HomeBusiness Ethics

It’s still the culture

Like Tweet Pin it Share Share Email

This is probably a mistake.

But I wrote about male/female workplace issues quite recently (“A tale of two genders,” 8/14/2017). Now we have the decline and fall of Harvey Weinstein and others of his predatory brethren, with remarkably little root cause analysis.

Let’s start with this: Harvey Weinstein was a major financial contributor to the Democratic party and its candidates. Roger Ailes used his media outlet to promote the Republican party and its candidates.

Linking their sexual predation with their political affinities is … what’s the word I’m looking for? … ah yes, that’s it: reprehensible. Please don’t. The last thing we need these days is more tribalism.

We can each freely agree with someone about their political views without incurring an obligation to defend them on any other aspect of their lives. “Us” does not mean “good person” any more than “them” means bad person.

Well, actually, it usually does, but let’s not succumb to the temptation. Let’s do the opposite and forbid political affinitizing (I don’t care if it isn’t a real word) about this. It cheapens an issue that should, under no circumstances, be cheapened.

Next, let’s jettison the next-most-popular root cause analysis: “They’re horrible human beings.” Yes, they are, but how does that help? What’s useful is understanding how they became horrible human beings.

Which gets us to what’s missing as commentators vie to write the Most Condemnatory Commentary Yet. It’s culture, a subject I wrote about last month (“It’s always the culture,” 9/25/2017).

Whenever you see a pattern of behavior that’s common to a group of people who know and associate with each other, you can bet culture is a major causal factor.

Go back to the early days of the entertainment industry. The so-called casting couch was, if not ubiquitous, certainly prevalent. Those who had them figured their couch was one of the perks of their position. Reclining in one was, for many a budding starlet, a distasteful prerequisite for a shot at the big time. Some chose (or in some cases were forced) to acquiesce. The rest went home.

Those who ran the entertainment industry knew and socialized with each other. Anyone lacking a casting couch in their own suite of offices understood the key message: This sort of thing is okay. It’s how we do things around here. It’s embedded in our culture, “us” being the powerful and important people who run this industry.

Want to understand how Ailes, Weinstein, and so many others could get away with their offenses for so many decades?

I had the good fortune of having a business partner who was a student of anthropology. Culture, he explained, is the learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment.

In our Cro-Magnon past, a lot of the environment was physical: Animals that could be hunted, vegetables that could be gathered, plant, animal, and mineral matter that could be turned into useful implements.

In an organization, in contrast, most of your environment is the behavior of the people around you. Culture becomes a self-reinforcing loop: it’s the learned behavior people exhibit in response to the learned behavior people exhibit in response to the learned behavior people exhibit.

Ailes and Weinstein, Hitchcock before them if Tippi Hedren is to be believed, and Fatty Arbuckle before him, all were embedded in a culture where the norm was, and apparently still is in some circles, “This is okay. It’s better than okay. It’s something you deserve.”

Look at just about every horrible act performed by any group of people who knew each other at any time in the historical record, and ask how it’s possible that human beings behaved in such extraordinarily repulsive ways. The nearly uniform answer: Their culture told them this is how they’re supposed to behave. It’s more than okay. It’s approved of.

Which has what to do with you?

If you have a leadership role in your organization, you’re responsible for the learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment, because as a leader a disproportionately important part of their environment is you.

If you indicate, directly, or by modeling, or through implication, or even through omission that something is acceptable that shouldn’t be, you’re responsible for anything and everything that happens as a result of the culture you’ve helped foster.

Members of the KJR community understand these two critical points about culture: First, being a leader isn’t a matter of position. It’s a matter of choice.

And, second, if there’s something you don’t like about your organization’s culture, the most important tool at your disposal is a mirror.

Comments (14)

  • You need a “Like” button on this page. (I don’t do Facebook, etc.) I “like” this.

  • That’ll preach!

  • I spent 40 years in energy and related industries. They had their own culture for sure. Very rough and tumble and male centric. Over time due to some dedicated companies and dedicated people it changed to be more accepting and broad based. It was not easy. It also had to cycle through a generation who resisted the changes required. As a supervisor I knew that I had to lead by example even if it was difficult but change never is. I much preferred to chart the course and makje the way.

  • Oh, yes, let’s keep this Weinstein thing from being political….

    Just like Hollywood stays away from politically lecturing us All. The. Time!

    Weinstein and his enablers were some of the worst in Hollywood about being overtly political.

