Organisational culture and the risks of normality

Organisational culture and the risks of normality“We need to change our organisational culture!” one of the board members said. Everybody around the table nodded. The secretary noted another action in the board minutes and instructed the CEO to change the culture of the organisation.

Nobody knew what they wanted, all they knew was that something had to change. Because nobody knew what had to change, blaming the culture of the organisation for whatever was going wrong seemed like the best way forward. Not that anyone had any idea what culture is, but judging by some of the inspiring articles in Harvard Business Review it seemed the best way to go.

Soon enough a consultant was hired and the work to transform the organisation began. The management team held meetings and defined a range of new values, based on a concise list of abstract nouns.

Following the famous words by George W. Bush after the 9/11 attacks, you either are with us and subscribe to these values, or you are an enemy of the organisation. Employees that criticise the new approach become the axis of evil. The consultant even drew a Bell Curve on a whiteboard to visualise that deviance from normality was from now on scorned upon. Thus began the new world order.

forcing normality destroys excellence and innovation

What the consultant didn’t realise was that forcing people to normality within strict standard deviations is a repression of spontaneity and destroys sources of excellence and innovation. When organisations force their employees in the same value pattern and no longer accept any deviance, they kill an important source of improvement and innovation.

The link between organisational culture and business performance is strong, but both researchers and practitioners struggle to describe what a healthy culture is. A culture of obedience to a norm might be pleasant, but it will lead to organisational mediocrity.

Positive corporate deviance is a necessary condition for innovation and improvement to thrive. Only by nurturing those that think differently are organisations able to become remarkable.

The Importance of Cynicism: The Organisation’s Guard Dog

The value of cynicism: The cynic is the guard dog of management.Cynicism has a bad name in management, and some even call it a “cancer in your organisation”. In my view, most people are a bit too cynical about cynicism. Cynics are often valuable assets in corporations.1

The word Cynic stems from the ancient Greek word for dog. The cynic might be a dog but is certainly not a lapdog. The cynic can be the guard dog for organisations. Philosophical cynicism rejects conventional social values, such as business hierarchies. The cynic reflects on business practices from an external perspective and positively contributes by pointing out issues that might not be visible to their superiors. Being cynical is not necessarily a focus on negativity; it allows a view of the organisation outside of office politics.

The value of being cynical

Every manager should prefer a cynic over the pseudo-expert armed with uses buzzwords without substance. Cynics often exasperate upper management by questioning everything.  More often than not, however, they know what is going on.2

Cynicism helps people to ensure that others don’t take advantage of them and it benefits organisations through resistance to potentially dangerous decisions3. In one experiment, participants that were cynical towards their organisation were less likely to comply with unethical requests than those who were less cynical4.

Types of cynicism

Not all cynical behaviour is, however, of equal value. Researchers have defined three types of cynics: affective, cognitive and behavioural. In other words, you can be cynical as an emotional reaction, such as irritation, tension and anxiety. When you are cognitively cynical, you think that self-interest runs your organisation. When you are behaviourally cynical, you display that attitude in how you perform at work.5  The most productive type of cynicism is the cognitive type—the cynic as the devil’s advocate.

The lucid manager listens to cynics in your organisation to find out what is bothering them and learn from these experiences.

  1. Dean Jr, J.W., Brandes, P. & Dharwadkar, R. (1998). Organizational cynicism. Academy of Management Review (23) 341–52. 

  2. Carlini, J. (1996). A trustworthy cynic. Network World, 13(42), 70–70. 

  3. Naus, F., van Iterson, A. & Roe, R. Value incongruence, job autonomy, and organisation based self-esteem: A self-based perspective on organisational cynicism. European Journal of Work and Organizational Psychology, 2007b, 16, 195–219. 

  4. Andersson, L.M. & Bateman, T.S. (1997). Cynicism in the workplace: Some causes and effects. Journal of Organizational Behavior 18, 449–469. 

  5. Kim, Tae-Yeol, Bateman, Thomas S., Gilbreath Brad and Andserson, Lynne M. (2009). Top management credibility and employee cynicism: A comprehensive model. Human Relations 62(10), 1435–1458. DOI: 10.1177/0018726709340822

Customer complaints are a gift: Collect as many as you can

Customer complaints are a gift: Collect as many as you canOne Monday morning Jeff came to work, preparing for a new week on the phone and helping customers. His day way rudely interrupted when his manager summoned him and scolded Jeff about a customer complaint that had come to his attention. Jeff went back to his workstation, angry and disenchanted: “bloody customers!”

The ultimate aim of any organisation is to create gains for shareholders by providing value to customers. To be able to achieve this purpose it is imperative that a business understands customers. It is impossible always to keep every single customer satisfied, and complaints are an inevitable outcome of trying to help people.

The customer is always right about their own perception of the value they receive

On the bright side, complaints are a source of information that is not always fully appreciated by managers. The customer is always right about their perception of the value they receive and a complaint provides a great insight into how customers perceive what you do. In many organisations, the number of complaints is seen as a negative indicator. When a customer lodges a formal expression of dissatisfaction, managers run around in blind panic and try to found out who is to blame for this negative experience.

