Ethical Issues in Deciphering Culture

Deciphering culture has some inherent risks that both the insider and the outsider should assess before proceeding. The risks differ, depending on the purpose of the analysis, and they are often subtle and unknown. Therefore, the desire to go ahead and the organization’s permission to do so may not be enough to warrant proceeding. The outside professional, whether consultant or ethnographer, must make a separate assessment and sometimes limit his or her own interventions to protect the organization.

1. Risks of an Analysis for Research Purposes

An organization can be made vulnerable by having its culture revealed to outsiders. The obvious solution is always to disguise the organization in published accounts, but if the intent is to communicate accurately to outsiders, the data are much more meaningful if the organization and the people are identified. Naming the organizations, as I have done in most of the examples used in this book, makes it possible to gain a deeper under­standing of cultural phenomena and also makes it possible for others to check for accuracy and replicate the findings.

On the other hand, if a correct analysis of an organization’s culture becomes known to outsiders because it either is published or is simply discussed among interested parties, the organization or some of its members may be put at a disadvantage because data that would ordinarily remain private now may become public. For various reasons, the members of the organization may not want their culture laid bare for others ’ viewing. If the information is inaccurate, potential employees, customers, suppliers, and any other categories of outsiders who deal with the organization may be adversely influenced.

Cases used in business schools are rarely disguised, even though they often include revealing details about an organization’s culture. If the orga­nization fully understands what it is revealing and if the information is accurate, no harm is done. But if the case reveals material that the organi­zation is not aware of, such publication can produce undesirable insight or tension on the part of members and can create undesirable impressions on the part of outsiders. If the information is not accurate, then both insiders and outsiders may get wrong impressions and may base decisions on incor­rect information.

For example, when I was teaching at the Centre d ’Etudes Industrielle in Geneva in the early 1980s, they were using a case about DEC that was outdated and gave an entirely incorrect impression of what was going on in DEC, yet students were influenced by this case in terms of whether or not they would apply for jobs at DEC. Furthermore, most cases are only a slice through the organization at a particular time and do not consider historical evolution. The case material about DEC may have been accurate at one point in time but was presented as a general picture.

Researchers often attempt to avoid this danger by providing their anal­ysis to the members of the organization before it is published. This step has the advantage of also testing, to some degree, the validity of the informa­tion. However, it does not overcome the risk that the members of the orga­nization who “clear” the data for publication might not be aware of how the analysis might make others in the organization more vulnerable. Nor does it overcome the risk that the members of the organization who review the material may want to play it safe and forbid the publication of anything that names the organization. The ultimate ethical responsibility therefore falls to the researcher’ Whenever a researcher publishes information about an individual or organization, he or she must think carefully about the poten­tial consequences. Where I have named organizations in this book, I have either been given permission or have decided that the material can no lon­ger harm organizations or individuals.

2. Risks of an Internal Analysis

If an organization is to understand its own strengths and weaknesses, if it wants to learn from its own experience and make informed strategic choices based on realistic assessments of external and internal factors, it must at some point study and understand its own culture (Bartunek & Louis, 1996; Coghlan & Brannick, 2005). This process is not without its problems, risks, and potential costs, however. Basically, two kinds of risks must be assessed: (1) The analysis of the culture could be incorrect, and/or (2) the organiza­tion might not be ready to receive feedback about its culture.

If decisions are made on the basis of incorrect assumptions about the culture, serious harm could be done to the organization. Such errors are most likely to occur if culture is defined at too superficial a level—if espoused values or data based on questionnaires are taken to be an accurate representation of the underlying assumptions without conducting group and individual interviews that specifically dig for deeper assumptions and patterns. This is the major risk in the use of typologies and surveys.

The second risk is that the analysis may be correct, but insiders other than those who made the analysis may not be prepared to digest what has been learned about them. If culture functions in part as a set of defense mechanisms to help avoid anxiety and to provide positive direction, self­esteem, and pride, then an individual’s reluctance to accept certain cultural truth about himself or herself is a normal human reaction. Psychotherapists and counselors constantly must deal with resistance or denial on the part of patients and clients. Similarly, unless an organization’s personnel recog­nize a real need to change and unless they feel psychologically safe enough to examine data about the organization, they will not be able to hear the cultural truths that inquiry may have revealed, or, worse, they may lose self-esteem because some of their myths or ideals about themselves may be destroyed by the analysis.

Another risk is that some members will achieve instant insight and automatically and thoughtlessly attempt to produce changes in the culture that (1) some other members of the organization may not want, (2) some other members may not be prepared for and therefore may not be able to implement, and/or (3) may not solve the problem.

