Shared Assumptions About the Nature of Reality and Truth

A fundamental part of every culture is a set of assumptions about what is real and how to determine or discover what is real. Such assumptions tell members of a group how to determine what is relevant information, how to interpret information, and how to determine when they have enough of it to decide whether or not to act, and what action to take.

For example, as I have already pointed out several times, reality and truth in DEC were defined by debate and by pragmatic criteria of whether things work. If an objective test was impossible or too difficult to con­struct, the idea was debated to see whether it stood the test of being sub­jected to severe critical analysis. In Ciba ‘Geigy, much more emphasis was given to research results from the laboratory and to the opinions of those considered wise and experienced. Both companies existed in broader Western cultures dominated by concepts of science and empirically based knowledge. But the fact that these companies differed greatly from each other shows that even within this broader macrocultural context, different definitions of reality can be distinguished based on the occupational mac­rocultures of electrical engineering and chemistry as well as the national differences between German Switzerland and the United States.

Levels of Reality

External physical reality refers to those things that can be determined empiri­cally by objective or, in our Western tradition, “scientific” tests. For exam­ple, if two people are arguing about whether or not a piece of glass will break, they can hit it with a hammer and find out (Festinger, 1957). If two managers are arguing over which product to introduce, they can agree to define a test market and establish criteria by which to resolve the issue. On the other hand, if two managers are arguing over which of two political campaigns to support, both would have to agree that there are no physical criteria by which to resolve their conflict.

Different cultures have different assumptions about what constitutes external physical reality. For example, many of us would not regard the spirit world or extra-sensory perception as having a physical reality basis, but in other cultures such phenomena might be regarded as very real. Vivid examples of how ambiguous the borderline can be are provided in Castaneda ’s (1968, 1972) descriptions of his experiences with the Indian shaman Don Juan and in the controversies that surround research on extra­sensory perception. At its core, physical reality is obvious; at its boundaries, it becomes very much a matter of macrocultural consensus, which raises the issue of “social reality.”

Social reality refers to those things that members of a group regard as mat­ters of consensus, that are not externally, empirically testable. The nature of human nature—the correct way for humans to relate to nature and to each other, the distribution of power and the entire political process, assumptions about the meaning of life, ideology, religion, group boundaries, and culture itself—are obviously matters of consensus, not empirically determinable. How a group defines itself and the values it chooses to live by obviously cannot be tested in terms of our traditional notions of empirical scientific testing but certainly can be strongly held and shared unanimously. If people believe in something and define it as real, it becomes real for that group.

In the international context, there is no way to test who is right about a territorial conflict or a belief system, as the continuing war in Afghanistan has amply demonstrated. Negotiation becomes very difficult if people hold different assumptions about “reality,” leading nations to resort to the use of economic and military power. The bad joke about the naive diplomat who tells the Arabs and the Israelis to settle their differences in a good Christian manner makes the point well.

One of the reasons why business decisions are often difficult to make and why management is an intrinsically complex activity is the lack of con­sensus on whether a given decision area belongs in the realm of physical or social reality. For an organization to have coherent action, there must be shared assumptions about which decisions can be empirically resolved and which ones are based on consensual criteria such as “Let the most experienced person decide” or “Let’s decide by majority vote.” Notice that the consensus must be on the criteria and on the decision process to be used, not necessarily on the ultimate substance of the decision. For example, in the western democratic tradition, we assume that majority rules, yet there is no empirical basis for that criterion. In fact, for many kinds of decisions, majority rule can be the worst kind of decision rule because it polarizes the debate into the two camps of “winners” and “losers.”

Individual reality refers to what you have learned from your own expe­rience and has a quality of absolute truth to you. However, that truth may not be shared by anyone else. When we disagree at this level, it becomes very hard to move forward until we can clearly articulate what our actual experience base is. We must also have some kind of consensus on whose experience we are willing to trust. In a traditional society based on hierarchical authority, if so-called elder statesmen speak, we take their experience as valid and act as if what they say is objectively true. In a pragmatic, individualistic society, on the other hand, the attitude might well be “Prove it to me,” and beyond that, what is accepted as proof might be all over the map. Of course, what is defined as physical, social, or individual reality is itself the product of social learning and hence, by definition, a part of a given culture (Van Maanen, 1979b; Michael, 1985).

Reaching consensus is a process of building a shared social reality, which becomes more and more difficult as groups become more multicul­tural because each member brings his or her individual reality and many cultural rules about what it is okay to share and what must be withheld. As Bushe points out in his book Clear Leadership (2009), the cultural rules of the social order require us to make our own interpretations about why oth­ers do what they do. We make up stories to explain the behavior of others because it would be rude to keep asking “Why did you do that” or “I don’t understand your behavior.” To get into better communication requires us to get into situations where such rules can be suspended so that the members of the group can explain their own experience and learn to calibrate the experiences of others. I have called those situations “cultural islands” and have referred to them frequently in the previous chapters. To summarize, when group members come with different concepts of reality, then reach­ing common ground requires special situations and processes.

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

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