    Their hypocrisy is boundless, sorry but I’m not going to just not point that out…

    I have to say also regarding your earlier piece; James Damore’s career was ruined because he had an Opinion about the lack of women in IT. Weinstein literally raped people. These are not the same things and I don’t appreciate Hollywood’s “every industry is like this” posturing. When the true fact is that Hollywood has, to borrow a phrase from the movies, turned sexism up to 11…

    • I haven’t read any Hollywood “every industry is like this” posturing. Also, why are you equating Weinstein to Damore instead of to Ailes?

      I made this nonpolitical because it isn’t political. If you see some causal relationship between sexual abuse and political liberalism, have at it. But you’ll have to explain how Roger Ailes and Bill O’Reilly fit into your world view.

      And anyone who thought Ailes and O’Reilly established a causal relationship between political conservativism and sexual abuse has the same challenge to overcome.

      • I chose Damore because Hollywood, the media, and entertainment are trying to make this out to be a “all businesses have this problem at the same scale” issue. And that is not true. I have seen nothing anywhere close to that scale of harassment in over 20 years in IT.

        The reason I picked Damore instead for Ailes and O’reilly is that Ailes and O’reilly are MEDIA figures just like Weinstein!

        I object to being told that the office _I_ work in needs to solve all these problems because Hollywood and Media has them. The offices I have worked in do NOT have these problems. The IT culture is NOT the spoiled corrupt culture of the media and I resent the blanket comparisons.

      • Meaning no offense … and I really don’t mean any offense with this: Frequently, problems of all kinds begin with the certainty they aren’t problems and aren’t going to be.

        I agree that few IT shops if any will have a problem on the scale that Hollywood is now “discovering” (okay, acknowledging). But on the other hand, women are under-represented in IT and the situation is getting worse, not better, since I started my IT career in 1980. I don’t know all of the reasons. I think we all need to be open-minded about what the various causal factors might be.

        Including this one.

  • WOW!

    Now if only the culture around here did not make me fearful of what might happen if I forwarded this to the boss’s boss…

    …or maybe I need to summon more courage?

  • speaking up works. I used to work construction and a few of the jobs, not many, had one or two misogynists wolf whistling and making rude comments. Got onto one job and one carpenter started talking about “the old battleax” and another one spoke up and said he loved his wife and didn’t really think folks should be talking about their spouses like that. “Get a divorce if marriage is that bad.”

    We didn’t have any issues after that on that job.

  • Wonderful article Bob. Thanks for writing this. Changing the culture starts with us speaking up about the things around us that are oppressive.

  • If you have a leadership role in your organization, you’re responsible for the learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment, because as a leader a disproportionately important part of their environment is you.
    — Thank you for stating that. Too often people turn to the ones that are victimized or are uncomfortable with the culture and say “You should not put up with it. You should have just walked”, but that does not change the culture…it strengthens it.

  • I love your analysis with one exception, you are spot on about leadership and culture. My exception is that people are very rarely reprehensible. Their actions can be, but very few people are all good or all bad (Hitler and Pol Pot types are the exception and we don’t know that even they didn’t have redeeming moments in their lives). I genuinely hope that we can improve our culture, but judging someone’s actions twenty or even fifty years ago by today’s standards assumes that they could see their actions in the same light that we do. I’m not condoning their behavior, as adults we are responsible for our right and wrong actions. It’s just that less harsh judgement of others would be good for our culture. Demonizing people is a media sport these days, and doing that is also something that people ten or twenty years (or days) from now might observe and say that we were reprehensible as well.

    • You’re right, this is the challenge. Everyone’s sense of right and wrong begins with the culture they’re embedded in, so asking them to step completely outside that isn’t entirely reasonable.

      It also isn’t entirely reasonable to allow everyone to use culture to rationalize whatever behavior they find convenient. My personal sense of right and wrong is just that – a personal choice. It’s up to me to make it, and up to everyone else to decide whether my behavior is acceptable to them given their personal choices about the subject.

      So when I say Ailes and Weinstein are horrible human beings, I mean it based on my personal yardstick of such things: They both were sophisticated enough to not simply do what they wanted because they could get away with it, and yet they did, at the expense of women who were, if not entirely helpless, easy to victimize.

      Put it this way: “Everybody else does it” explains someone’s behavior. It doesn’t justify it, unless we’re willing to allow everyone to define their morality this way.

Comments are closed.