Quantifying Culture

In the first half of this year (2019) we made a concerted effort to survey current and prospective teammates regarding personality traits. While I do not believe you can quantify everything about a person, I believe we can improve our initial understanding and get to an understanding of a unique individual faster by starting with a rough cut self-survey. If our initial understanding is improved, we can place teammates in environments where they are likely to excel.

In the beginning of this process, I was looking for leaders and technicians. As my thinking matured, I began to ponder the profiles of sales professionals and technical experts. I also wondered how experience and integrity shape behavior. What of creativity? How will people react to one another?

After a few months, I am curious about what makes a culture excellent. What makes a group of people more effective than the sum of the parts? Are business processes enough? Or, is there something more? Then, how does it fall apart? How do we avoid this destruction? Is there a way to invert the problem to discover a simple solution?

In William Moulton Marston’s “The Emotions of Normal People” he translates observed behavior and surveyed emotions into equations of experience and emotions. Some emotions are simple. Other emotions are complex. They stack like bricks, one upon the other. The order effects the perception of the last. If an individual’s emotions can be reduced to an equation, could an entire group of people be a series of actions and reactions, compounded ad infinitum? How quickly could this equation be turned? What would be required?

Some scientists suggest we are ruled by a lizard brain around which a more complex, rational human brain is wrapped. The lizard brain is stupid and irrational. It seeks immediate pleasure regardless of the consequences. This reduction does point to a distinction –we may be ruled by emotion. If we are ruled by emotion then a mass of people can create and reinforce actions of the individual, without the individual’s personal consent. This is scary at a societal level, but is also a very poignant question to ask of yourself: Am I already controlled?

I have been fascinated by mob mentality since my college literature courses. Artists confront the topic regularly and over centuries. Why are scientists having a hard time pinning it down? What causes people to react so abnormally? No rational person grabs a pitchfork and goes hunting for a human. Can the mob mentality be used for good? (other than lalapalooza effect at a homeware sales party) Or, must we always depend upon rational arguments? The rational argument seems so weak compared to story-telling, reinforced by a lot of people encouraging you to join in.

Daniel Kahnemen writes in “Thinking Fast and Slow,” that we are neither an evolved lizard, nor a simple equation. Instead, we oscillate between System 1 thinking, which is faster and more intuitive, and it’s counter-part, System 2. System 2 is slower and more mathematical. Neither system is inherently rational or irrational. Both can be rational and both can be irrational. However, System 2 requires training and is less intuitive. System 1 recognizes patterns but can be fooled if situation deviates from the norm. System 2 must inform and rule over System 1 in order for System 1 to produce well-reasoned intuition.

Combining these two or three points of view, I began wondering about culture. How could groups of people be shaped to improve performance? How do we facilitate the best in people? Ultimately, I wanted a simple equation to reveal the laws of managing a mob.

This weekend I began two books, recommended from different sources. The first is “Culture Code” by Daniel Coyle and the second is “Daring Greatly” by Brene Brown. Both books begin with a premise that vulnerability establishes trust. Then, the early responses from the individuals in the group of observers establishes the culture. The momentum of these first two or three people quickly grows to involve four to six people. The size of the group is often limited by simple geographic proximity. The “vibe” of this group can endure for moments or decades. The “culture” can spread or fizzle.

Now is where I insert my own hypothesis –my equation to be tested: An individual shares an opinion. I will call the opinion “O” and the individual “a.” So, Oa. Another individual (b) responds warmly (or harshly) and builds (or cuts) upon the first opinion. Let’s call response “R.” Therefor, Oa=>Rb. Observers monitor the first person’s response to “a.” (perhaps c, d, e, f monitor Ra.) They look for abrasiveness, acceptance, safety and contribution. Most members of c through f will opt to wait for more cues before engaging. A minority will engage quickly if environment or situation is intuited as favorable. Once engagement begins, a group is formed, and an initial culture is established (C). The process continues as new members join or the observed responses change. A harsh response leads to a multiplicative decrease procedure. The engagement becomes disengagement, retreat, and flight to safety. And thus the culture swings abruptly. This is because the “wait to engage” response is slower than the flight to safety response. The aggressive fight and fearful flight responses are faster than the System 2, wait and think response. And thus the group can either disband faster or go negative faster than it can build and grow in a positive and creative direction.

Thoughts? How should I test this?

Post script:

The fact that I write this in a blog post should be a pretty good sign that I do not inherently trust my System 1, nor my emotions. A decade or more ago, I conditioned my own System 1 to move in the opposite direction of the crowd. Lately, I have been trying to tame that auto-response because it has an inherent dependency on the crowd. Now, I want to be less of a rebel to the crowd and more or less disregard the crowd entirely. My own personal nature allows me to be more or less clueless of the crowd in order to behave rightly. The mistakes I make are totally my own. I humble my intuitions as a default mechanism to prevent over-reaction. It’s not non-emotion, it’s tamed emotion. A domesticated beast.

The real irony of disregarding the crowd is that it often gathers followers. A crowd winds up forming anyways. I’m not sure exactly why, but I assume that some people are tuned to adopt practices they observe faster than others. There is another large group that seeks rules and procedures and they seek these with less social proof, but more emphasis on the checklist.

Post Script addition July 2021

A recently read (and liked) the definition of “Culture” as the learned patterns of perception, values and behaviors shared by a group of people, that are dynamic and heterogeneous.

“Learned patterns” are observed or taught. Ideally, there is a combination of patterns that are taught and those that are simply observed. In business, my preference is to teach, in aligned posture, the different than normal procedures that produce excellence within our company.

“Learned patterns of perception” – It’s important that this definition includes the word “perception.” This is System 1 intuition that is informed by System 2. Where do people normally mess up? But we do not? If we look at the situation in this way, we perceive something others do not.

“Values and behaviors shared by a group of people” – Obviously, without a group there is no culture. Behaviors tend to be mimicked naturally by some, and counter-culture reacted to by others. If people understand the “why” (Simon Senek) then their roots can be said to run deep. Their behaviors flow from their values in a congruent, high integrity fashion. Rules and procedures become less necessary. The culture fills in the gaps.

“Dynamic and heterogeneous” – Individuals may change very slowly, but their behavior can change quickly. If their behavior veers from their foundation, and during which time, new members join, the group can change much more dramatically. If the effect reaches a tipping point the entire culture can shift. This ebb and flow is dynamic, like the tipping of a bucket on a swivel. This occurs because each individual is unique. They push and pull and respond differently than the others. Some unity is held but some disunity persists. The causes the culture to move over time. It is also able to be led. It doesn’t work like a machine. It’s an organism. But, it can be induced to move toward or away from certain actions through time.

Culture serves as a bungee cord web of decision criterion between the individuals and the leader. It helps fill in the gaps between the defined and the unknown (and unknowable.) It eases people’s minds. This is critical… especially for individuals who desire to acclimate people to regular change. The leader must point to that which is unchanging. Maintain stable and shared patterns of perception and stable and shared values. Influence behaviors. Turn the mob.