When It Comes To Organizational Culture What You See Is What You Get

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Written By JohnBarnes

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The purpose of culture (any culture) is to teach people how to “see” the world. More specifically, organizational culture is created, reinforced, promulgated, and maintained through the powerful See-Do-Get Process® where managers and staff members are “taught” how to see themselves, other people, and the world around them. For example, a customer (Curt) walks into a store and a new sales person (Sarah) and her manager (Jeff) are standing at the register checking an order. Jeff comments quietly to Sarah, “He always gives us a hard time”, so they ignore him, trying to avoid conflict. Curt reads this emotional message in their behavior and actually feels ignored. After a few minutes of just standing around, Curt snaps critically, “Hey, young lady! I need some help over here!” Sarah looks at Jeff and thinks to herself,

See – You said he’d give me a hard time!

The See-Do-Get Process® is a way of describing how our knowledge and beliefs are shaped by how we see ourselves, others, and the world around us. As in the above example, people like Sarah are actively taught by her manager Jeff how to “see” the world in the hope that her behaviors and attitudes will become consistent with Jeff’s view of Curt, e.g. that Sarah will internalize how Jeff sees Curt and act in ways that are consistent with his belief. The four steps below show how the See-Do-Get Process® works.

  • Step 1 (See): Jeff tries to teach Sarah to “see” Curt as someone who is going to give her a hard time.
  • Step 2 (Do): Behaviors and attitudes naturally flow from Sarah and Jeff’s way of seeing and their attempts to avoid Curt send him a subtle (but profound) message.
  • Step 3 (Get): Curt picks up on their message because 55% of communication is body language and 38% is tone of voice, and he responds in ways that reinforce the way they see him, e.g. he demands that they pay attention to him.
  • Step 4 (See): Jeff’s original prediction to Sarah is confirmed empirically and this way of “seeing” Curt becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – the way it is.

Over time a pattern of interaction forms between Jeff, Sarah, and Curt which solidifies and becomes entrenched. Recounting this and similar situations in weekly operation meetings teaches Jeff’s entire staff of sales people how to “see” Curt and similar customers. Within six months, sales begin to decline and Jeff and his managers can’t figure out why.

Think about it – managers come to see employees as lazy. Employees in that same organization learn to see top managers as out of touch with the day-to-day realities of running the business. The R&D Department sees the Sales Department as incompetent. The Marketing Department sees the Sales Department as too short-term focused. You see your boss as a moron, and then wonder why she never gives you more interesting projects. The See-Do-Get Process® operates in every for-profit, non-profit, and government organization, at every organizational level, in every country and global context, regardless of the nation’s history, culture, level of technological sophistication, or the language spoken.

The Power of 2s, 3s, and 4s to Form Culture

While most people think of organizational culture in broad, sociological terms, the cultural model developed by the Breckenridge Institute® indicates that patterns of interaction between small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s are some of the fundamental building blocks of organizational culture. In fact, the active teaching process described above with Jeff and Sarah is one of the most powerful ways that organizational culture is passed-on to both new and existing employees as people are actively taught how to see themselves, co-workers, customers, and other departments. This is especially apparent to new employees when they first come to work at a company.

For example, John started a job as an Account Executive in the Sales Department at the Scitech Corporation and began calling on his accounts with his sales manager Sally. On one call, John closed the deal and then told the customer that he would get back with him on the exact schedule after he talked to James the manager of the Production Department – someone whom Sally saw as incompetent and politically motivated. On the drive back to the office Sally said, “Look John, I know you’re new here so I want to let you in on how things work. James and his people are the single biggest road block to delivering on commitments and to you hitting your sales targets and getting your commission each month.” As they walked back into the office, Dale (the department’s top sales performer) stopped Sally and John in the hallway and almost shouted, “Guess what James and his people did now!” John listened as Dale recounted the situation, and the tutorial that Sally had just given John on the ride back was now confirmed by more evidence.

