Culture is key to any organization’s efficacy and success. The most successful organizations tend to share a common set of assumptions, values, beliefs, and behaviors that bind employees together.
However, creating and shaping a specific type of culture is a challenging task – because:
Culture is implicit – it is made up of metaphors, stories, rites and ceremonies, and social interactions. Many layers of cultural and cognitive meaning make up the overarching social structures guiding behaviors and organizational efficacy.
Anthropology provides an analytical toolkit for understanding the social behaviors and meaning that makes up organizational culture. Specific anthropological concepts are useful for understanding how culture relates to organizational efficacy, along with revealing the ideal approach for communicating organizational news or changes.
Here are a few anthropological culture concepts we found applicable in our recent organizational culture research work:
Organizations function more effectively when the relationships between members are characterized by what the anthropologist Marshal Sahlins termed generalized reciprocity – the idea that “we are all in this together.”
This culture research stands in contrast to organizations with negative reciprocity, in which social bonds and exchanges are characterized by mutual predation and negotiation is a zero-sum game. Negative reciprocity most often occurs between strangers and enemies. It makes close harmonious relations difficult to achieve. Although it might engender constructive forms of competition that enhance productivity and innovation, it must be balanced with forms of generalized reciprocity that enable teamwork and cooperation.
There are always forms of reciprocity between people in an organization, whether they exist between management and shareholders, labor and management, corporations and suppliers. The most successful organizations tend to place greater emphasis on generalized reciprocity rather than negative reciprocity.
Communitas refers to feelings of solidarity created by shared experiences – such as rituals – that invert hierarchical social structures, equalize participants, and ultimately solidify group identities.
Communitas typically arises when people experience liminal conditions together. Liminality is the ambiguity or disorientation that tends to characterize the middle of a ritual or rite of passage. During this period, social hierarchies are reversed or disappear. The lack of order provides opportunities for new social orders and customs to become established. Liminal periods are typical unsustainable, and order is either re-established or a new order is established at the end of a ritual.
Rituals, workflows, and activities generating communitas have the potential to strengthen the relationships between members of an organization and facilitate more effective teamwork.
An entry from a respondent’s journal entry collected in a recent study for a healthcare client illustrates how communitas is created. We summarize the entry below:
A patient arrived who was very ill, and the team immediately got to work. Different team members – ranging from nurses to a physician to a medical director – tackled a range of tasks: putting in an order to an emergency release of blood, retrieving the order, taking x-rays, watching over the patient’s family members. Titles were unimportant in the greater goal of saving a life. Each team member was considered equally valuable. They were united on an equal playing field centered around a common goal: saving the patient.
Attempts to force communitas often fail – space must be given to allow communitas to develop organically, through rhythms of work and collaboration. For instance, creating space and time for employees to develop meaningful relationships with one another, facilitating two-way dialogues about the greater purpose of work, or giving employees space and flexibility to develop personalized routines and rituals of work can indirectly foster communitas.
Organizations that fail to develop any sense of communitas or generalized reciprocity between members often develop social environments that are less conducive to teamwork. As a result, authoritarian approaches are used to control employees, who sometimes respond with what anthropologist James Scott describes as everyday resistance.
According to Scott, everyday resistance consists of routine and seemingly invisible tactics used by people to survive and undermine authoritative control. This everyday resistance includes foot dragging, sarcasm, laziness, misunderstandings, passivity, slander, avoidance, or disloyalty – small and indirect ways of inhibiting organizational efficacy.
Employees are less likely to deploy the subversive tactics of everyday resistance if leaders encourage generalized reciprocity and the rituals of work provide a sense of communitas.
The right balance of emphasis on communitas, generalized reciprocity, and resistance depends highly on an organization’s industry and goals. In healthcare, for instance, a cultural emphasis on developing strong relationships between employees is often desired to produce the teamwork necessary for delivering care. For creative industries, communitas facilitates constructive creative thought, and negative reciprocity generates constructive competitions that enhance productivity. However, too much emphasis on negative reciprocity – and under emphasis on generalized reciprocity – can inhibit creativity and motivation.
Ethnographic assessments of organizational culture can be used to identify whether an organization’s culture is oriented more towards generalized reciprocity and the production of communitas, or whether it relies more heavily on authoritative approaches. Comparing existing cultures to ideal or aspirational values allows researchers to understand how current cultures align or diverge from organizational values. It also determines any potential obstacles or if points of leverage exist within the current culture.
For instance, understanding that over emphasis on control has fostered working environments in which employees resort to everyday resistance can allow leaders to account for that potential resistance when implementing a culture change. Understanding that communitas has created a strong sense of trust between mid-level leaders and employees can allow leaders to leverage those relationships to communicate and manage cultural interventions.
Concepts such as communitas, negative or generalized reciprocity, and everyday resistance provide analytical frameworks that researchers and analysts use to understand organizational cultures and communicate how they might resist or accommodate change.