Culture the key to co-operation

By October 12, 2015 No Comments

Culture the key to co-operation

Justin Grice, 2015

Recent research in the field of anthropology has identified the key driver of human success. This is our unique ability for large groups of people to co-operate together to achieve mutual goals. Complex co-operation of groups of more than 150 individuals is unique to humans in comparison to all other advanced animals[i]. It is also exceptionally rare for other advanced animals to co-operate with individuals outside of their own extended family or established group. As humans we do this all of the time[ii].

CEO’s and HR Directors cannot ignore these findings. Your organisation is essentially large numbers of humans co-operating together in order to deliver results. Understanding why this happens, its ability to ensure success and how you can influence the way that employees co-operate are essential skills for leaders.

In a series of papers we will be discussing these findings and their application for leaders and HR professionals. In this first paper we discuss the relationship between co-operation, organisational culture and business success. Our second paper in the series will discuss the implications for organisational culture change programmes.

Co-operation: our key to success               

Our closest relatives in the animal kingdom are chimpanzees who live in small troops of less than 150 individuals. Their co-operation is based upon rigid hierarchy with the alpha male able to maintain control because he can observe the behaviour of the whole group and step-in to settle disagreements or insubordination. The alpha also establishes extensive coalitions within the group to maintain control. The troop itself maintains cohesiveness through a combination of family ties, language, intimate daily contact and understanding the hierarchical place of each group member. The resulting co-ordination allows the group to hunt, defend, share food and ensure their survival much more effectively than any individual chimpanzee can achieve alone.

However, chimpanzee co-operation is limited to a maximum of 150 individuals. Within Chimpanzee troops each member knows each other intimately, the alpha male is visible to all and able to monitor all group members personally; allowing for control to be maintained at all times. When chimpanzee groups grow in size they begin to fracture as control and co-ordination is lost, resulting in the troop splitting into smaller troops. Humans are not limited in this way, we are able to construct groups of individuals of seemingly infinite size and co-operate even with strangers. Each of us does this every day when we go to work. The organisation we work for is evidence of widespread human co-operation; co-operation that allows for organisations to succeed.

Below 150 individuals groups of humans co-operate effectively without the rules, formal hierarchy, policies and procedures necessary to co-ordinate larger groups. We find it relatively easy to co-ordinate, maintain order and achieve goals together as smaller groups. However when organisations reach 150 employees problems set in, rapidly growing businesses usually reach a crisis point, large organisations often recognise their immediate team or function and see other functions as barriers to be overcome for example.

Beyond 150 individuals co-ordination is much more difficult, it has so far proved impossible for other advanced animals to achieve and so how have we managed to co-operate on such massive scale?

Substantial recent research by Anthropologists has answered this question. It is because humans have a unique ability to create fiction that allows for shared myths to develop. These shared myths then allow for an organisations employees to ascribe a shared understanding to their organisations distinctive features and purpose which encourages mass co-operation.

As humans we are alone in our ability to attribute value to things that don’t actually exist. Furthermore, we are able to share these meanings amongst all employees of an organisation. This shared meaning allows large numbers of employees to co-operate effectively together.

For example, a company’s brand goes beyond the logo we see, it represents meaning to the company’s employees and customers. The brands meaning is shared and encouraged through advertising, articulation and communication of brand values and statements of what it represents. It also goes much further than this. Brand values influence the beliefs and behaviour of employees allowing them to take actions that are often driven by a shared understanding of which decisions are brand positive and which are potentially brand damaging. For example high end fashion brands represent excellence, quality and exclusivity to customers and employees. Employee decision making centres around brand protection and ensuring the brand values are never compromised. There would be no question of an expensive product recall if it prevented brand damage. Budget brands however would carefully consider the relative merits of a product recall in the same circumstances and potentially decide not to do so.

What is interesting is that these decision are not made simply through rationale thought, debate and then decision making. They are also heavily influenced by the brand values that are implicit to all employees. This allows for faster decision making and action as a result of the shared understanding that the brand has created. The brand is just one example of fiction that we are able to create, share with others and attribute common meaning to.

The mythology of organisational culture

Organisational mythologies are not lies or nonsense, they are essential constructs of an organisation that allow employees to develop a shared view of the world and thus co-operate with each other. How this develops is subject to debate, the ‘social actor’[iii] view suggests that leaders create mythologies about their organisation that provide employees with a consistent narrative, allowing them to construct a collective sense of self. Alternatively the ‘social constructionist’[iv] view suggests that organisational identity is created by the employees themselves as they interrogate themselves about the distinctive features of their organisation. These two approaches are not mutually exclusive and it is likely that both occur in reality.

The resulting shared understanding amongst employees allows them to co-operate effectively. In the world’s largest organisations two employees who have never met and operate in different countries both believe in their organisation and what it represents. They are able to use a common language (jargon) to communicate ideas quickly and effectively and they are able to make decisions that align with the values of their organisation.

Shared mythology applies shared meaning to things that only exist within human imagination. The shared meaning of mythology is essential for us to co-operate effectively as it allows humans to understand each other rather than having to return to first principles each time we wish to solve a problem. Imagine two lawyers who had never met trying to work together on a case where neither believed in the law, the concept of justice or failed to attribute value to the money they were paid. The result would be a disaster. The fact that Lawyers have a shared understanding of what the law, justice and money represent allows them to co-operate effectively together and yet all of these concepts only exist within shared human imagination.

