I’ve written before about how organisational cognitive dissonance tends to align different parts of an organisation to the same memeplex (aka mindset).
An exchange of tweets with @gothandy and @drunkcod earlier today gave me the occasion to consider that perhaps I had not delved deeply enough into this phenomenon, in terms of explanation. In particular, whenever I’m presenting on e.g. The Marshall Model, I’m conscious that when I say “everyone in the organisation shares the same memeplex”, I mean everyone. Executives, senior managers, middle managers, employees, temporary staff – everyone.
And by “shares the same memeplex” I mean “act as if they hold to a given set of assumptions, shared with everyone else in the organisation”. The key idea is “act as if”. We’re all individuals, after all, and I don’t believe for one minute that different people actually all see the world in the same way. But to get along, to function in a group, to feel safe and comfortable and unalienated, folks will tend to act as if they share the group’s belief system (mindset). Those few individuals who, for whatever reason, stand apart from the herd mentality – and act in accordance with a different belief system – mark themselves out for special attention, and for the full impact of organisational cognitive dissonance.
In other words, such individuals risk being seized upon by the organisation’s “antibodies” and pilloried, ridiculed, and ultimately forced out of the organisation – either by the attitudes of their peers, or by their own discomfort.
So, I don’t believe an organisational mindset is just in the heads of a few influential people like executives or senior managers.
More or less everyone in a given organisation is complicit in toeing the party line and subjugating their own world view to the group’s – in order to get along.
For me, this is what makes a transition from one memeplex to another such a challenge. Literally everyone in the organisation is involved. And because of organisational cognitive dissonance, everyone has to transition at the same time, and more or less at the same rate.
I’d love to hear your point of view on this. After all, it wouldn’t do for us all to share the same mindset, would it? 😉
Groupthink – Wikipedia entry
Great post. The conversation on twitter was focused around Theory X/Theory Y and I find it interesting while the same mindset (i.e. Theory X) can be held by both management and employees but lead to very different behaviours.
Management: Assume employees are lazy, avoid work and dislike work.
Employees: Assume management don’t care, only interested in personal gain and looking for someone to blame.
When you’re in the thick of it, it appears like diametrically opposed mind-sets but it is clear how each perspective drives the other and fundamentally they are based on the same assumptions about how other people operate.
So I am beginning to see how change only happens in big jumps between stable states, which is why I guess so many change efforts only get as far as make a small shift in one stable state with the system quickly returning to the stable configuration. Perhaps that is why the “catastrophic” approach often works in making a big mindset shift however I’m rather hoping that the “accumulation of marginal gains” (to quote Dave Brailsford) will be more effective and kinder to everyone involved it certainly helps me to think every little act of kindness, every small improvement in the way we work, every little lesson learnt will eventually result in a big shift and as you say it has to happen across the organisation at the same time.
I think I get away with it these days because of my overall oddball-ness. A bit like a jester in the mediaeval court system, they could say what nobody else could as they were the jester.
Being an oddball is awesome.
I spent thirty years helping folks use computers and understand things like compiler error messages. I loved being able to explain, on the phone, that the programmers problem was that his semicolon was in column 73. But working in a university setting allowed me to be different, even a gadfly occasionally, without raising a ruckus, usually. Of course it also led to being laid off when I would have preferred not, when my boss’s new manager failed to appreciate my utility.
Do you think this applies to organisations of any size? Or do larger organisations naturally divide into distinct sub-organisations? In larger organisations (thousands of employees), I have observed that, even though everyone shares the same top-down policies, the interpretation of those polices and the general mindset can be quite different across different divisions/departments etc (though not radically different as per your Model). People in different divisions may only mix occasionally, so it’s not clear to me how the (top-down?) pressure for homogeneity would necessarily overcome the natural tendency to diverge (I am thinking of it as speciation in biological systems – over time, a homogeneous population diverges to such an extent that it splits into two species).
Thanks for joining the conversation.
Yes, I think this applies to organisations of any size. Although, I have written before about how “out of sight, out of mind” can allow for mindsets within disconnected parts any given organisation to diverge, one from the others. This phenomenon is, after all, the root of why skunkworks work as a means to raise the effectiveness of a part of an organisation.
As you allude to, I see the frequency of mixing and interactions as key.
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