest ebbs that a human being can fall to in either work or personal life. Victims become passive-aggressive; they often mope and show signs of depression. They stop caring about the quality of their work; in other words they become disengaged. Their attitude and morale suck!
There is increasing evidence that this victimization culture is growing and that it spreads infectiously like a metastasizing cancer. It becomes almost impossible to see any “good,” and when this dynamic of life is lost, the ability to value and evaluate clearly is dramatically compromised. As long as human beings can see some “good,” they can continue to experience value. When it becomes difficult to see any “good,” even the slightest negative tends to get blown all out of proportion. People begin to make narrowly-informed, spur-of-the-moment decisions as if consequences do not matter. The phenomenon of “perspective”, a bigger picture vision goes wanting.
We commonly see this victimization culture today when we see college graduates who cannot find a job appropriate to their training and educational efforts, when we see middle-aged employees laid off because their jobs have been replaced and their old skills are no longer needed, when we see jobs “going overseas,” and when we see work that is so mind-numbing and lacking in meaning that this wonderful “engagement” that we talk so much about is fundamentally impossible to achieve. We see this victimization culture advance when income levels are so low that individuals cannot even reasonably take care of their own families—one of the finest earmarks of a dignity culture. We see this victimization culture become more and more firmly ensconced and solidified when the gap between general worker pay and general “boss” pay becomes wider and wider, and the increasingly fewer “rich” have all of the political clout necessary to create favorable circumstances for themselves; the increasingly growing numbers of “non-rich” become dispossessed of power, feel that they can do nothing to advance change and fair accommodation, and feel loss of personal “dignity” and “humanity” in the process.
A major issue facing modern organizations and their leaders: we seem to fall more and more into the trap of creating honor cultures; we are not sure how to advance dignity cultures; and, we have few if any clues about holding the line and reversing the growing trend toward victimization cultures that we know from past experience only leads straight into tribalism of one kind or another.
This major leadership challenge becomes even of greater magnitude when the leader (or leadership group) begins to feel that he/she/they are a victim. There are all kinds of “victim” statements: “We’ve lost control!” “We are just trying to react to the last challenge.” “It does us no good to plan.” “Who knows what will happen next.” “I’m sorry. There is nothing I can do.” And, it is never enough to simply “excise” the person advancing a victim mentality. The moment we do this, five more people start desperately believing that they are “next,” and a spirit of victimization escalates.
The only “solution” comes in determining (the gut-felt determination) that you are still in control, and that this control can be demonstrated in advancing a dignity culture so strongly, so regularly, and so adamantly that the sense of victimization and the defensiveness of tribal honor does not have a chance to become rooted and grow.
Now, apply the following example to our discussion. At the 1876 Philadelphia Exposition (like a modern World’s Fair), the Japanese exhibit introduced a plant to Americans. The plant was known as kudzu, and it was used in Japan to control soil erosion. By the early 1900s, especially in the Southeast where erosion had become horrific because of clearing of virgin forests, kudzu was planted as a defensive measure. It worked! The creeping vines spread at remarkable rates, sometimes as much as 150,000 new acres a year. But, the plant would not stop, and finally became invasive in ways that it began to attach itself to forests of trees that were killed by its choking vines and impenetrable shading. Most people in the Southeast constantly are fighting kudzu to keep it off their farms, out of their yards, and away from their gardens and landscaping. Victimization cultures and honor cultures, fueling and feeding off of each other, can grow like kudzu.
I recall one summer when I was a teenager that my father decided he had had all the kudzu he could stand. For weeks, he attacked it with every kind of cutting tool and weed spray that he had. He even, at one point, resorted to using gasoline and starting fires that my mother argued were threatening our home and neighborhood. My younger brother and I pulled kudzu vines until our hands were blistered and raw. I hated the prospect of my father coming home and announcing that we were taking the kudzu battle up again. Then, one day my father created a vivid memory: he stood before a bank of kudzu cascading down across the trees at the edge of our property, threw his hands into the air, and announced that he was giving up. He washed his hands of the kudzu, went back into our garage, and tried never to even look in the direction of the victorious vine again.
