When a group of individuals have a common view of life, adhere to a common set of values and choose a common standard of behaviour, it is said to be a culture. Even if one of these parameters are missing, it ceases to be a culture. For instance an organisation’s culture is based on the common goal or view of the market and its proponents, a well defined set of values for actions to achieve that goal, and adherence in behaviour to those set of values. When either the goal, the process, or the actions do not synchronise or are not in cohesion, it cannot be deemed as the organisation’s culture.
However, when control enters the scene, it changes into a Cult rather than a Culture. While indeed the goal resonates with the founder’s vision and the values are iterated by the leading management, any control over the thinking and behaviour within the group reduces the culture to a form of cult. In such a scenario the first defeat is to an individual’s free will – a compulsion to behave only in certain ways. The next is the presentation of opinions as facts – unwilling to have a dialogue nor presenting any evidence to support said opinion, expecting adherence without validations. And the final blow is personality based resolutions, rather than issue based resolutions. Today, brands deliberately want to promote a cult following to ensure they retain their market share. They make customers adopt the brand as part of their personal identity.
The Culture of any set of people or organisation for example is basically its character – not merely in the action domain of how things get done but also in the processing domain of how people perceive things – their shared assumptions. Let us take a simple example. Imagine your clients are little children and one of the primary rules within your organisation is that children should not be compelled in any form. Not just in the action domain of not pressurising kids, but also in the perception of these children, you would insist that force in any form is detrimental to the child’s growth. A new comer with an opinion that children ought to be more disciplined will not fit into the culture of your organisation even if in action he follows the rules. Therefore culture is not merely in the action domain but more so in the shared world view.
But how does one get there? How to make it a culture of shared world view rather than a cult of enforced, mimicked behaviour?
Let me take a very common day example to elaborate. I am sure you are aware of the ‘queue’ system in washrooms. In any public area with multiple toilets, in any western country, a common queue would form for all the toilets together so that the first person in the queue gets to use the first vacant toilet without prejudice to any one individual’s ‘extra’ time! However, in India, the queue is always to ‘a’ toilet. So if by chance you are unlucky enough to get the first slot to a toilet occupied by a ‘long term’ user, even if multiple people get to use the next cubicle, you are forced to hold it in and wait till you get lucky. It is not a question of right or wrong but just being more compassionate to the one who arrived first!
Whether it is the immigration line or the bank queue, we have no qualms about jumping the line for, ‘standing in a queue’ is not in our culture! Now hypothetically, you decide that at least in your circle of influence, you are going to inculcate this as a culture. So if in your organisation / school / group you insist that people who do not follow this will in some way be penalised, you are trying to instigate changes to the ‘view’, the ‘value’ and the ‘behaviour’ of your group. And even if the view and value take longer to be accepted, you will insist on conformation of behaviour. Would you then call this a cult?
In the same scenario, imagine there is a pregnant woman, an old lady, a little child or even a grown adult incapable of bladder control. If at this point someone insists on the rules of a queue wouldn’t you agree that they have not understood the very basis of instilling those disciplines?
Falling at the feet of elders to take their blessings is a common culture across India. When children are directed to behave in such a way, it is to instil a ‘behaviour’ of respect. But if it is not backed with the ‘value’ of feeling respectful to the elderly – a feeling they will emulate only if they see the adult enforcers also feel in the same way, it will remain just a cult – one they will break free from the minute they can establish their independent state.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss clinical psychologist, is known for his pioneering work on cognition. Known as the ‘Developmental stage theory’, it deals with the nature of knowledge – how human beings gradually acquire, construct and use knowledge. According to him, reality involves ‘Transformations’ that a person undergoes, and ‘States’ – the condition in which the person remains in-between transformations. Actions are responsible for the dynamic transformational aspect of reality and is called ‘operative’ intelligence. The means to retain information represents the static aspects of reality and is called ‘figurative’ intelligence. In other words transformation happens only through actions – the operative aspect of intelligence which frames how the world is perceived. It does this through two processes called assimilation and accomodation.
Assimilation is when new experiences are interpreted to fit into pre-existing old ideas. On the other hand, Accommodation takes in the new information and alters the pre-existing old schema in order to fit in the new information. Both assimilation and accommodation are important and are like two sides of a coin. When in balance, they help the operative intelligence to instigate transformation. But what if one dominates the other? What happens when assimilation dominates always readjusting the new experience to fit into the old schema of interpretation? Or what happens when accommodation dominates to be a vagabond and keep changing the old for new interpretations without fitting them into the old schema of how they were perceived earlier? If assimilation and accommodation are not in balance, the actions begin to generate representations of the figurative intelligence – a mere imitation and mental imagery used to retain the knowledge without any real transformations.
In simple words, actions that are performed mindfully involving the processes of assimilation and accommodation – (interpreting the new experience with the old to change either the perception of the new experience to fit in with the old or by altering the old in light of the new experience), works on the operational intelligence to create transformations. However, if the same actions are done mindlessly – without creating a link and resolving discrepancies between the old and new experiences, it simply becomes imitation and mental imagery that keep the figurative intelligence occupied without effecting any transformational changes.
When an idea inspires and motivates others to follow, it spreads willingly. It begins with a desire to share the same view of life. This propels the individuals to behave and act consciously in certain ways in order to adhere to those values. Such actions may look repetitive but are in fact prompted by choice. It is the life view that actually attracts. And in order to naturally rise to a similar perception on life, actions are intelligently interpreted and followed to create a culture – balancing assimilation and adaptation during every moment of experiencing life.
It is only when the same actions are mindlessly imitated they remain just a cult of mental imagery. Whether a group with conformed actions grows on to become a culture of shared vision or remains a mere shallow imitation depends entirely on the participants in the group. It is not a limitation in the vision for a shared world view nor the value based processes that inspire such a vision. But rather a limitation in the evolutionary maturity of the group that can restrain its growth to a mere cult. With every member in the group rising to become an inspiration to others, transforming not just behaviour but sharing the values and world vision, a cult crystallises into a culture.
Culture is for keeps. Culture is alive. Culture flows perennially in the sands of time…
Written by Gita Krishna Raj | Published in infinithoughts in September 2016