Organizational Culture and Anthropology

Organizational Culture and Anthropology

Cultures come in all different flavors.  


As a student at the University of Michigan, organizational culture has been a part of my personal curriculum. I took a course in the Ross Business School which highlighted Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jessie Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng’s The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture. Variation in workplace cultures have always existed, but what made their book so compelling was their creation of eight culture profiles: Purpose, Caring, Order, Safety, Authority, Results, Enjoyment, and Learning. Their classification quickly became the popular model for assessing diversity in culture – and rightfully so. I found their account is nuanced, concise, and digestible all at the same time. But for those of us out there who lean into ambiguity, the gray area, what if there are more than eight profiles? 


Interestingly enough, anthropological studies have addressed a similar phenomenon: how many cultures are? How would we classify them? What leads to their divergence? While hard to calculate and likely an underestimate, studies have shown there are about 3814 distinct cultures and 6909 different languages among humans.  In the world, there are about 216MM businesses. To assume they all operate with drastically different cultures would be naïve given the sheer number. However, each business’ culture is unique in some way, just as each human culture is unique in some way.  


So what varies in a culture to create something unique? The anthropologists in this study explain cultures diversify by 1) the resources, ecology, and environment and 2) the life history. While this may be seemingly unrelated to organizations or your organization, this scientific take offers a metaphorical perspective. It helps to explain why cultures are unique, and the importance of understanding the underlying factors that make them unique.  


At first, this may seem confusing or irreverent to organizations. When you break their concepts down, their merit in the business context becomes apparent. To the first point that cultures evolve as a result of their resources, ecology, and environment: organizations are likely to adapt from the same circumstances. A company pressed financially, – i.e. the resources – one with a complicated chain of command or contentious workplace relationships, – i.e. the ecology –, and/or one dealing with the shift to a virtual world – i.e. the environment– is destined to be facing challenges that require organizational change.  


This framework illustrates how specific aspects in a company contribute to the overall culture. Using this framework, parsing apart the nuances in each aspect of a culture, may help to better identify the issues facing an organization.  

3 Strategies to Consider for Combating ‘Executive Isolation’

3 Strategies to Consider for Combating ‘Executive Isolation’

With Valentine’s Day items finally cleared from the Target aisles, talking about isolation seemed prudent. For many, Valentines day is celebratory, romantic, and a reminder of the gifts of their relationship. For others, the barrage of social media posts, chocolate ads, etc creates a feeling of isolation. However, you never see posts or ads aimed at those feeling isolated. In a weird way, the same holds true for executives, on the outside there may be a celebratory attitude, but on the inside many are isolated. 


Often when referring to isolation within organizations, executives are ignored. Public perception can vilify or ignore CEOs, as Emilia Bunea points out. I am not trying to evoke pity for executives by writing this piece, rather to remind executives out there that they are not alone. Not only are they not alone, but there are steps to guide executives out of this feeling of isolation into leading healthier companies.  


CEOs are people too. They still experience work pressures and normal-life stressors. Thomas J. Saporito’s research published in HBR suggests half of CEOs have felt “lonely” in their roles; of those who report this feeling, 70% feel it inhibits their performance. Jamie Dimon the czar of J.P. Morgan Chase was quoted expressing this frustration, “When I got fired at Citigroup in 1998, the only people there to support me were my family and my high school and college friends.” Elon Musk almost broke down describing the toll leading Tesla has had on him.  I am sure we can all relate to this and recall a moment in our lives when things went awry, and it feeling there was no one there to talk to. 


This pressure has increased over the last few years. Executives are facing dueling narratives from their board and their public consumers. In 2011, Jeff Kindler then CEO of Pfizer resigned blamingthe “high and conflicting demands of various stakeholders.” New S&P guidelines for CEO compensation reporting ratios are fueling an already present rhetoric around inequities in companies. 


Stanford Graduate School of Business study gave sustenance to this idea with bleak results in their 2013 Executive Coaching Survey. The survey found there was a “shortage of advice at the top: Nearly 66% of CEOs do not receive coaching or leadership advice from outside consultants or coaches, while 100% of them stated that they are receptive to making changes based on feedback.” This suggests that many executives have a desire to be coached, but many do not for various reasons.  



Why is this? 

For starters, sometimes simply not getting the information contributes to this feeling. CEOs have intense schedules that require delegation. Day-to-day tasks may be handled by other team members. Thus, executives may feel disconnected by simply not knowing. The oblivion in this case scenario is unintentional; however, executives may also be isolated from employees forgoing sharing information in fear the information will not be received well. The third comes from within. CEOs reported holding emotions in, contributing to isolation, to project a strong image.  