There are not always immediate or easy “answers” to the quandaries that surrounds a great deal of modern life and modern work environments. This fact, in itself is a problem because we love “easy answers,” and tend to even believe at times that we deserve “easy answers.” I’m not sure there is an “answer,” especially an easy one, but I am sure that to surrender control and give up is not the way to go. My guess is that there are some kinds of unique responses that can begin to work in maybe even unsuspecting ways if people will keep searching. The key is not to surrender to some pseudo, false inevitable. Maybe even as we fight not to give up, we advance our own “dignity.” Maybe as we refuse to settle for something “less,” we advance our own “dignity.”
It is interesting to see what is happening to kudzu today. There may even be a different metaphor than kudzu as a creeping, overwhelming evil. Today, researchers, and at times simply informal entrepreneurs, are finding all kinds of wonderful and very profitable uses for the ugly, creeping vine. The broad leaves can be processed into paper products and cardboard-like shipping containers; ironically saving lots of trees in the process. The stems can be used to create beautiful basketry. There are all kinds of food and medical applications, even kudzu preparations that are appearing in the handiwork of the finest chefs and restaurants in the world. Livestock seem to see green piles of kudzu as a delicacy. The economic prospects have become so appealing that intentional cultivation is occurring all over the world. Kudzu may even help solve the hungry problems of many poverty-stricken areas where nutrition and starvation are still problems; it can grow anywhere!
The new metaphor is not built on images of standing, overwhelmed before the spreading, choking vine is surrender with nothing to do but give up and walk away in frustration. The new metaphor is to keep believing that better solutions can be found, that human dignity can surmount the demeaning and defeating onslaughts of victimization cultures and tribal, divisive honor cultures that seem to surround our lives today. Even the old honor culture saw value in “heading them off at the pass.”
Modern organizations and their leaders need to have frank and honest discussions about what kind of “culture” they are creating or simply allowing it to take hold. It may even be possible to measure and assess environments to determine strengths and intensities of engagement, or the presence of helpful or harmful “attitudes” and “stressors” that might sustain one of these cultural types. One fact is for certain: where victimization cultures and honor cultures triumph, process, product, and profit can only be jeopardized. When tribalism takes over, we allow competition to become the prevailing dynamic that drives our lives—the person who has the most toys wins.
I recall being about ten years old, and taking a “dare.” I was always taking a “dare” to prove myself in some way. I was, by far, the number one dare-taker in our neighborhood. On this occasion, the “dare” was to crawl through a drainage culvert under our front yard and driveway that was about twenty yards long. Without hesitation, I crawled into the pipe and, with some concern for possible hidden snakes, proceeded forward. I did not realize that there was a slight turn in the culvert piping about halfway through, and as I navigated the turn I got stuck.
At first, this being stuck was of little concern, as I had been stuck before and always figured out some option to extricate myself. This time, the more I squirmed and wiggled, the more stuck I became. Then, as panic set in, I became totally wedged in and could not move at all. I began to wail for help. Being “stuck” is a terrible feeling, but there was nothing I could do. Then, to make matters worse, it began to rain. The rain water flowing into the culvert piping began to slowly mount up in front of me. I had become a dam that blocked the flow of the water through the pipe. I knew what would happen. Finally, the water would fill the pipes, and I would drown. I simply lay there quietly and awaited death. As the singer, Delbert McClinton, says in one of his most famous songs, I was a “victim of life’s circumstances.” This is victimization culture to the extreme.
Several of my friends ran off. They did not want to get blame for what was happening. They also did not want to get wet in the rain. They exemplified, in covering their own backsides, honor culture. However, my little brother, exhibited “dignity.” He was good at “fixing things” mechanically; he had learned that from my father. He ran to our garage, found a small rope, and after returning, crawled into the culvert and tied the rope to my feet. He told me to go completely limp; in fact, I had probably already achieved that status. He crawled out, shamed and threatened some other boys who had retreated to their homes but were still watching to come and help, and they jerked me loose from my stuck spot and pulled me free. I still have an occasional nightmare about that event as it is awful to feel “stuck.” Victimization is, indeed, the lowest ebb of human existence.
Simply stated, a primary task of a modern leader is to become an expert in getting people and their situations “un-stuck.” The modern leaders must be like by little brother, believing that there was still an option, racing for the rope, crawling into the pipe with me, and pulling me free. If victimization and honor are allowed to triumph, the water keeps building up and the kudzu keeps spreading. In dignity cultures, true leaders crawl into the dark pipe with you and make every possible effort to resolve the situation favorably.