The Myth of the Consensual Culture
by Antonieta Costa, PhD. 

Do we still think about cultures as areas of consensus, where shared visions of the world allow coordinated action? 

This was the dominant understanding, from the 40s on, when the influence of the work of anthropologists such as Ruth Benedict and Margaret Mead took place, resulting from research done on remote islands of the Pacific.

Soon after, and as means of attending to and harbouring consensus, cultures started attracting attention from disciplines other than the original anthropology / sociology / psychology block. Organizational administration and management seemed the most interested of all. By the 70s, “organizational culture” was established as not only a concept from the field of organizational theory, but also a managerial apparatus for the attainment of greater efficiency. 

Lasting for a few decades, what seemed a fashion became a natural interest on the new perceived nature of culture, now understood as part of the organizational morphology (Smircich, L. 1985).

At this point, we can consider some of the formal questions and preocupations of today’s scientific communities, topics such as: Is this perspective of culture closer to objective reality? Considering all the investments placed in its study, are we getting any sound results? Is it returning any profits ? And, inspite of all efforts is “management by culture” more efficient now than any other model of the past (the hierarchical, for example)?

The answers that could shed light on these questions seem to be still far away from an established understanding. Instead, polemic new perspectives are destroying the clear view of a consensual paradise, coming from the first reports on “culture”. As a result, its definition, under the consensual perspective, is seen now more difficult than ever. On the contrary, and due to the evolution of the concept, cultures are now understood to be controversial arenas where each one of the participants, or members, has a different position about each issue. 

At the other end of the swing, or the opposite pole, this understanding is reinforced by modern approaches, which stand at a point of departure from the dogmatic, authoritarian one of the past. However, societies (including their scientists), have changed now assuming a much more democratic posture towards difference. From this new point of view we can appreciate more clearly the dynamic and controversial flows of influence that sweep a “culture” during its process of reality construction and adaptation.

In this context, cultures are now seen as being better understood when approached through a Differentiation perspective, or even a Fragmentation one (Meyerson, 1991), which allow for a larger scope of the events and actors being observed, rather than through a limited and outdated model of analysis as the consensual one. However, to fulfill the expectation of “an ordered environment”, this new understanding of cultures responds in a very poor way. 

From the point of view of the manager who wants “recipes” for the manipulation of culture in a way that looks more profitable to his organization, the actual scientific position and in general, the evolution of the concept, is bringing more confusion than benefits. Specifically, it seems less relevant to management.

“Management by culture” was one of the applications back in the 70s thought to be a possible advancement in the field of organizational theory. However, the actual situation not only makes the use of the concept difficult, but also hinders the initial position, giving no solutions for the problems. The source of these problems seems to come from two origins: one is the pragmatical aspect, evolving from the social environment - the new democratic social thought, which is gradually changing the mentalities and thus the perspectives of how people approach the issues. Under this new position each individual is giving to each other equal power to opinionate. Instead of listening to the “authority’s” opinions, everybody is now feeling free to produce their new “visions” of reality, giving rise to a natural phenomenon that was invisible under the authoritarian regimes of the past. 

Each individual also has his own idiosincratic conception of the world. It is only the exchange of that conception with others in a negotiation taking place during social interaction (in positions of equality) that creates reliable social representations of reality, which are the essence of culture. This fact may give an idea of how social processes have been distorted through the use of dogmatic and/or integrative perspectives. The democratic freedom has, thus, stimulated the natural variety already existing within the nature of the process, legitimizing it, and producing a diversified culture (called “fragmentary” by Meyerson, 1991).

Another source of “problems” is the increasing perplexity due to the contradiction of attitudes felt in this phase of transition from authoritarian to democratic societies (which Western societies are still crossing) that is obstructing the establishment of a coherent process of reality construction. During daily activity and interaction, people tend to present ambiguous attitudes towards situations, some times turning to an authoritarian attitude (denyng others the right to establish a new position, for example), and other times becoming democratic and accepting it. This inconsistency of attitudes hinders the development of the democratic process, introducing yet more ambiguity and incoherence. All this phenomena and its dynamics, taking place in societies and organizational environments, may confuse the vision managers have about the hypothesis of using culture as a means of managing organizations.

