The Other Culture

April 19, 2023

by John O. Burdett

Although the formal organisation gets all of the attention, the real action takes place in the white space on the organisation chart, between the boxes.

Two Organisations

There are two organisations: the formal and the informal. Although the formal organisation gets all of the attention, the real action takes place in the white space on the organisation chart, between the boxes. If you attempted to get things done by strictly following the decision-making hierarchy, as described by the organisation chart, the business would grind to a halt within a week.

To be unaware is to be unprepared. A goldfish swimming in water might recognise another creature, but (as far we know) it’s totally unaware of the water that surrounds it. Culture is a little like that. We are immersed in it, it surrounds us, we swim in it and yet many leaders act as if it isn’t there. In some senses this is surprising. Certainly, our own “tank” has boundaries that lie beyond our perception.

But what of the ongoing noise, the chatter, the constant background activity? To frontline employees it’s very evident. For many of their management counterparts, the workplace is a silent movie. Because of the pressures of the day, not a few leaders have learned how to take the background babble for granted. They tune it out. And, even when it sounds out a warning – they still choose not to hear it. It’s another unwanted problem – an unwelcome distraction – one more blip on an already overcrowded radar screen. Only when faced with total silence do those same leaders, paradoxically, start to hear what isn’t there.

“Noise” describes the ongoing buzz, behavioural cues and beneath the surface inferences that inform, alarm and, from time to time, inspire. Because it lies outside of the decision making channels – or simply through lack of trust in management – it’s an ongoing soundtrack that the informal organisation is highly attuned to. A multi-channel, changing, swirling and frequently provocative source of information that can influence different groups in different ways – often, at the same time.

Classical Physics and Quantum Spookiness

Metaphorically, the formal organisation is classical physics. By comparison, the informal tilts towards the realm of quantum spookiness.

Our kind are naturally curious creatures. But not always. When threat or perceived danger enter the picture, that in-born curiosity is quickly replaced by an urgent and compelling “need to know.” When faced with what we don’t know, we examine what we do know, look for signals, symbolic acts or rumours that suggest what is actually happening, talk to our peers, factor in past experience and then simply make the rest up. As a species we are really, really good at making stuff up! And if it’s a view held by an individual who is respected, others are quick to believe it. The dominant role of myth in our lives attests to that.

As the recent US political scene demonstrates, if enough people hear “an alternative version of the truth,” from a charismatic individual, often enough, it becomes, for many, their reality. In the space described here as the “informal organisation,” in the ongoing struggle between effectiveness and popularity, between capability and charisma, without meaningful intervention, popularity and charisma, more often than not, will carry the day. When employees are asked to choose between two different versions of “the truth,” don’t be surprised if the trains don’t run.

This article is an extract from “The Other Culture: Cultivate The Grapevine“, © Orxestra® Inc.

John O. Burdett is founder of Orxestra® Inc. He has extensive international experience as a senior executive. As a consultant he has worked in more than 40 countries for organisations that are household names. John has worked on organisation culture for some of the world's largest organisations. His ongoing partnership with TRANSEARCH International means that his thought leading intellectual property, in any one year, supports talent management in many hundreds of organisations around the world. Get in touch with John O. Burdett »

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