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How organisation culture affects team dynamics

In April, 2014, more than 150 customer experience, data, marketing and business leaders participated in the first Customer 360 Symposium run by  Ashton Media.

This is the second of six posts based on a presentation given by  Corporate Anthropologist, Michael Henderson who shared fascinating insights into the nature of culture and why more organisations should be tapping into this to improve customer engagement.

In the last post, Michael explained how anthropology gives meaning to organisational culture and the customer experience.

In today’s post, Michael looks at the connection between organisation culture and  team dynamics.

Michael Henderson part 2

Business is the latest cultural trend

This is kind of an interesting one because there’s a very organic, human thing going on here. We have formed cultures for ions. I’m often asked, “oh this talk on culture, is this just the latest business trend?” And my response to that is, “no actually, business is just the latest cultural trend”.

We’ve been culturing for tens of thousands of years.  Business in its format that we operate now is literally 400 years old.  Most of your organisations, if you’re a limited liability organisation or a corporation, are based on the British East India model which was developed in 1601 on January the 1st. So we’re relatively new at the business side but the culture, that’s been going on forever.

And there are some very simple, powerful things to be aware of around culture in terms of looking at how human beings actually operate organically. If you’re going to put a business template on top of that, you need to understand what that culture thing looks like.

What does culture look like?

Fundamentally, the best way of explaining it is, are you all familiar with Aesop’s fable, The Lion and the Four Oxen? If you’re not, let me quickly remind you because it may have been a while.

Basically the story is that a lion came into the paddock on a daily basis. There were four oxen in the paddock and the oxen used to form a circle by putting their tails together.

By doing so, no matter which angle the lion came in at, it meant not only a pair of horns in front of it, but it was also in danger of having two pairs of horns on either side. So the lion would circle and growl in frustration every day and disappear because it couldn’t do anything.

Eventually, as in all Aesop’s fables, they have a moral at the end of them. The moral of the story was that eventually one of the oxen decided it was superior and didn’t need to play these silly games and so it refused to participate in the circle which meant the circle actually became fractured.

They got distracted and argued about how arrogant the other oxen was which gave the lion the opportunity to come in. The story goes that he picked off all four oxen over the following week.

Human beings have observed this going on in nature every time they went out hunting and gathering. They would either see a lion approaching antelope or they themselves would hunt buffalo or bison and the animals would circle.

Create a circle and bond together

So even in those ancient times, human beings started to see that creating a circle and bonding together gave the greatest chance of survival and protection.  This was something that stuck in our memory and we began to explore it.

What you will see in tribes and cultures all around the world is, we organically form circles. Look at the table you’re sitting at right now. Human beings, whenever we get into groups, we form circles.  And we form select circles. I regularly go to conferences like this, either as a speaker but often I get hired as an anthropologist for three days just to sit in and watch the tribe.

When you go into organisations, you can literally see just how many people form in circles and what the natural team dynamics are in your organisation.  Does that make sense?

If you wait until everyone’s having cocktails in the evening, and you stand around and just observe you will see people form into groups of threes or fives. This is the average and the norm, and it’s this observation that tells you what your ideal teams should be in culturally.

It’s not a conscience decision and it’s not on the HR planning chart. This observation will tell you organically what your culture best operates with.  My suggestion is you start to rethink organising those teams around those numbers based on what we’ve found. I’ll give you a case example.

Team culture – what is the ideal size for your organisation?

We did this at Kennards Hire who you’re probably all familiar with. This nationwide brand wanted us to recommend what size teams they needed operating on the court, to deal with customers based on how the guys were socially interacting every time they had a conference and a couple of beers together.

This organic stuff is sitting there, the more we mess with it, the more problems we run into in terms of organising people, performance and productivity.  The more we go with the flow at what the culture’s actually doing, the better performances we’re going to get out of it.

Every organisation you see that performs at an extremely high level does this,  either deliberately or by fluke. It doesn’t really matter, as long as you’re actually paying attention to culture in the first place.

So not only do we form circles when we get together, we also used to sit around the fire at night, which meant that each and every one of us within the tribe would’ve gone off and done something different during the day. I might’ve been hunting, you might’ve been gathering water, and you might’ve been gathering firewood.

It’s only when we came back together and sat around the fire at night, I’d hear the trials and the tribulations that you’ve been through today, fighting off the black mamba, and you fighting off the warriors from the other tribe, and I would start to respect you for the effort and the time you put in, even though I didn’t work in your department.

I know none of you are experienced in this right now in the organisations you work with currently, but if any of you worked with organisations previously that suffered from silo mentality, have you heard of this thing? I know you don’t get it now, but the previous organisations? That’s when the culture’s gone bad. You’ve forgotten that you’re human beings together.

This stuff is very powerful and worthwhile paying attention to.

The symbolism of circles

You’ll even see that the dwellings from tribes all around the world copy the symbols of circles.  Everywhere you go in the world, it’s a very organic shape that people copy because they get what it actually means, the symbolism of it.

You will also see that we created villages based on the same model all around the world. Now the reason I’m sharing all this is not to give you a history lesson, but to say that this stuff’s being going on for thousands of years.

When you drag it into an organisation and try to stick a triangular shape on top of it, you’re messing with nature and nature doesn’t like to be messed with in case you hadn’t noticed with climate change etc, right?

The more we can work harmoniously with what goes on organically, the better performance we get.  Even mythologies all around the world, in cultures, your Aboriginal cultures here, your Maori cultures, the Celtics, the Tibetans, the Mayans, all of them have embraced the circular culture and the power that it actually brings to working together and connecting effectively with other people.

So what does it look like in real business terms? Let’s finish the anthropology history review.

In the next post, Michael shares his insights into the cultural elements of control, relationship and development.

View the full presentation here:

Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media About Mark Abay - Content Director, Ashton Media
Mark is Content Director at Ashton Media. It's his job to create interesting and engaging conference programs that stretch the thinking of our attendees. Mark works closely with our industry advisors to ensure the conference content is aligned with the needs and interests of our audiences.