Seasoned managers like Sally and staff members like Dale who have internalized cultural norms actively teach others to see the world the way they see it. Over time, a company’s culture is formed by groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s who act as “culture carriers” and actively shape the behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs of those around them. So over coffee and during sales calls, Sally continues to marshal more and more empirical evidence to support her way of seeing James and “those people” over in the Production Department. “Listen John, you just keep selling and hitting your sales targets,” Sally insisted “and I’ll deal with James and the Production Department if they can’t deliver.” Over time, people internalize ways of seeing organizational reality and their views become “how it is around here.” Their behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs become tacit assumptions, go on autopilot, and powerfully shape their strategic and tactical decisions and the layout of organizational politics.

John has only been at Scitech for a month and has talked with James and his staff on a number of occasions. John begins to see that James and the Production Department have been working hard to meet or exceed customer requirements and deadlines. It also becomes clear that James has been trying to improve communications between the Production Department and Sally and her sales staff for some time – to no avail. This counter-evidence forces John to reconcile his own observations with what Sally’s been telling him. One day in a Monday staff meeting, John offers and alternative (counter-cultural) view that portrays James and his staff as really trying to meet their commitments and improve communication with Sally’s team. Sally, Dale, and others roll their eyes and don’t want to hear it. Sally gets defensive, cuts John off and moves on to the next topic. The tension in the room is so thick you could cut it with a knife as John sits silently wondering how long he is going to last at Scitech. Sally is questioning whether she had made a hiring mistake. People like John who don’t (or can’t) internalize an organization’s cultural norms and ways of seeing don’t normally stay in an organization – regardless of how valuable they are to the company’s business success. This is one of myriad examples of how organizational culture can drive top talent out of an organization.

Most managers know that effectively leading a work-group takes an enormous amount of time and energy because they have to maintain a balance between conflicting or competing interests in a complex system of coalitions of small-groups of 2s, 3s, and 4s who see themselves, others, and the world very differently. But what many managers don’t know is that the tapestry of these patterns of interaction that is woven over time actually becomes the fabric of organizational culture. Managers like Sally have two choices. They can either allow the culture in their work-groups to emerge naturally through autopilot patterns of interactions which sentences them to struggle against overly complex systems and destructive human interactions, or they can consciously create, reinforce, and maintain an effective culture using the See-Do-get Process® that will help them achieve their goals and key performance indicators.

Recognizing the Problem

So how do organizations like those described above come to “see” the world differently when they are so convinced that the reality they have come to know through the See-Do-Get Process® is the reality? Deep sustainable culture change almost always requires a burning platform and there are two kinds of burning platforms: reactive and proactive. The reactive kind is when a manager waits until a situation has gone critical to seek help or try to alter destructive patterns of interaction. Alternatively, managers who adopt the proactive kind of burning platform realize that while the situation may not be critical right now, it probably will be if they allow destructive patterns of interaction to continue frustrating and undermining their performance. Managers like Sally need to ask the question, “How bad are we hurting?” If the answer is, “Not that bad” then things will normally go on as they are until the next issue raises its ugly head – often when least expected.

Jay was the manager of a work-group where he had full accountability and authority for the work-group’s performance. Two second tier supervisors who were his direct reports (Jane and Dan) created destructive conflict to the point where their toxic interactions were openly displayed in e-mails, meetings, and other public forums and were poisoning the climate for other work-group members. Jane was one of the company’s first employees and had developed strong coalitions with key personnel in other departments and with the company president. This gave her an informal power-base with the organization’s most powerful and key decision-makers. During meetings, work-group members would just sit there and watch as if Jay, Jane, and Dan were on stage performing, while productive work and decision-making came to a grinding halt.

Following such destructive interchanges, Jay would go and speak with Jane and Dan separately to try to resolve the impasse and avoid further confrontation. Over time, a pattern of interaction developed between the three of them through the See-Do-Get Process® where they could not reach consensus on even the smallest issues without being drawn into a recurring battle. Jane tried to bully Jay and Dan and seemed to enjoy the challenge of the battles she drew them into. Eventually, she began going around Jay to the company president expressing her frustration with Jay’s decision-making and leadership style. This made Jay even more cautious about taking decisive action with regard to this problem. After repetitive attempts to work through these issues with each person separately and also as a threesome, Jay knew that the only path forward was to change the pattern of interaction by confronting the problem openly and directly. This meant that Jane, Dan, or he had to voluntarily change, or Jay needed to remove one of them (probably Jane) from their duties. Jane’s perceived relationship with the company president made this a difficult task, but Jay needed to put Jane on a burning platform in order to initiate real change.

