Organizational Culture And The Need For Jesters


Each one of us spends most of our lives responding to the environment which consists of other people responding to the environment. This meta-environment which molds our behavior is usually referred to as culture. In other words, we are first and foremost social creatures, wired to interact with each other in groups against our understanding and conformity to whatever culture is present and reinforced.

Culture itself a system of informal rules that spell out how people are to behave most of the time. It is made up of a collection of values, myths, heroes, and symbols that have come to mean something to the people that work within that culture.

Although every organization has a culture; sometimes it is weak and hard to assess, especially from the outside, other times is it strong and obvious. In either case, culture always exerts a strong influence on the organization, from the ways in which people interact and do their jobs, to who gets promoted, to how decisions are made. The existence and upkeep of a strong culture can have an immeasurable impact on the organization in almost every way. The elements of culture have historically been thought to provide a touchstone, a guide, and a common bond for those within an organization.

At Corporate Jester, we believe that culture always plays a large (and crucial) part in not only the financial results of any organization but also in human issues such as loyalty, motivation and morale (which effect productivity, turnover, etc).

Many organizations currently find themselves going through changes in regards to scope, size, vision and goals that could result in negative shifts from desired culture. It is critical to understand the truth about your organization’s cultural situation and take steps to ensure desired culture is maintained through change. This is particularly true for larger organizations.

In smaller organizations, culture is relatively easy to transmit and maintain due the shared perspective and influence of key members. However, as organizations grow larger and more spread out (globally) the ability of those key members to create and maintain culture through their individual influence diminishes. Larger organizations need to embrace new ways of defining and communicating culture . . . not only to ensure that it is not lost, but to ensure that it continues to drive behavior and decision making on a global basis.

Before we face what can be done to revive and reinforce desired culture we must have a clear understanding of the factors that influence it. The following are the cornerstones of a strong culture. The question becomes… would you access your organization positively against each of the factors?
For many organizations the answer is no. In fact, in some hypocrisy is evident, with members of the organization verbally expressing their support of a certain cultural aspect but making it obvious in their actions that they don’t. If not checked this can create a cynicism that can detract and suppress any efforts to actually improve elements of the desired culture. What are these cultural aspects? A healthy culture needs a strong set of values and beliefs

Basic values and concepts form the heart of an organization’s culture. Values define “success” for employees (if you do this, you will get rewarded) and establish standards of achievement. A rich and complex set of values…well known by all members of the organization is crucial. This set of values and beliefs can combine to form a philosophy for the organization and eventually into a mission statement.
What are the values at your organization? Where do people learn about the values? Although your organization may have its espoused values “written on the wall”, they may be disregard. People look beyond the values an organization “says” it has (or should have) and watch the behavior of other in the organization to see what the true values are. A healthy culture needs heroes and myths

Heroes are named people who act as prototypes, or idealized examples, by which cultural members learn of the correct or ‘perfect’ behavior. The classic heroes are the founders of the organization, who are often portrayed much more perfect than they actually are or were. Heroes may also be the janitor who tackled a burglar or a customer-service agent who went out of their way to delight a customer. In such stories they symbolize and teach people the ideal behaviors and norms of the culture. Who are the current heroes in your organization? Do those heroes exemplify the desired culture or something else?

A healthy culture needs artifacts

Artifacts are the physical things that are found that have particular symbolism in an organization. They may even be endowed with mystical properties. Examples can include: the first products of a company; achieved documents or letters from delighted customers. Artifacts can also be more everyday objects, such as the bunch of flowers in reception. They main thing is that they have special meaning, at the very least for the people in the culture. There may well be stories told about them. The purposes of artifacts are as reminders and triggers. When people in the culture see them, they think about their meaning and hence are reminded of their identity as a member of the culture, and, by association, of the rules of the culture. Artifacts may also be used in specific rituals. Churches do this, of course. But so also do organizations. What artifacts do you have in your organization? Do they symbolize aspects of the culture you want to maintain?

A healthy culture needs ritual and ceremony

Rituals are processes or sets of actions which are repeated in specific circumstances and with specific meaning. They may be used in such as rites of passage, such as when someone is promoted or retires. They may be associated with company events such as the release of a new product. They may also be associated with everyday events such as holidays. Whatever the circumstance, the predictability of the rituals and the seriousness of the meaning all combine to sustain the culture. What are the rituals and celebrations at your organization that speak to its culture?

Influencing Culture

I think most leaders of organizations would agree that they have work to do in regards to culture. So what should those leaders do to influence culture as they move into the future? First and foremost they need to be honest about the current state of the culture as they assess its characteristics. To target areas for growth and change there needs to be truth spoken about the areas in which there are deficiencies. Secondly, it should be understood that culture is not something to be decided by leadership and “handed down” in emails and directives to the organization. Culture is something that will always be generated by those in it. If organizations want to improve culture, it cannot be by only adding new activities and reminders “designed” to improve the culture . . . those methods may be seen as false and generate cynicism.

This is especially true for organizations that have reached “Dunbar’s Number”. Dunbar was an anthropologist at the University College of London who hypothesized that there is a cognitive limit to the number of individuals with whom any one person can maintain stable relationships. The research behind Dunbar’s number suggests an individual can only have genuine social relationships with 150 people. As a result, a group larger than 150 are prone to fragmentation and a loss of culture as it is much harder for the “culture” to be maintained by the charisma of a few individuals. To maintain culture in organizations, especially in larger organizations, members must look to new ways of understanding social networks and work to apply some of that knowledge to creating an organization that spontaneously, continuously and honestly, generates its own positive culture.

The Importance of Jesters in Organizational Culture

One particularly interesting aspect of culture is that few values, myths, heroes, and symbols can be assessed, measured or improved upon unless they are recognized, understood and discussed. In many organizations these aspects of culture are not talked about, especially if they are negatively assessed or perceived to be shifting away from desired culture. Often, positive cultures slowly dissipate as those in them turn a blind eye to the shift waiting for someone else to speak up to provoke reaction.

It is critically important for organizations to create “Jesters”, people able to recognize, and willing to point out, cultural elements that begin to shift away from those desired. Jester’s don’t wear colorful costumes and entertain others with jokes, but instead, bring a unique perspective into organizational truth telling. They have developed the rare ability to uncover and address blind spots in thinking that negatively effect companies, organizations, and individuals. Among other things, they can provide the insight needed into the current state of an organization’s culture.