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Posts Tagged ‘SPIM

Culture is Like a Song

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When defining organizational culture, I have picked up on the definition used by Bossidy and Charan in their book, “Execution” (2009) that it is defined by the behaviors that leaders exhibit and tolerate (and encourage, I would add). They assert that,

…to change the culture of the company, it must be done by changing the behaviors of its leaders” (Bossidy and Charan 2009, p. 105).

I am drawn to this definition because it is behavioral, and, therefore, can be observed, measured, developed and changed. This may feel somewhat “cold” to many of you who envision culture to be something more ethereal.  I offer this alternate definition as an example:

The values and behaviors that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organization. Organizational culture includes an organization’s expectationsexperiences, philosophy, and values that hold it together, and is expressed in its self-image, inner workings, interactions with the outside world, and future expectations. It is based on shared attitudesbeliefscustoms, and written and unwritten rules that have been developed over time and are considered valid.  (

I am sometimes critical of definitions like this because a) they make the construct/concept sound much too complicated for our end users (clients, organizations) and b) it is probably impossible to reliably measure despite the desperate attempt at the very end to assert they must be valid (or at least “considered” valid. Really?)

I was recently sharing my definition of culture in a talk I gave at SPIM (, and it occurred to me that the pure behaviorist definition does seem cold.  I told them (and now you) that I really don’t believe that culture is just a bunch of behaviors any more than three notes are just a “chord” in music. So I got to thinking about this musical metaphor.

I am not anywhere near a musical expert nor prodigy. But I do love music of all kinds, play a couple instruments, and have performed in many groups, from folk groups, rock bands, orchestras, marching bands. and church choirs. Have even tried to write a few ditties along the way.  So I do appreciate the magic of music done well and the challenge of creating that magic.

Most of you are younger than me, but some of the “old” music is still pretty accessible. With the use of the song “America” in the Sanders campaign, you had the chance to get introduced (or re-familiarized) with the duet harmony of Simon and Garfunkel, and that is one kind of magic augmented by a message that strikes home on many levels that can give you goose bumps.

But adding a third note is a different kind of experience.  It’s kind of like the difference between two points creating a line in two dimensions, and then adding that third point that creates a plane. It is that concept that we also use in defining psychological constructs, and (at least from my recollection of factor analysis) part of the reason that, in 360 data collection and reporting, we try to have three items in a dimension and three responses to report a score.

Back to music, the recent death of George Martin has created an excuse to revisit the catalog of The Beatles songs that he produced and even performed on. In fact, just yesterday the New York Times created a list of almost their entire library in which you can listen to snippets or listen to the full song on Spotify with just a click.

I encourage you to use that easy NYTimes means to refresh (or create) a memory of the magic that they could create with the three part harmonies on songs like “This Boy,” “Nowhere Man,” and “I Feel Fine.”  “Because” from “Abbey Road” is also amazing, but with an asterisk since it might be called “synthetic” harmony in 9 parts, obviously using technology to create the multiple layers of voices.

For those of you who know more about music than I do, I have heard of references to “phantom” (or hidden) notes that are not sung but are heard when harmonies are just right.  I keep using the word “magic” but I can’t think of a better way of describing the sense you get when the sound is so rich, and then even sometimes combined with a moving lyric.  I am not the most spiritual person in the world, but some of my most vivid, chill-producing experiences have been when singing in a church choir when the music, the message, and the performance all come together, maybe for even just a phrase or even one bar. I think most of us have used the metaphor of “singing out of the same hymnal” regardless of our denomination (or lack thereof) and know basically what we are referring to when we use it.

The Beatles (and George Martin, sometimes called the “Fifth Beatle”) were an organization. I think their culture was best demonstrated when they sang in three parts (occasionally Ringo joined), and they did less of that on “Sgt. Pepper’s”, and then it basically went away until their last album, “Abbey Road.” (“Let It Be” was recorded before Abbey Road and had no three-part harmony that I can cite).  I propose that they lost their “culture” in a corresponding timeframe, and got it back to an extent in time to produce their arguably best (and last) album.