McDonald’s seemed to have grasped this concept of complaints and created this beautiful pieces of advertising. They are not the only fast food company performing a mea culpa on television.

Also pizza purveyor Dominoes recently admitted having changed its recipe after customer feedback. Patrick Doyle, president of Dominoes, summarised their journey succinctly: “You can either use negative comments to get you down, or you can use them to excite and energise you”.

The moral of this story is to embrace customer complaints. A lucid manager leaves emotions out of the equation and rationally analyses every complaint and seeks ways to improve the organisation without finger pointing and enabling your staff to help their customers.

Service With a Smile: The Importance of Mirror Neurones

Service With a Smile: The Importance of Mirror NeuronesService with a smile is the most famous mantra in customer service. This common-sense wisdom has also been confirmed scientifically many times. Genuinely smiling service staff has been linked to increased customer satisfaction and repurchase intentions.1

Responding positively to smiles is part of our mind’s software. When we see somebody smiles, so-called mirror neurones are activated. These neurones form part of the same pathway as the neurones that we use when we smile ourselves. This is the scientific explanation of why smiles are so contagious and why being around happy people makes us feel happy as well.

Many managers are aware of common sense and scientific evidence that smiling staff will increase their chances of achieving business objectives. However, some managers do not fully understand the theory and coerce their employees to smile. They publish written reminders about the importance of smiling. These managers pretend that they are in a theatre and segregate the ‘front stage’ from the ‘backstage’ and ask staff to behalf as if they are actors in play. These management approaches are not very effective and create a lot of emotional labour. There is, however, a very easy and cost-effective way to make sure your staff treat their customers very well.

The most effective and cheapest way to make your staff smile is by smiling at them and provide a fun workplace where people feel free to joke with each other.2 No need for expensive customer service seminars and propaganda, just being nice to your staff is the best investment a manager can make.

  1. Sandra Gountas, Michael T. Ewing, John I. Gountas (2007), Testing airline passengers’ responses to flight attendants’ expressive displays: The effects of positive affect. Journal of Business Research (60) 81–83. 

  2. Managers with a STAR in their personality inventory will find it easier to behave this way. 

The Cult of Personality


Forer Workstyle InventoryThe holy grail of human resource management is to find the perfect staff member. Countless of books are devoted to the recruitment process and predicting performance based on interviews, résumés, reference checks and psychometric testing. At Lucid Manager we have written several articles about the machinations of recruitment.

Psychometric testing, mostly in the form of a self administered personality test are a very popular way help recruiters find the right person for the job. Most popular is the Meyers-Brigs Type Indicator (MBTI) and millions of hard working professionals have been branded with labels such as ENTP, INTJ or possibly FCUK.

Unfortunately these tests are nothing more than expensive security blankets for recruiters and managers that don’t have the courage to rely on personal judgement and need pseudo science to defend their decisions. Personality does exist as a phenomenon, but there is no easy technique to determine this and predict future behaviour or work performance.

However, we decided to join the madness and develop our own personality test based on grounded theory research conducted over the past four years. Difference is that this test is fully open source. You can read all about the inner workings of the FWI on the background page.

So, hop on our virtual divan and answer 22 easy questions to find our what your Forer Workstyle Inventory is.

Management’s New Clothes: The Magic of the Business Suite

Management's new clothesThe manager in his or her suit has become an archetype in professional life around the globe. Even at international meetings, where people of various cultures gather, managers all wear the same type of clothing, only displaying minor variations in style and colour.

Business suits have of course no practical purpose, but rather convey social meaning. The suit has become a symbol of power, and a means to demarcate the white from the blue collars. Using clothes and other objects to communicate meaning to other people is a natural aspect of being human. An immutable law of marketing is that we don’t buy stuff for what it does, but for what it means.

Early in my career, I was working on a dredging site in Bangladesh, wearing my comfy heavy metal t-shirt and jeans. I was unexpectedly asked to present to head office executives visiting from the Netherlands. Blissfully unaware of my lack of appropriate attire and ignoring their visible scepticism towards my expertise I was able to convince them of my recommendation.

It is of course not a secret that the relationship between the clothes we wear and our actual ability to be a good manager is not a necessary one. Sociologists Erving Goffman, who analysed human interaction from a theatrical perspective, wrote more than half a century ago:

People holding corporate positions are blinding themselves and others to the fact that they hold their jobs partly because they look like executives, not because they can work like executives.1

In the field of consumer behaviour, the clothes we buy are often seen as the result of our lifestyle, demographics and other variables. Sociologists, however, have a reverse logic and see the clothes we wear as the cause of the behaviour. Research has confirmed that we use objects such as clothing to compensate for actual ability to act in a particular role.

It has been found that MBA students less likely to be successful in professional life (based on grade averages) are more likely to look the part.2

With this in mind, it is interesting to note that quite often the smartest people are portrayed in movies as eccentric, deviating from the expectations, but accepted because of their abilities.