Therefore, the culture analyst should make the client system fully aware that there are consequences to having elements of culture laid bare, so to speak. Consultants are often called in by insiders to reveal what some insid­ers know but feel they cannot say for various reasons. The risk in agreeing to do this is that the organization may not like to hear the consultant ’s analysis of its culture. For example, I was asked in 1979 to present my anal­ysis of the Ciba-Geigy culture to its top management at the annual meet­ing. I had been asked to observe and interview people to get a sense of the key assumptions forming the paradigm that was presented in Chapter Three. From my point of view, I had clear data, and I attempted to be objec­tive and neutral in my analysis, knowing that my clients valued scientific objectivity. I had discussed my analysis with several key insiders, and they concurred that the data were accurate and would be useful for the top fifty executives to hear. At one point during my presentation, I likened certain aspects of Ciba-Geigy’s culture to a military model. Several members of the executive committee who were themselves former military men and who loved the Swiss Army suddenly took offense at what they viewed to be a derogatory depiction of the army (though I believed I had been neutral in my statements). Their perception that I misunderstood and had challenged one of their values led to an unproductive argument about the validity of the cultural description, a polarization into two factions, and to my being discredited as a consultant in the eyes of one of the factions.

There are several possible lessons here. The most obvious one is that the outsider should never lecture insiders on their own culture because the outsider cannot know where the sensitivities will lie and cannot overcome his or her own subtle biases. Perhaps if I had stated each of my points care­fully as hypotheses or questions for them to react to, I might have avoided this trap. Second, I learned that my analysis plunged the group members into an internal debate that they were not prepared for and that had mul­tiple unanticipated consequences. The people who objected to my analogy revealed some of their own biases at the meeting in ways they might not have intended, and comments made later suggested that some people were shocked because so-and-so had revealed himself to be a such-and-such kind of person.

The analogy itself, likening aspects of the organization’s functioning to the military, unleashed feelings that had more to do with the Swiss- German macroculture in which Ciba-Geigy operated, and it introduced a whole set of irrelevant feelings and issues. Many people in the group were made very uncomfortable by the insight that they were indeed operating like the military because they had either forgotten this aspect or had illu­sions about it. My comments stripped away those illusions.

Third—and perhaps this is the most important lesson—giving feedback to an individual is different from giving feedback to a group because the group very likely is not homogeneous in its reactions. My “lecture” on the culture was well received by some members of the group, who went out of their way to assure me that my depiction was totally accurate. Obviously, this segment of the group was not threatened by what I had to say. But with others I lost credibility, and with still others I created enough of a threat to unleash defensiveness, plunging the group into an uncomfortable new agenda that then had to be managed.

The point is that I had been doing what they requested me to do, yet it had unanticipated consequences that I, as a culture researcher, should have anticipated and controlled for. At the minimum, I should have forewarned my clients that if I gave this lecture, it might unleash a variety of group feelings—and were we prepared for this?

3. Professional Obligations of the Culture Analyst

If the foregoing risks are real, then who should worry about them? Is it enough to say to an organization that we will study your culture and let you know what we find and that nothing will be published without your permission? If we are dealing with surface manifestations, artifacts, and publicly espoused values, then the guideline of letting members clear the material seems sufficient. However, if we are dealing with the deeper levels of the culture, the basic assumptions and the patterns among them, then the insiders clearly may not know what they are getting into, and the obli­gation shifts to the outsider as a professional, to make the client genuinely aware of what the consequences might be of a cultural analysis. The princi­ple of informed consent does not sufficiently protect the client or research subject if he or she cannot initially appreciate what will be revealed.

The analyst of a culture undertakes a professional obligation to under­stand fully what the potential consequences of an investigation are. Such consequences should be carefully spelled out before the relationship reaches a level at which there is an implied psychological contract that the outsider will give feedback to the insiders on what has been discovered about the culture, either for inside purposes of gaining insight or for clearing what may eventually be published. For all of these reasons, deciphering and reporting on a culture works best and is psychologically safest when the organization is motivated to make changes that may involve the culture.

As should be evident by now, there is no simple formula for gather­ing cultural data. Artifacts can be directly observed; espoused values are revealed through the questions the researcher/consultant asks of whoever is available and through the organization’s published materials; and shared tacit assumptions have to be inferred from a variety of observations and further inquiry around inconsistencies and puzzlements. Because culture is a shared group phenomenon, the best way to gather systematic data is to bring representative groups of ten to fifteen people together and ask them to discuss artifacts, values, and the assumptions behind them. A detailed way to do this is described in Chapter Eighteen when the process is used to help the organization solve problems.

If the researcher is simply trying to gather information for his or her own purposes and if problems of reliability and validity can afford to be ignored, then the various culture content categories described in the previ­ous chapters are perfectly adequate guidelines for what to ask about. The actual questions around each of the content areas should be constructed by the researcher in terms of the goals of the research, bearing in mind that culture is broad and deep. To capture a whole culture is probably impos­sible, so the researcher must have some more specific goal in mind before a set of questions for the groups can be designed.

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

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