Then the shit hit the fan.
― John Kenneth Galbraith
I’m an unrelenting progressive. This holds true for politics, work and science where I always see a way for things to get better. I’m very uncomfortable with just sitting back and appreciating how things are. Many who I encounter see this as a degree of pessimism since I see the shortcomings in almost everything. I keenly disagree with this assessment. I see my point-of-view as optimism. It is optimism because I know things can always get better, always improve and constantly achieve a better end state. The people who I rub the wrong way are the proponents of the status quo, who see the current state of affairs as just fine. The difference in worldview is really between my deep reaching desires for a better world versus a world that is good enough already. Often the greatest enemy of getting to a better world is a culture that is a key element of the world, as it exists. Change comes whether culture wants it or not, and problems arise when the prevailing culture is unfit for these changes. Overcoming culture is the hardest part of change, and even when the culture is utterly toxic, it opposes changes that would make things better.
I’ve spent a good bit of time recently contemplating the unremitting toxicity of our culture. We have suffered through a monumental presidential election with two abysmal candidates both despised by a majority of the electorate. The winner is an abomination of a human being clearly unfit for a public office worthy of respect. He is totally unqualified for the position he will hold, and will likely be the most corrupt person to ever hold the job. The loser was thoroughly qualified, potentially corrupt too, and would have had a failed presidency because of the toxic political culture in general. We have reaped this entire legacy by allowing the public and political institutions to whither for decades. It is arguable that this erosion is the willful effort of those charged by the public with governing us. Among the institutions that are under siege and damaged in our current era are the research institutions where I work. These institutions have cultures from a bygone era, completely unfit for the modern world yet unmoving and not evolved in the face of new challenges.
This sentiment of dysfunction applies to the obviously toxic public culture, but the workplace culture too. In the workplace the toxicity is often cloaked in tidy professional wrapper, and seems wondrously nice, decent and completely OK. Often this professional wrapper shows itself as horribly passive aggressive behavior that the organization basically empowers and endorses. The problem is not the behavior of the people in the culture toward each other, but the nature of the attitude toward work. Quite often we have this layered approach that lends a well-behaved, friendly face on the complete disempowerment of employees. Increasingly the people working in the trenches are merely cannon fodder, and everything important to work happens with managers. Where I work the toxicity of the workplace and politics collide to produce a double whammy. We are under siege from a political climate that undermines institutions and a business-management culture that undermines the power of the worker.
Great leaders create great cultures regardless of the dominant culture in the organization.
― Bob Anderson
I’m reminded of the quote “culture eats strategy” (attributed to Peter Drucker) and wonder whether or not anything can be done to cure our problems without first addressing the toxicity of the underlying culture. I’ll hit upon a couple examples of the toxic cultures in the workplace and society in general. Both of these stand in opposition to a life well led. No amount of concrete strategy and clarity of thought can allow progress when the culture opposes it.
I am embedded in a horribly toxic workplace culture, which reflects a deeply toxic broader public culture. Our culture at work is polite, and reserved to be true, but toxic to all the principles our managers promote. Recently a high level manager espoused a set of high-level principles to support: diversity & inclusion, excellence, leadership, and partnership & collaboration. None of these principles is actually seen in reality and everything about how our culture operates opposes them. Truly leading and standing for the values espoused with such eloquence by identifying and removing the barriers to their actual reality would be a welcome remedy to the normal cynical response. Instead the reality is completely ignored and the fantasy of living to such values is promoted. It is not clear whether the manager knows the promoted values are fiction, or simply exists in a disconnected fantasy world. Either situation is utterly damning. The manager either knows the values are fiction, or they are so disconnected from reality that they believe the fiction. The end result is the same, no actions to remove the toxic culture are ever taken and the culture’s role in undermining values is not acknowledged.
In a starkly parallel sense we have an immensely toxic culture in our society today. The two toxic cultures certainly have connections, and the societal culture is far more destructive. We have all witnessed the most monumental political event of our lives resulting directly from the toxic culture playing out. The election of a thoroughly toxic human being as President is a great exemplar of the degree of dysfunction today. Our toxic culture is spilling over into societal decisions that may have grave implications for our combined future. One outcome of the toxic societal choice could be a sequence of events that will induce a crisis of monumental proportions. Such crises can be useful in fixing problems and destroying the toxic culture, and allowing its replacement by something better. Unfortunately such crises are painful, destructive and expensive. People are killed. Lives are ruined and pain is inflicted broadly. Perhaps this is the cost we must bear in the wake of allowing a toxic culture to fester and grow in our midst.
Reform is usually possible only once a sense of crisis takes hold…. In fact, crises are such valuable opportunities that a wise leader often prolongs a sense of emergency on purpose.
― Charles Ruhig
Cultures are usually developed, defined and encoded through the resolution of crisis. In these crises old cultures fade being replaced by a new culture that succeeds in assisting the resolution of the crisis. If the resolution of the crisis is viewed as a success, the culture becomes a monument to that success. People wishing to succeed adopt the cultural norms and re-enforce the culture’s hold. Over time such cultural touchstones become aged and incapable of dealing with modern reality. We see this problem in spades today either in the workplace or society-wide. The older culture in place cannot deal effectively with the realities of today. Changes in economics, technology and populations are creating a set of challenges for older cultures, which these older cultures are unfit to manage. Seemingly we are being plunged headlong toward a crisis necessary to resolve the cultural inadequacies. The problem is that the crisis will be an immensely painful and horrible circumstance. We may simply have no choice, but to go through it, and hope we have the wisdom and strength to get to the other side of the abyss.
Crisis is Good. Crisis is a Messenger
― Bryant McGill
A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.
― Paul Romer
What can be done about undoing these toxic cultures without crisis? The usual remedy for a toxic culture is a crisis that demands effective action. This is an unpleasant prospect whether part of an organization or country, but it is the course we find ourselves on. One of the biggest problems with the toxic culture issue is its self-defeating nature. The toxic culture itself defends itself. Our politicians and managers are creatures whose success has been predicated on the toxic culture. These people are almost completely incapable of making the necessary decisions for avoiding the sorts of disasters that characterize a crisis. The toxic culture and those who succeed in them are unfit to resolve crises successfully. Our leaders are the most successful people in the toxic culture and act to defend such cultures in the face of overwhelming evidence that the culture is toxic. As such they do nothing to avoid the crisis even when it is obvious and make the eventual disaster inevitable.
Can we avoid this? I hope so, but I seriously doubt it. I fear that events will eventually unfold that will having us longing for the crisis to rescue us from the slow-motion zombie existence today’s current public-workplace cultures inflict on all of us.
The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis, be aware of the danger–but recognize the opportunity.
― John F. Kennedy