The first step to creating a burning platform is to use objective data and quantitative measures of individual, work-group, or organizational performance to challenge and disconfirm the ways of seeing and cultural norms that have been created through the See-Do-Get Process®. The second step requires people to begin to see themselves as being partly responsible for causing the work-group’s issues. Once this sense of personal responsibility sufficiently penetrates the denial and defense mechanisms of group members, they begin to experience survival anxiety or guilt about the “truth” that they need to change. As awareness increases, the third step is for people to allow their contributions to the day-to-day problems to act as additional disconfirming evidence for the fact that things cannot continue the way they are. When the weight of evidence of these three steps is combined, it becomes a powerful motivation for people to change.

But as soon as work-group members accept the need to change, they begin experiencing learning anxiety, e.g. the fear of doing things differently, changing the patterns of interaction in day-to-day operations, professional relationships, and reconfiguring the work-world (reality) in which they operate. This creates both cognitive and emotional dissonance and a self-reinforcing loop of survival anxiety, which creates learning anxiety, which in turn increases survival anxiety. The power of this self-reinforcing loop is why it is so difficult for organizations, and the people in them, to create deep sustainable change. Edgar Schein claims that are two principles that summarize a process for moving beyond this self-defeating cycle (Edgar Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide, Jossey-Bass, 1999, pp. 121-123).

  • Initially, survival anxiety and/or guilt must be greater than the learning anxiety in order to penetrate people’s defenses and to begin the process of recognizing and changing the edicts, demands, and norms of organizational culture.
  • Creating change requires that learning anxiety be reduced by creating a climate of psychological safety for work-group members, rather than increasing survival anxiety.
  • Managed properly, the interaction between learning anxiety and survival anxiety can be used to create deep, profound, sustainable cultural change.

Deep Learning Requires Unlearning

Jay met with the company president and described the situation and the negative impact it was having on his work-group’s performance. Despite Jane’s long standing with the company, the president agreed that change was necessary and realized how his conversations with Jane were inadvertently undermining Jay’s authority and perpetuating the problems in his work-group. In a special meeting, Jay, Jane, and the president had a conversation about how valuable her contributions had been since the very beginning of the company, but the president fully backed the need for Jane to change her behaviors. He also reaffirmed that Jay had the authority to remove Jane from her position if she did not change in a reasonable period of time. If she was going to remain a member of that work-group, she would have to change. The alternative was to begin looking for another position for her inside the company, or for her to go elsewhere.

When attempting to affect this type of change, it is important to remember two timeless principles. First, deep learning almost always requires us to “unlearn” other ways of seeing the world. Second, organizations are collective-cultural entities that are led, managed, and changed one person at a time, e.g. groups don’t change, individuals do. So whether you are working with an individual, a small-group of 2s, 3s, or 4s, a work-group, or an entire organization, each person involved must ask a series of questions that leads the organization backwards through the See-Do-Get Process®.

  • Get (Results): What results are we getting that we wish we weren’t getting?
  • Do (Pattern of Interaction): What patterns of interaction in the organization’s structures, systems, processes, actions, or interactions are creating these results?
  • See (Repository of Interactions): What are the underlying beliefs, assumptions, and attitudes that allow these patterns of interactions to continue, despite the fact that we’re not getting the results we want?
  • Do (Pattern of Interaction): How do we reconfigure the patterns of interaction, structures, systems, processes, actions and interactions to get the desired results? What changes can we predict in the results we’re currently getting?

While the above process is presented in a sequential order, the key to using the See-Do-Get Process® in the reverse direction is: a) to work on the See and Do steps at the same time, and b) to embed changes in the day-to-day realities of organizational life until the new more effective way of operating happens as automatically as the old ineffective one did. When new results emerge from the See-Do-Get Process®, they will confirm the fact that change has actually happened which reinforces the new view of how operations should be accomplished, e.g. “See, we can improve our performance.”