By Maria Collar
Chief Consultant, Serendipity Consulting Service

A stratified corporate culture requires a certain amount of care in order to maintain itself. One of the means by which cultures are maintained is through the proliferation of controlling stories. These stories provide the broad parameters of both the dominant and subjugated groups. Controlling stories operate according to four principles:

1. The content of the story is determined by the dominant group.
2. They operate without the consent of the subjugated group.
3. They protect the interests of the dominant group and exploit the vulnerability of the subjugated group.
4. They justify or rationalize existing power relations.

Controlling stories become a primary means by which dominant cultures maintain power. Once inferior or superior status has been conferred, the stories ensure that the resulting norms remain fixed. For example, several years ago while conducting an investigation on sex harassment, a young woman explained what it meant to her to be working with the company. She said this: “On my first day at work, I looked around and I knew that with my sexual orientation and gender, I would never be the Christmas fairy, no matter how well I could fly.”

This story of the Christmas fairy is revelatory for many reasons. First, it illustrates how an employee experiences and interprets cultural messages about worth and possibility. In a culture that tends to value and validate workers based on gender orientation and appearance, this young woman quickly learned that her appearance was so deficient as to nullify any other measure of merit. Specifically, she learned that whatever her other talents or qualifications might be, her appearance alone could disqualify her from the role.

The story is also suggestive of the means by which the controlling stories gain their potency. These types of stories function to make disparity and exclusion look normal. Interestingly, this young woman’s statement (which later proved to be true) was not the result of any conversation: nobody announced to her on her first day that the role of the Christmas fairy would belong to one of her co-workers. It is in fact the absence of a conversation that contributes to the apparent normalcy of the situation: her exclusion would just look like “the way things are”. Without a clarifying, “the way things are around here” might easily be interpreted as “the way things must be”. Notions of value, talent and merit are systematically conveyed through the manipulation of stories. Through often wordless indoctrination in the mainstream culture, the person learns who is important and who is allowed to be the Christmas fairy.

Guiding principles, emanating from core values, function as the collective consciences of an entity thus strongly define the norms. Typically, guiding principles act as imputed truth, providing clear direction and mapping reality towards the way things should be. Overall, they create cultural values which, in terms, give rise to the dominant culture and, more often than not, are expressed as “around here”.

Similarly, within and across functions, guiding principles entice the departmental cognitive framework which offers a mental picture of the entity’s desired future and dictates communication. As a result, when guiding principles remain consistent with attitudes, values, and expectations of the entity they are able to direct the collective thoughts, habits, feelings and patterns of behaviors adapted by the group. By the same token, when core values are clearly and concisely aligned with the departmental cognitive framework, the desired values are unmistakably absorbed by talent at all levels. Ultimately, cultural values will influence the entities’ effectiveness by enhancing the quality of products and reducing labor costs.

Often enough, as a result of incongruences, subcultures are formed within the dominant culture perpetually trying to stop the same old way of doing things. With time, these subcultures transform into a silent code of conduct that is more about how things get done rather than what should be done. The challenge is to recognize that it exists, mold its reality and ensure that it does not become dysfunctional. Incongruences over time not only open the door for legitimation but also start to slowly corrupt values and ultimately, brand identity. However, if dominant culture is strong enough, all members of the various subcultures will identify, accept, and embrace its guiding principles. This necessitates values of the dominant culture to be aligned with values of subculture, as well as with individual members. Generally speaking, with other things being equal, the greater the level of alignment between guiding principles and dominant culture, the more effective the entity will be.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, when an entity has congruency, it is said that alignment of desired and stated culture is on place. To have a congruent cultural experience, words must equal actions. The entity says what it is meant and means what it said. For any entity to build a congruent and authentic brand, values must truly be experienced. If congruency permeates all levels of an entity, its human capital, as the most sustainable asset available, will be able to embody and carry values out therefore creating a strong brand identity. To illustrate, if an entity has a zero tolerance harassment policy but only trains its talent once during the introductory period, their actions are not reinforcing their words. In contrast, a powerful congruent statement would be mandating periodic harassment training, which would not only have the added benefit of reinforcing the policy’s provisions but also help reassure talent that management will not tolerate abusive behavior. Largely, an entity’s ability to remain transparent is that which enables congruency.

It is not enough for an entity’s cultural values to be posted somewhere; cultural values should be transferred into strategic tangible symbols in order for talent to easily embody them. Just as the man in the Chinese proverb who stands with his mouth open waiting for a roast duck to fly in, one could wait forever for the desired behaviors to occur if values are simply posted. Cultural values should be ingrained within hearts, not in the head of talents, so that talent can better relate and understand these values. It is always easier to speak of something when one can attach emotions. Conversations are vital for developing these skills. Otherwise, talent may become adept at relating through strategies of disconnection and withhold in order to avoid retaliation. When employees view themselves primarily through the eyes of a devaluing culture, they may be holding back talents and capabilities, as well as expectations and hopes for successful outcomes.