So this behaviorist does see/hear/feel the magic that can be created by three or more leaders in an organization that are “singing” the same tune that is derived from a common commitment to the organization’s vision, values and strategy, translated into concrete behavioral requirements that are definable, measurable, and developable. We sometimes refer to that as the whole being more than the sum of the parts; the sentiment is the same but that phrase doesn’t create chills, at least for me.

Can a behaviorist see and hear magic, and get chills? This one can.


Bossidy, L. and Charan, R. (2009). Execution: The discipline of getting things done. New York: Crown Business.

Written by David Bracken

March 16, 2016 at 11:08 pm

The Key to Feedback with Dignity

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Kris Duggan has another fine article in Fast Company titled, “Six Companies That Are Redefining Performance Management” (, with the six being GE, Cargill, Eli Lilly, Accenture, Adobe and Google.  The common denominator is their deemphasis (or even total abandonment) of the formal appraisal process and more focus on feedback and development, presumably via the manager/supervisor, on a more frequent basis. Each organization has its own approach to accomplishing that and the jury is out, though a couple of them are farther along and some preliminary results are coming in.

Kris characterizes the common denominator of these six approaches using these words:

They’re all switching their focus from dictating what employees should do at work to helping develop their skills as individuals.

Wow!  There are a couple of words in that sentence that are really thought-provoking and, in my opinion, taking this discussion in the wrong direction. The first (not in order) is “dictating.”  Since when did organizations abdicate the right (let alone need) to “dictate” to their employees what to do? Using less pejorative words than “dictate,” we call it directing, guiding, managing, leading, and/or aligning.  Reading the word “dictate” makes this person feel like I have been taken back to the days of the union boss ranting against the evils of the management empire who have “taken away our rights and humanity,” or something to that effect.

In a couple of my earlier blogs, including my last one (, also inspired by a Duggan article, I used the ALAMO model where the first “A” stands for Alignment, the most powerful variable in the performance equation because it can be both positive and negative. People need and expect alignment. Values are a form of alignment, guiding behavior. Goals help create alignment.

In that same blog, I propose that there is a time and place for Directing, and a time for Guiding. Both are forms of Alignment but using different styles for different situations. Just within the last 24 hours I heard a former professional football player saying that the biggest difference between college and pro football is that in college you are told what to do; in the pros, you are told why you need to do it.

On February 26 I will be giving a talk at the annual conference of the Society of Psychologists in Management (SPIM) in Atlanta titled, “Create a Feedback Culture, Create Change, Maintain Dignity.”  (See for more information on the conference.)  The “dignity” aspect of the talk is very relevant to this topic of alignment. From one angle, we show dignity to our employees by showing them the respect they expect by providing them with a clear understanding of their role, responsibilities, and how successful performance is defined. And, again, this is in terms of both tangible and intangible (behavioral) accomplishments.

I don’t agree that we protect an employee’s dignity by shielding them from negative feedback, as some would propose. But I will talk about that more at SPIM.

Very importantly, we can and should protect the dignity of the employee by placing accountability on feedback providers and designers of feedback systems to require that feedback is job related, i.e., aligned with factors that are important to the organization, not just whimsical thoughts of individuals (at any level) who might be given free rein to inflict “feedback.”  What comes to mind is the Amazon stories reported in the NY Times about open feedback systems where employees are able to give anonymous comments that were, in some cases, very damaging and not job related, reportedly causing some employees to leave the company.

The second word that Kris uses in the quote that I question is “switching.” The implication is that we can’t have it both ways, i.e., that we have to give up alignment in order to have feedback and development. Maybe the most important message in the ALAMO model is that feedback and development without alignment may be worthless or even counterproductive (i.e., drawing resources away from the organization with no return).

Some may call it dictating when we set expectation as to what the organization needs from you in order to be a successful member. I would rather call it alignment.  But, whatever you call it, your feedback and development processes need to have it.  Feedback without alignment may not only be irrelevant but it may also take away our dignity.