Deeper cultural assumptions about appropriate human activity

Closely connected to assumptions about human nature are shared assump­tions about the appropriate way for humans to act in relation to their envi­ronment. Several basically different orientations have been identified in cross-cultural studies, and these have direct implications for variations we can see in organizations.

1. The Doing Orientation

At one extreme, we can identify a doing orientation, which correlates closely with (1) the assumption that nature can be controlled and manipu­lated, (2) a pragmatic orientation toward the nature of reality, and (3) a belief in human perfectibility (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961). In other words, it is taken for granted that the proper thing for people to do is to take charge and actively control their environment and their fate.

Doing is the predominant orientation of the United States and is cer­tainly a key assumption of U.S. managers, reflected in the World War II slo­gan “We can do it” as immortalized in the Rosie the Riveter posters, and in the stock American phrases “getting things done” and “let’s do something about it.” The notion that “the impossible just takes a little longer” is cen­tral to U.S. business ideology. DEC was a prime example of commitment to “doing the right thing”—when there is a difficulty, do something about it, solve the problem, involve other people, get help, but do something; don’t let it fester. The doing orientation focuses on the task, on efficiency, and on discovery. Organizations driven by this assumption seek to grow and to dominate the markets they are in.

2. The Being Orientation

At the other extreme is a being orientation, which correlates closely with the assumption that nature is powerful and humanity is subservient to it. This orientation implies a kind of fatalism—because we cannot influence nature, we must become accepting and enjoy what we have. We must focus more on the here and now, on individual enjoyment, and on acceptance of whatever comes. Organizations operating according to this orientation look for a niche in their environment that allows them to survive, and they try to adapt to external realities rather than create markets or dominate some portion of the environment.

3. The Being-in-Becoming Orientation

A third orientation, which lies between the two extremes of doing and being, is being-in-becoming, referring to the idea that the individual must achieve harmony with nature by fully developing his or her own capacities and, thereby, achieve a perfect union with the environment. The focus is on development rather than a static condition. Through detachment, medita­tion, and control of those things that can be controlled (for instance, feel­ings and bodily functions), the individual achieves full self-development and self-actualization. The focus is on what the person is and can become rather than what specific thing the person can accomplish. In short, “the being-in-becoming orientation emphasizes that kind of activity which has as its goal the development of all aspects of the self as an integrated whole” (Kluckhohn and Strodtbeck, 1961, p. 17).

The relevance of this dimension can be seen most clearly in organiza­tional attitudes and norms about the expression of emotions. In Essochem, the European subsidiary of the chemical branch of Exxon, senior manag­ers complained that they could not find any competent managers to put on their internal board of directors. In observing their meetings devoted to succession planning and management development, I observed that French and Italian managers were frequently labeled as “too emotional,” and this disqualified them from further consideration for higher-level jobs. Apparently, the assumption in this organization was that good manage – ment involves being unemotional, an assumption that I later found out was very dominant in the U.S. headquarters organization. This organization’s assumptions limited human growth and development and, through limit­ing its diversity at senior levels, limited the strategic options available.

In contrast, DEC was extreme in the degree to which it allowed and encouraged all forms of self-development, which was later reflected in the degree to which “alumni” of DEC, now working on their own or in other organizations, used the phrase “I grew up in DEC.” In Ciba-Geigy, it was clear that each person had to fit in and become part of the organizational fabric and that socialization into the existing mode was therefore more common than self-development.

This assumption becomes central at the organizational level when we compare companies that settle into a routine based on past success or a successful niche and cease to develop as organizations. DEC was a good example of how individuals could develop while the organization did not. It stayed in its niche producing high-quality innovations and became eco­nomically dysfunctional. Hewlett/Packard is a good example of a company that was able to develop from instrumentation and medical equipment to computers and eventually to printers and ink. Similarly, Ciba- Geigy in its major turnaround realized that it existed in multiple environments. Its chemical business existed in an environment that had huge “overcapacity,” leading to decisions to scale that business way down. On the other hand, the pharmaceutical business had a high potential for growth, and size and the ability to dominate markets mattered. It was this latter assumption that ultimately led to Ciba-Geigy’s merging with one of its former competitors, Sandoz, to become Novartis, a more powerful and more focused pharma­ceutical giant. It evolved from a dyestuffs company with a clear niche into a dominant organization with a strong “doing orientation.”

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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