Culture Change Made Easy Book: Unraveling the Mystery of Culture Patterns

May 13, 2024 Jamie Notter

Culture Change Made Easy Book: Unraveling the Mystery of Culture Patterns

[This is part of a series of posts introducing our new book, Culture Change Made Easy.]

When we dive into the realm of organizational culture, what often emerges is a sense of complexity and, for many, confusion. We hear terms like transparency, agility, and collaboration bandied about, but there’s an undercurrent of tension—a recognition that, despite our best intentions, these values aren’t fully lived out in our daily organizational life. It begs the question: Why is it so challenging to embody these values consistently?

Enter the concept of competing commitments, which lie at the root of the culture patterns we’ve identified in our research. Culture patterns exist when there’s a disconnect between what a culture ostensibly values and how those values are actually expressed and experienced. This gap isn’t a sign of failure but rather a humanizing reflection of our collective struggle to bring our aspirations into alignment with our actions (i.e., our competing commitments).

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Take, for instance, collaboration and transparency, two values acclaimed by many organizational leaders as important to organizational success. Yet, despite the best efforts, they manifest intermittently or superficially, and not at the depth or consistency leaders aim for or that would significantly drive success. This discrepancy isn’t due to a lack of effort or understanding but arises from our intrinsic human nature, where even our best intentions are challenged by competing commitments.

These competing commitments, as identified by Robert Kegan and Lisa Laskow Lahey, reveal a fascinating paradox: while we pursue certain goals, we simultaneously engage in behaviors that directly counter those objectives. This isn’t mere oversight; it’s a reflection of other, often unacknowledged, commitments that wield enough influence to divert us from our stated paths. Most of us have experienced this as we strive for work/life balance. If we push too hard on our commitment to doing well at work, it can lead to behaviors (working late, spending less time with family, not taking care of our health) that make having a full life difficult.

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The same dynamic, it tuns out, can also apply to workplace cultures. If we push too hard on our desire to control information, for example, it can inhibit our attempts to foster real transparency. We end up being reactive in our information sharing, rather than proactive, and we miss opportunities. For collaboration, the competing commitment is to the autonomy of subgroups, which makes it harder for us to collaborate across silo lines, even though as individuals we are completely committed to collaboration.

Competing commitments is one of the most important insights we’ve derived from our research. When you realize WHY you’re not hitting the mark on cultural values like collaboration or transparency, you end up much closer to being able to do something about it. In other words, the culture change just became easier. Buy the book if you want to learn more.

Jamie Notter

Jamie is a co-founder and culture strategist at PROPEL, where he helps leaders create amazing workplace cultures that drive greater performance and impact. He brings thirty years of experience to his work designing and managing culture, and has specialized along the way in areas like conflict resolution and generations. Jamie is the co-author of four popular business books, including the award-winning Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement, and his fall 2023 release, Culture Change Made Easy. He holds a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in Organization Development from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.