3 Monkey Culture

Posted by Laura Otten, Ph.D., Director on November 30th, 2018 in Thoughts & Commentary

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My holiday wish to all employees is that your leader(s) comes to understand the importance of culture.   Forget laws and regulations – they are the reactions to the failure of established, protective, positive cultures.  They are a last, and sorry, resort for a culture that has failed to do its work and to demand, and then reward, the expected and only acceptable behavior.

There are so many examples of cultures gone awry.   How about with the current craze:  writing inclusion policies.*  If you have to write a policy that says “’A’ is important to us,” it clearly isn’t.  If ‘A’ were truly important, you wouldn’t have to wait for others to let you know you needed a policy as the practice would already be established and woven into the organization’s culture and there would be an understanding of what is being done to achieve and to sustain ‘A’.

If ‘A’ were truly important, people wouldn’t be part of this culture who didn’t understand the importance of ‘A’, who didn’t value ‘A’, who didn’t also want ‘A’.

If ‘A’ were truly important, its importance would be obvious, and that could even be a reason why people are working at that organization.

I first came across the Bogardus Social Distance Scale in college reading research on efforts to integrate housing.  This scale measures people’s willingness to interact with those unlike themselves.  Each tier of the scale suggests interactions of growing closeness and intimacy and assumes that willingness to engage at one level means a willingness to engage in behavior described in all preceding statements.  Thus, willingness to marry outside of your race meant you were willing to have a family outside of your race live next door to you, on your block, in your neighborhood, etc.  No policy, regulation or law makes that happen – culture does.  Before writing the inclusion policy, take a deep, hard look at the culture.  Only then will you know what needs to be done.

Among the mandates of the Clery Act, is that colleges and universities that take advantage of federal financial aid programs keep accurate crime statistics related to their campuses and make them available to anyone requesting them.  It goes to great length stipulating what positions on campus must report criminal activities to whom, and who is exempt from reporting knowledge of criminal activities, and more.  It mandates training of all campus employees.

And each year, campus after campus, incidences of rape, other forms of sexual assault, other kinds of assault, and the worst assault—murder— happen.  Although I suppose it would be possible to have more laws and regulations dictating how students and employees should be kept safe, the reality is that the ones we have already aren’t doing the trick.  Campuses still fudge their numbers and crimes still go unreported and this is and thus, unpunished.  And even those crimes that do get reported too are punished by a slap on the wrist.

Why?  Because the culture doesn’t demand it.  In fact, the culture allows the law to be circumvented, the real behavior to be mitigated in the telling, the perpetrators’ actions explained as other than criminal or not “really wrong.”  Clearly, 30 years of laws hasn’t stopped the behavior, but cultures that embrace the right elements can.

People love to talk about institutional memory, believing institutional memory is culture.  It is absolutely not.  The right institutional memory is part of culture, but the wrong institutional memory is not.  And it is the wrong institutional memory that so many want to protect—the board member who has been there for 25 years and remembers everything that ever happened, including why the logo’s color red was selected 20 years ago; the staff member who constantly tells people why what happened in 1995 justifies doing now what was done then; the people who take us backwards rather than move us forward.

But the institutional memory that is important—those pivotal moments in an organization’s development as opposed to the minutia of the years—is the institutional memory that is culturally valuable.  That institutional memory should not reside in the head or heart of any one individual but should be woven into the fabric of the culture.  A culture that cherishes the minutia gives reverence where it isn’t due, and this reverence holds an organization back rather than pushing it forward.  A culture that cherishes the minutia of the past becomes insular, blocking—intentionally or unintentionally—the ideas from outside.

Finally, fall, for me, is all about football.  Add to that that every fall, in one of my Masters classes, we read the Freeh Report on Penn State.  So, a double football whammy that holds a good and a bad culture story.  First, to the bad.  Penn State’s culture drifted away from its primary mission of education and embraced a mission of football.  Its love of football was not done in pursuit of the Platonic ideal of educating the mind and body, as Plato believed in temperance when it came to physical activity (not an adjective anyone would use in conjunction with football).

No, Penn State was an example of a culture shift to chase money rather than chase mission, as it became an educational institution with a side of football to being a football institution with a side of education.  It was the money of TV coverage, of attracting more students, of selling swag, and the list goes on.  And, sadly, the culture shifted to protect football, ignoring the rules and laws that were in place to prevent the oh so costly behavior (like, for example, the Clery Act, a board being required to act in the best interest of the whole organization and to engage in reasonable inquiry and demonstrate skill and diligence) and taking on the culture of the three monkeys.

But I have found a positive lesson to take from football 2018 as we think about our cultures.  For years, we have been bombarded with the preening touchdown scorers, celebrating what they saw as their own, individual triumph, as opposed to the victory that we all know it is—that of the collective offense.  But this year, with more and more teams having choreographed group celebrations in the end zone, football players have reminded us all of an important element in cultures of successful organizations:  collective celebration of wins.  The offensive line, tight ends, other possible receivers, all crucial to scoring a touchdown, but left out of the aggrandizement of one,  are now all part of the sometimes baffling, oftentimes funny, but always entertaining celebration in the end zone of a team’s success.  We could all use more collaborative celebrations in our cultures.



*Based on the sudden flurry of interest, we have a poll on our website asking people questions about inclusion policies in their organizations.

The opinions expressed in Nonprofit University Blog are those of writer and do not necessarily reflect the opinion of La Salle University or any other institution or individual.