Organisations are made up of numerous component parts, these include products, employees, buildings and other assets. Removing all of these and the organisation still exists, it has a legal status, it has a brand and it has meaning for its employees, customers and other stakeholders. The organisation also comprises of other shared understandings amongst employees that include ways-of-working, jargon, politics, hierarchy, rules and stories.  These elements of organisations exist because we collectively believe that they do.  This allows these elements of organisations to serve useful purposes for us. For example, amongst other things, the legal status provides a dividing line between what is within the organisation and what is excluded from it, it also allows for the company itself to raise money rather than relying on owners or employees to risk everything.

All organisations create a series of shared mythologies that allow for employees to co-operate effectively together. The collective shared mythologies of an organisation creates that organisations culture.

The double edged sword of organisational culture

Organisational culture allows for large numbers of employees to interpret the competitive environment that their company works within, interpret this into an approach to market, develop appropriate products and services and deliver strategic goals. It allows employees to do this effectively without having to return to first principles each time.

Organisational culture not only improves organisational efficiency it also encourages employees to co-operate together, through shared understanding and deliver strategic goals. This approach works effectively providing the organisation is operating in a relatively stable industry environment. As organisational cultures develop slowly and in response to a particular set of market opportunities they allow large numbers of employees to have an implicit understanding of their operating environment and how their company is successful within it. Therefore, it is essential to ensure alignment between market opportunities, strategic goals and organisational culture.

However, when the industry environment changes, new technology arrives or customer demands change organisational culture can present a significant barrier to strategy delivery. This occurs for two reasons. Firstly, the power of shared mythologies creates an implicit and shared understanding amongst employees about ‘how things are done around here’. When the industry, technology or customer demands change then ‘how thing are done around here’ becomes disconnected from market requirements and therefore a decline in business performance is to be expected. Secondly, shared mythologies can become so strong that they can prevent employees from identifying these changes quickly enough. This is because shared mythologies are implicit within employees, guiding their decision making but also collectively interpreting the world around them in reference to their shared mythologies. This often causes employees to miss external changes because a new change will inevitably not fit the employee’s frame of reference and therefore be ignored. This is compounded by the fact that these mythologies are shared, causing employees to mutually reinforce each other in their belief that their existing interpretation of the external environment is correct.

The power of organisational culture is its ability to align employees to strategic goals and give employees a shared understanding of ‘how things are done around here’. This allows employees to co-operate together successfully to deliver these goals. However, leaders and HR professionals need to ensure that the alignment of strategic goal and employee co-operation is maintained in order to be successful.

This is a significant leadership challenge because organisational cultures evolve much more slowly than changes to the industry environment develop. Therefore culture change needs to be stimulated within organisations. The current approaches to organisational culture change are however largely inadequate to deliver these essential changes effectively. It is often quoted that up to 60% of organisational culture change programmes fail. This is because the majority of culture change programmes fail to understand what organisational culture really is, its importance in enabling large groups of employees to co-operate together and then put in place interventions that allow for successful change. In our second paper in this series we will discuss a new approach to organisational culture change that is based upon this recent research.

Implications for Performance Management?

The vast majority of approaches to performance management focus on individual employee differentiation. This approach is at odds with the key to human success, co-operation. Recently a number of large employers have abandoned forced ranking and other such divisive methods of managing performance and this new approach is receiving considerable press attention. We have seen in this paper the power and importance of employee co-operation and performance management does need to support and encourage employee co-operation to be successful. However, anthropologists have also discovered that whilst humans are highly co-operative we are also highly individually competitive. “On the one hand [we are] peerless co-operators and, on the other, ruthless competitors [this] best explains H. sapiens’ sudden rise to world domination.” (Professor Curtis W Marean).

Therefore effective performance management requires an approach that encourages and rewards co-operation and individual contribution. We will shortly be releasing a new paper on this subject, however interested readers may wish to refer to an earlier publication ‘Performance through people: delivering effective performance management’ (Grice and Rudbeck, 2009).



Sapiens, A brief history of humankind, Dr Yuval Noah Harari

Responding to organisational identity threats: exploring the role of organisational culture, Professor David Ravasi and Professor Majken Schultz

The most invasive species of all, Professor Curtis W. Marean

Cultures and organisations, Hofstede, Hofstede and Minkov

The incredible unlikeliness of being, Alice Roberts

Inside the neolthic mind, Professor David Lewis-Williams and David Pearce

Network level strategy in International perspective, Bob de Wit & Ron Meyer

[i] Dr Yuval Noah Harari, ‘Sapiens a brief history of humankind’.

[ii] Some insects do co-operate in large groups however they do so in a very rigid way and only with relatives.

[iii] The main advocates of this approach are Czarniawska (1997), Whetten and Mackey (2002), Whetten (2003).

[iv] The main advocates of this approach are Dutton and Dukerich (1991), Fiol (1991 and 2002), Gioia and Thomas (1996), Gioia, Schultz and Corley (2000), Corley and Gioia (2004).