Clothing as a means to communicate actual and aspired social status is part of what makes us human, and after my experience, I quickly learnt to adapt to the expectations of professional life. The best way to end this post is with the words of the bard:

All the world’s a stage, And all the men and women merely players; They have their exits and their entrances; And one man in his time plays many parts … (As You Like it).

  1. Erving Goffman (1959) The presentation of self in everyday life, Penguin, London. 

  2. Solomon, Michael R.: The Role of Products as Social Stimuli: A Symbolic Interactionism Perspective, The Journal of Consumer Research 10(3), volume 10, 319–329, 1983. 

Predicting Behaviour in Recruitment: A Magician’s View

Predicting Behaviour in Recruitment: A Magician's ViewA used golden rule of recruitment is that past behaviour is an indication of future conduct. Businesses rely on reference checks or even Google searches to find out as much as they can about their potential new staff. But, is past behaviour a good proxy for predicting future behaviour?

Knowledge of the past is the foundation of all science and human knowledge. We try to predict the future by drawing from our experience of the past. Philosophers call this inductive process reasoning – drawing a general conclusion from a range of observations. But when you think deeply about this, we can never know for certain that our past observations can be used to predict the future. Scottish philosopher David Hume did precisely this more than two centuries years ago when he found that it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour.

For millennia people in Europe thought that all swans are white. This little kernel of absolute knowledge was rudely destroyed when in 1697 Dutch explorer Willem de Vlamingh was the first European to see a black swan in what is now Western Australia.

Predicting behaviour: A magician’s view

The silent part of the American magician’s duo Penn & Teller broke his usual silence and vow of secrecy when he explained a classic magic trick to a gathering of consciousness scholars. Teller showed that magicians could use the propensity of the human mind to seek patterns by skilfully changing the method during the routine. Teller beautifully illustrates what Hume philosophically argued: in human behaviour, the past is in no way a reliable approach to predicting the future.

Predicting behaviour in recruitment

it is not logical to think that past behaviour is an indication of future behaviour

We have to be careful when judging a person through second-hand information gained from referees, Facebook searches and other forms of overt espionage. People are not billiard balls that operate by laws of physics. People have free will and can change their behaviour depending on the circumstances they find themselves in. Most importantly, we can learn from our mistakes and grow as people by learning from them. Not hiring somebody who has made an error in the past could mean that you miss out on hiring an individual with a high level of maturity and ability to adapt. Therefore, when judging a person, keep in mind the words of Roman poet Horace: “Non sum quals eram“—I am not who I once was.

The Lies We Tell—Double Deception in Recruitment

The Lies We Tell—Double Deception in RecruitmentMatt was nervous. Most people are under the circumstances. Matt sat in front of the recruitment specialist, hoping that he’d end up with the job that was on offer. It was a step up from what he had done in the past—in pay, responsibility and influence.

Daniel, the Recruitment Manager, pushed a folded piece of paper and a pencil across the table to Matt and then did something appalling. He lied.

“Please answer the questions for this personality test there are no right or wrong answers”, Daniel reassured Matt.

There are no right or wrongs answers.

Mind you, Daniel had no intention of lying nor did he even realise that he had, at the time. “There are no right or wrongs answers”, is a lie that many managers and human resources professionals use from time to time. The personality tests that are conducted in workplaces throughout the world in job interviews have no answer that is intrinsically correct—as you might find in a high school mathematics exam. However, the presence of a series of questions that is included as part of the selection process for an employment role makes a lie of Daniel’s reassurance.

If a recruitment test of any kind is used in the context of an employee selection process, there is an intention to use it to justify the selection of a particular candidate and to exclude others. It has already been decided by the interviewer, recruitment expert or organisation that a particular personality is required for the role (or, conversely, that particular personality profiles are to be avoided). This means that for the organisation, particular responses on the personality test are, in fact, right or wrong.

Looking at personality tests from the candidate experiencing the job interview process, there are also right and wrong answers. In our example, Matt desperately wants the job but does not necessarily know what personality profile Daniel is looking for, nor does Matt know what responses he needs to give to present the ‘right’ personality profile for the job. Additionally, he knows that he should be honest during a job interview. When nervous, the tension created by the need, to be frank, and also the desire to meet the needs of the interviewer is unlikely to help Matt through the selection process nor help Daniel find the right candidate.

Set aside for now whether there is any validity in using Myers-Briggs, Keirsey, DISC or any other personality test or temperament sorter in a job interview, the simple message is that there are lies in the workplace that we use to smooth the path or placate people, but they are still lies.

A lucid manager will make every effort to assist Matt through the interview process and would also be aware that, truth be told, there is a right or wrong answer to every question in a job interview—the answer that demonstrates suitability for the job.

For more information and critique of personality profiles, confirmation bias and the Forer effect check out Peter’s essay, Know Thyself. Also check out Peter’s article on recruitment, arguing that every business gets the employees they deserve.