The real origin of the problem, however, seems to spring from the fact that there is no confidence on the part of the managers at all levels of administration, in letting power go to the lower levels thereby enabling the process of democratic reality construction to take place. The reason for that lack of confidence is the alleged chaotic situation, said to happen when a clear line of authority is not established. The lack of consensual opinions and positions in the production of culture is altering the former concept, which was first understood (Schein,1985) as a clear system of ideas. The application of this concept to organizational approaches and management gives no more guaranties of concerted action. It is clear that its nature has changed, giving rise to a new understanding. The managerial dilemna then, may be focused on this point: let go power and reduce expenses (running the risk of collapsing as they fear), or conserve hierarchies, reduce flexibility and increase expenses (loosing survival capacities).

Now we reach the ultimate question: Is consensual culture necessary for the implementation of concerted action? The answer is  - no! 

Consensual opinions about anything can only be artificial productions. This does not mean a lack of capacity to produce concerted action in spite of arising from diversified positions. Only now are we understanding that the two positions can co-existe. The problem remains that we need to accept the variety, and trust that the existence of common points, or of more coincidence will always come out, keeping coherence on the resulting action. 

Only when we totally accept this assertion as a more realistic description of reality will it be possible to take advantages of culture as a managerial tool, or even establish a new managerial philosophy. This new understanding will become visible after the transfer of power, based on the main principle of an equalitarian attitude before others. The true potential of the dynamics of culture could then be appreciated.

Do we have proof of their existence? Yes, we do. There is (at least) one organization following this principle, doing so for the last 500 years with great success. The Brotherhoods of the Holy Spirit maintain formal relations with the Catholic Church, but remain outside of its authority. In this organization there is a very unusual situation. Due to its horizontal structure in which every one of its members have the same authority and responsibility for the results of their action, concerted action comes to the surface. This is in the form of an apparent consensus, but when analysed in detail, there are very different opinions about everything, as well as different ways of executing to achieve the objectives. This does not impede the performance of the tasks, and/or the maintenance of the objectives. On the contrary, the variety of interpretations gives a richer view to the rituals, introducing excitment and dialogue where there could be just dogma and restriction.

From the observation of this behaviour we can now state that simple social interaction among people (such as in a leaderless group but with objective goals), will produce concerted action, even if this group does not have any structured authority levels. It seems that once the ideals of the organization are established, and in a situation of perfect equality of powers for their reinforcement, the entire group works in synchronization. Although having different perceptions about the objectives and receiving different influences from each other, they end up by finding the best way of coping with environmental contingencies and constraints. This attitude of confidence seems to help the organization react better to environment and in a much more flexible way, in spite of the apparent lack of consensus.

As once stated by Prigogine (1995), the tendency for organizing in ever increasing complexity is a universal principle, visible in a star as in a mosquito.

This organizing effort seems to work with a centrifugal orientation, in spite of the centripetal forces that might come out of the idiosincratic perceptions. Why than, do we disturb its natural flow by introducing contradictions such as power and hierarchy? We should, instead, learn more about the principles of running flat structures, like those of the referred organization, and try to understand the dynamics that stand for such an economy of means, not only for this reason, but considering their contribution for the dignification of the human resource.

Bibliographic references

Costa, A.  (1999) O Poder e as Irmandades do Espírito Santo, Ed. Rei dos Livros, Lisboa 

Meyerson, D. (1991). ‘Acknowledging and uncovering ambiguities in cultures’, in Frost, P., Moore,L., Louis, M., Lundberg, C., Martin, J., Reframing Organizational Culture, Sage Publications.

Prigogine, I. (1995) .“Time, Chaos and the Two Cultures”, in Polanyi,J. Science and Society, ed. M.Moskovits (House of Anansi Press, Ltd.).

Schein, E. ( 1985 / 1991). ‘The Role of the Founder in the Creation of Organizational Culture’, in Refraiming Organizational Culture, Sage Publications, Inc.

Smircich, L., (1985). ‘Is the concept of culture a paradigm for understanding organizations and ourselves ?’, in Frost, P., Moore, L., Louis, M., Lundberg, C., Martin, J., (1985) Organizational Culture, Sage Publications, Inc. California.

Also by Antonieta Costa - The Obsolescence of the Power Paradigm Within the Brotherhoods of The Holy Spirit | Many more articles on Creative Leadership in The CEO Refresher Archives


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