So where to from here? 

The introduction alluded to the fact there are solutions to combating this isolation. Here are three strategies to consider. 


1. Culture of Vulnerability May Help Everyone 

At Riverbank, we start each meeting with check-ins. These are designed to be genuine barometers of how everyone’s day is going. Sometimes these are happy stories: a child’s milestone or fun story about someone’s dog. Other times, these are more vulnerable: a death in the family or current personal struggle. This helps everyone feel less isolated. Similarly, Howard Schultz, then Chairman of Starbucks, was facing a crisis in 2008. Schultz spoke to how opening up to employees reduced the pressure he felt in dealing with the crisis. His willingness to share his stressors with employees enabled the employees themselves to feel they could be apart of the solution. Offering employees ways to give honest feedback can bolster communication channels and decrease the feelings of isolation. Sometimes this can simply be within. Saporito suggests executives simply acknowledge their feelings of isolation instead of pushing them away.  


2. Seek Support  

Have you ever had something go wrong and phoned a friend, and then found yourself feeling better after talking? When we feel isolated, sometimes using friends and family as a sounding board can help. Seeking support from other executives in the same position, or from outside consultants and/or coaches can both alleviate feelings of isolation and provide helpful perspective 



3. Finding Community Beyond the Office  

Engaging in “serious leisure” was one of the main findings of Emilia Bunea’s research to negating feelings of executive isolation. Dedicating time to run, paint, play hockey for example reduces feelings of isolation by “offering [freedom]” and expanding personal support networks. For me personally, I find running to be a pseudo-panacea in times where I may feel isolated or stressed. 


Executive isolation is real, but unlikely to disappear during this tumultuous time. Understanding it’s the triggers and antidotes of isolation is in the best interests of all executives facing these issues.  This applies to many of us – not just executives. Hopefully, these steps can help to alleviate feelings of isolation when and if they occur.  

Prevailing Hope Among Challenging Setbacks: Insights from the Adderley Positive Research Incubator with Dr. Katina Sawyer

Prevailing Hope Among Challenging Setbacks: Insights from the Adderley Positive Research Incubator with Dr. Katina Sawyer

Written by Dylan Wheatley 


Achieving success comes with challenges, especially when the end goal is ambitious. Light for the Future, a residential rehabilitation home for survivors of commercial sex exploitation, is an organization with a particularly ambitious goal: rerouting people’s lives. At a Center for Positive Organizations Adderley Positive Research Incubator, Dr. Katina Sawyer, a researcher at The George Washington University, shared how hope emerged as a core part of the Light for the Future culture, even amidst the most challenging setbacks.  


The Life Cycle of Hope 


Through ethnographic research at Light for the Future, Dr. Sawyer and Dr. Judy Clair categorized the life cycle of hope in organizations into four phases: Hopes Running High, Harsh Realities Take Hold, Disappointed Hopes Lead to Rock Bottom, and Hope on the Rebound 


The first phase, Hopes Running High, is easy to imagine. At Light for the Future, residents and staff alike were excited about what the future might hold during this phase. During the second phase, Harsh Realities Take Hold, the objective was often questioned. In this particular case, some residents relapsed, and a fight broke out.  


Hope guided people back on the course of the shared vision after the second phase. However, Dr. Sawyer and Dr. Clair discovered an additional test, a third phase where Disappointed Hopes Lead to Rock Bottom. In the case of Light for the Future, the loss of an important role model sent wavelengths of disappointment through the program’s staff and residents.  


The last stage, Hope on the Rebound is the “breath of fresh air.” The hopeful narratives observed during the first phase resurface, reinvigorating people’s commitment to their goal. In this case, it was because new residents came in who were achieving their goals. 


A Culture of Hope 


This cycle of hope is applicable to any organization facing challenges. Take AirBnb. Hope Ran High when Joe Gebbia and Brian Chesky found a way to cover their rent. They accomplished this initial goal by renting out air mattresses in a loft, eventually starting with Nathan Blecharczyk. After three launches – one even at SXSW – Harsh Realties Took Hold: their customer base was capped at a whopping two. This only got worse. By the summer of 2008, Hopes Lead to Rock Bottom: they were in debt and broke, failing to secure much-needed cash from investors. The founders scrapped together much-needed cash selling cereal boxes–fittingly reading, “hope in every bowl” – at the 2008 DNC where hope was the center of Barack Obama’s campaign. These cereal boxes rebounded the company, enabling them to secure their first VC donor. Skipping many years down the line, Airbnb recently surpassed the market cap of Hilton and Marriot combined.  


