The ethics of cultural engineering

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Let’s start with the question that precedes the question posed last week: How can business leaders define, establish, and maintain … in a word, engineer their desired corporate culture?

But first: While I appreciate the flattering suggestion many of you made that last week’s column “… may be the best KJR yet,” in my estimation that honor belongs to “A holiday card to the industry – 1999.”

And now, this week’s question, or perhaps questions: Is engineering culture – national or organizational – ethical?

My answer (and only my answer – I make no claim that my code of ethics is superior to anyone else’s): Yes.

What are the ethical boundaries leaders should not cross when engineering it? That’s a more difficult question.

In KJR’s usage culture is, in casual terms, “How we do things around here.” More precisely it’s “The learned behavior people exhibit in response to their environment,” understanding that most of any employee’s environment consists of the behavior of the other employees they interact with, and especially the leaders and managers they interact with.

Culture is recursive. As successful implementation of a desired cultural trait begins with visible leader behavior, and has as its goal defining and achieving changes to how people behave, either cultural engineering is ethical, or else leadership itself is unethical.

Just my opinion:

  • Leading is ethical.
  • Failing to lead when leadership is called for is what’s unethical.
  • Unethical leadership is common; this doesn’t make leadership itself unethical.
  • Engineering an unethical culture is common; this doesn’t make cultural engineering itself unethical.

Now comes the hard part.

The tools for engineering culture available to leaders of large organizations are limited. Last week I described how the old-fashioned idea of a company newsletter could be adapted to the purpose – by presenting desired cultural traits and then describing how a team in the company did something that exemplified one or more of them.

One commenter used the term “propaganda” to describe this approach. But “propaganda” is, by definition, misleading or entirely false, so this use of the company newsletter would only count as propaganda if the team in question didn’t actually exist or hadn’t actually done what the newsletter described.

Imagine you lead a large organization, need to change its culture, and teams that exemplify what you’re looking for don’t, so far as you can tell, exist. Is it okay to invent one, or to distort real events almost beyond recognition in the interest of achieving the desirable goal of making your desired culture real?

From the perspective of ethical philosophy, the answer depends on whether you subscribe to consequentialism or deontology. Fortunately, we don’t have to dive that deep to answer this one: In an age of email and intranets, if you just make something up it’s too easy for employees to find out and tell their friends.

Better to engage in overt storytelling, making it clear the situation and team behavior you’re about to describe is fictional, and you want it to become factual.

Another tool at a leader’s disposal is the time-honored all-hands meeting. Business leaders commonly use the all-hands meeting to provide an update on the company’s financial situation. It’s good to share this information and even better if, as you share it, you use the opportunity to explain to the less financially literate employees how to interpret the financial instruments you’re sharing.

It’s best if, you spend less time on finances than you do on metrics associated with the various cultural traits you want to institute, being careful to apply the Seven C’s test to any and all metrics you establish.

It’s also a fine place to describe something the company has done that exemplifies one or more of the cultural traits you want to institute. This is a division-level or enterprise-level complement to the team-based storytelling in the newsletter.

Bob’s last word: As a leader, if you do present something the company has done to make your commitment to culture real, make sure you don’t appear to be taking personal credit for it. It’s something the company has done, not something you’ve done.

To stay out of trouble it’s best to avoid the word “I” altogether.

Bob’s sales pitch: If you’re looking for tools and techniques for changing organizational culture, you’ll find some in Leading IT: <Still> the Toughest Job in the World, and Bare Bones Change Management: What You Shouldn’t Not Do.

And, a request: If you have read them I’d appreciate your taking the time to post a review on Amazon. Even a negative review helps, as the total number of reviews helps establish that the book is “real.”


Comments (4)

  • Yes but only if it is good ethics like love your neighbor and play nice in the sandbox.
    No if it is bad ethics like cancel culture or rioting to make people afraid of resisting evil.

  • This is one of your best posts Bob. I like your rule about omitting I when describing valued behavior, but I can think of one legitimate class of exceptions. Leaders should be free to say “I am proud of …” The dots can be replaced by any of the following: my colleague, my subordinate, my team, my company.

    • Thanks. And I agree. It occurs to me I left out another legitimate use of “I” (because it’s more useful when the goal is to persuade: “I used to think x. Then I . Now I think y.”

      A leader publicly changing his/her mind makes it okay for everyone else to change their minds.

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