Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Managers and Group Culture

I have been fascinated by organizational behavior since I first had a course on this subject in my undergraduate studies. Each group or organization has its own culture. Each person typically belongs to multiple groups, with each group having a unique culture.

Culture in this respect refers to a set of shared values, goals, and rules. In effect, it is a system that governs behavior. We tend to act largely within the mores of the group culture. Usually it is only those on the margins that significantly violate the norms of a group.

The groups to which I belong include my nuclear family, my extended family, several workgroups where I am employed, church groups, scouting groups, my neighborhood, my town, etc. Within some of these groups are subgroups that have a culture that is distinct from that of the larger group. For example, when I am with only my older children, we have somewhat different goals and customs than when we are together with the whole family.

Each group has leaders. Sometimes groups have formal managers. These are not always the same people as the leaders — the people that actually get others to do things. Formal management positions are more likely to exist in organizations that have formal goals.

A number of theories exist about managing people in organizations. One theory, for example, postulates the existence of natural born leaders. Another theory suggests that all people have the ability to exert one or more types of power depending on the circumstances in which they find themselves. Yet another classes people into naturally intransigent personality types. It is asserted that managers can only be fully effective in organizations where their individual personality type complements the organizational culture.

I once worked in an organization where the manager’s personality was a poor match for the group’s culture. The manager was a great guy — and that was part of the problem. He thrived on lots of social connection and human interaction. Being a group of highly autonomous computer geeks, however, we worked better with managers that were more analytical and that did their thing while leaving us to do ours.

It’s not that it was unpleasant to chat with our manager about matters not much related to work. We all do this in our workgroups. It’s part of the lubricant that allows the group to function. But when my boss would come into a worker’s cubicle and plop down for 45, 60, 90, 120 minutes, or even longer just to shoot the breeze, it became a hindrance both to work and to the relationship.

Being geeks, we soon devised two systems to deal with our manager’s excessive gregariousness. The first was an early warning system based on email and phone that would alert workers of an impending social visit from our manager. If someone was on the phone, he’d usually leave them alone unless his visit was actually work related. If that failed, we’d take turns rescuing colleagues trapped in their cubicle by calling from a remote phone.

Our manager had great relationships with his peers and his direct managers, but he didn’t really know that much about what our group did for work. In effect, we were autonomous enough that we could have operated without his ‘management’ most of the time. But social aloofness would not have matched his personality type.

Over the years I have had managers that seemed to fit better or worse with the group culture. I’ve had a few outstanding managers and I’ve had a few that were deplorable.

I once worked for a guy that was manipulative and extremely verbally abusive. I was among the 80% of his employees that fled to other jobs over the space of a year. I saw no reason that a professional at my level ought to put up with that kind of mistreatment. Sometime later, one of the workers that stuck it out came to work to find the manager’s office cleaned out and an email telling him that he was reporting to a different manager.

For years I harbored resentment for my former nasty manager. I saw him in a store once and avoided him. But a few years later I had the opportunity to meet him in a different job. He had left management, seemed like an easy guy to be around, and was reportedly a great worker. Perhaps his personality type was simply a bad fit for the organizational culture where we worked.

Changing organizational culture may be nearly as difficult as changing basic personality traits. Perhaps some companies go down the tubes because they can’t manage to alter the culture to meet changing business needs.

It also seems that we tend to self select into group cultures where we feel that we nominally fit. We tend to leave groups that prove to be a poor match for our personalities and groups where the culture shifts enough that we find our personalities to no longer be complementary.

Sometimes we have little choice in group membership. I think, for example, about my elementary school classes. There was a bit more flexibility in junior high and high school.

Group culture is a huge factor in the behavior of group members. We all tend to function within the parameters of the culture of the group in which we are operating at the moment. This is why changing a few of the group’s members tends to have little effect on the behavior of group members and why new group members soon adopt the behavior of their cohorts.

I suspect that my interest in organizational behavior will continue as long as I continue to hold membership in various group cultures. And that will be at least as long as I live.

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