Hope Can Prevail 


Organizations have to carefully attend to stories that are told about unfolding events and the emotions that result, in order to keep hope alive. Hopeless stories and emotions can catch on quickly, making hope cultures unstable. If they are managed with care, hope can prevail. As Dr. Sawyer shared from one of Light for the Future’s patients: “The pain you feel today will be the strength you feel tomorrow. For every challenge encountered, there is an opportunity for growth.”  

This story is a collaboration between Riverbank Consulting Group and the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations (CPO), an academic research center dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations. It is based on CPO’s Adderley Positive Research Incubator. 

Leading from Vulnerability and Authenticity

Leading from Vulnerability and Authenticity

Summary of Center for Positive Organizations Consortium Webinar with Jim Hume, Phire Branding 


Written by Dylan Wheatley 


“Vulnerability is truly scary,” Jim Hume, Founder and Principal of Phire Branding, shared at the Center for Positive Organization’s Consortium. While Jim was here to talk about his experience leading an organization positively, his personal story to why he transformed his leadership style was the catalyst to bringing more authenticity into his business. Jim has MS. MS or Multiple sclerosis is a disease of the central nervous system; common symptoms include the losing the ability to walk, having tremors, etc. There is currently no cure to this disease.1 He describes hiking with his family one day when he lost control of his legs. Jim’s diagnosis was grim: the doctors told him to avoid making long-term plan and to think about transitioning out of work in five years. Jim recalls returning to work following the bad news not knowing how to address employees. Would they leave with all the uncertainty?   


What happened next revealed the true power authenticity has. Jim opted to be his authentic self; he shared his diagnosis with the team, citing lots of emotion and tears along the way. Jim’s willingness to open up assuaged all his fears. To this date, not one person at the table that day has left Phire.  


Jim found this moment to be transformative. After this transformative experience, Jim committed to building an organization that practiced the vulnerability and authentic he demonstrated: he built out a new set of internal values, stood up sounding board committees, and even changed his client facing branding strategy to align. 



Creating New Values 

Jim set out to create a set of new values for the team, thinking about how to go from, what he called, “the freight train churning ahead” model to growth through authenticity and vulnerability. Their new values directed employees to: Be bold, Be curious, Be determined, Be human, and Be realwith an emphasis on the latter two.  



Creating Buy In 

Employeesin Jim’s eyesare “keepers of the culture”; they not only needed to buy in but also add to it. Seeing a need to create space for this to occur, Jim stood up committees segmented by business aspects including a culture committee. In conjunction with these committees, Phire introduced cultural elements such as scheduling coffee chats or one-on-ones focusing on non-work-related material. Another element created to “keep the culture” was a “kudos” board, a place to house team accomplishments and celebrate new hire milestones. Through these cultural elements Phire was able to create a space for employees to engage and feel heard. 



Aligning Brand Philosophy 

Values and committees are indeed transformative, but the key to authenticity is practicing what you preach. Jim referenced the old branding agency model which promotes manipulation to tell a perfect story.  Recognizing the dissonance between traditional branding goals and Phire’s new culture, Jim changed Phire’s branding philosophy to aligning Phire’s clients to market their authentic selves. Jim cited action as the medium to substantiating authenticity as a part of culture. Here, Jim was able to practice that, demonstrating this was more than buzz words; it was a philosophy. 


What may have started as sobering reality for Jim quickly evolved into significant, positive cultural changes all by channeling vulnerability and authenticity. Hopefully, Jim’s takeaways can guide your organization to valuing more authenticity and vulnerability.  



About the Center for Positive Organizations 

This story is a collaboration between Riverbank Consulting Group and the University of Michigan’s Center for Positive Organizations (CPO), an academic research center dedicated to building a better world by pioneering the science of thriving organizations. It is based on a webinar presented to members of their Positive Organizations Consortium. 

Got Feedback? Bring it.

Got Feedback? Bring it.

Countless times in my career, I have been told that I have a gift for giving people feedback — almost like it’s my own superpower. My intention here is not to brag. I don’t know how I first realized I had this gift, but I do know it certainly made a difference for me in my career. It is my desire to share this gift with anyone hoping to improve their own feedback-giving skills.


I recently learned of Jane Dutton’s work on building high-quality connections in the workplace. Her research shows that people in higher quality connections tend to have greater cognitive functioning, are more creative, exhibit greater learning behaviors, and bounce back more effectively from setbacks. One of the key strategies for building high quality connections is to respectfully engage people. I believe the way I share and discuss feedback with individuals in the workplace connects well with Dutton’s work on engagement. Deep down I come at issues with the belief that people are generally good at their core, and that they are often shaped by the experiences of their lives. It is my desire to help people excel and be sought after for their talents. I ground my feedback in honesty and compassion.


So why does honest, compassionate feedback matter? Consider these examples:


  1. You are a strong performer, get good performance reviews, but aren’t aware of the blind spots holding you back. You wonder why your raises aren’t better.
  2. You are struggling in your job and don’t know what to do about it. You are afraid of failing.
  3. You like your actual job, but a coworker makes the environment less than desirable for everyone on the team, especially you. Your manager does nothing about it.
  4. You were up for a big promotion and didn’t get it. You got a pep talk of “hopefully next time,” but you truly don’t understand why you didn’t get the promotion this time. You are wondering if you need to quit and go somewhere else.


It is likely that you have been in one of these situations or know of someone in the workplace who has experienced a similar situation. Reflecting on these situations, perhaps honest and compassionate feedback was given, but there is a good chance it wasn’t. Maybe the feedback was given, but it wasn’t clear and direct. Maybe the feedback was given, but it was done in a lighthearted or jovial way and the message didn’t get across. For some reason, most of us aren’t comfortable letting others know how they can be better. We care more about not hurting their feelings than we do about helping them be more effective. To me, that just doesn’t make sense, especially for people in leadership roles, since a big part of being a leader is growing talent for the organization.


Talents and skills of employees can be compared to those of athletes, and leaders in a way are like the coach. If a wide receiver starts having issues with frequently dropping the football, you better believe the coach is helping that athlete dissect the issue and look at the problem from all angles. The team can’t perform at its highest level if one of their wide receivers is dropping balls. It’s the same at work. If you are a leader and an employee is having any kind of performance issue, it is better to help them dissect it and engage them to help fix it, than it is to ignore it and hope it goes away. It likely won’t go away on its own, and the degree of ineffectiveness will only expand over time. We all need and deserve coaching from time to time.


If the individual gets defensive when receiving feedback, that is an issue that also needs to be addressed. The best performers are curious about how they can be better. As a leader, you can model this by asking for feedback and taking it to heart. If you come across as perfect and lack humility, you will likely struggle more with giving others feedback. To be a world class giver of feedback, you must also be an effective receiver of feedback.


Here are some tips you can practice for giving effective performance feedback at work:

1) Build a relationship with those on your teams and with colleagues. Relationships are key to feedback. Practice caring for others and being honest with others in small and big ways, not just when something goes wrong.


2) Demonstrate Empathy, not Sympathy. We can feel bad for people (sympathy) when things happen to them outside of their control. Perhaps a family member is very sick, or the person is injured and not able to do a favorite activity. But it’s empathy that is important when giving others feedback. Having empathy for others is part of the human connection. Performance flaws can happen to ANYONE. We need to empathize with the individual and demonstrate that we care about them as a human being who wants to do well in their job.


3) Be direct and be willing to expand the conversation to the desire of the individual. Be prepared to “sit” (literally or figuratively) with the person while they process the feedback. Discuss and explore with the person how the poor performance or blind spot or flaw shows up and get them talking about it. Look for clues to why they behave the way they do. Help them look at their performance logically when demonstrating an open heart. Approach them with the belief that they want to be better. If they are angry, let them vent, but then engage them in a way that is compassionate. Stay calm. Be the coach. Encourage them to be curious.


4) Allow questions, but keep the conversation focused on the performance flaw and how to change so it doesn’t hold them back. Don’t bring up others in the conversation to take the heat off you for having the conversation. Don’t let the individual think that someone made you do this. Take ownership for caring about the person and wanting to help them be at their best.


5) Practice being in the moment with the person and remaining honest. This isn’t something you can always rehearse ahead of time because the conversation is most effective when both parties are engaging authentically and trusting one another to find a better way.


If I do have a superpower as my colleagues suggested, it was not all native. Although I may have had an initial affinity, it was something I worked at over my entire career. Malcolm Gladwell in his book, The Outliers shares it can take 10,000 hours of practice to be truly great at something. 10,000 hours might seem daunting for practicing good performance feedback, but every hour matters, not just the 10,000th one.

Positive high performing cultures require excellence in giving and receiving feedback. If you desire to get better at giving and receiving feedback or care about this issue for your organization, just reach out. Another bit of practice is always good for me!