“Given that the approval and acceptance of one’s teammates are consequential for almost everyone, a member’s behavior can be shaped readily by almost any group of which he or she is a voluntary member“ (p105, Leading Teams, J Richard Hackman).
Reading this quote sent shivers down my spine and pushed me into a spiral of thinking about human nature, group psychology and teams—which is appropriate given that it’s from a book called Leading Teams: Setting the Stage for Great Performances, by J. Richard Hackman, one of history’s leading psychologists on teams and group behavior. As someone who spends a lot of time thinking about workplace culture, leadership and organizational development for a living, this really resonated. But the shivers came from a whole other place entirely—my personal experience amounting to over three decades of interaction, inculcation and socialization within large and intense organizations.
This very week, the week of September 11th, 2019, my first published literary article came out. It details my experience of escaping the religious cult that I was born into, coming to America and re-socializing myself to a completely different set of norms, and then becoming an officer in the US Army and going to war, not once, but twice. The article will likely be a bit controversial—it always makes some people angry when you compare (even to contrast) a cult and the US Army, or when you question the way that Soldiers think. Nevertheless, I believe that it lays a good framework for a discussion of the themes of socialization, group think, team norms and human nature. By definition, humans are pack animals—we operate in groups. We will always be drawn to them, we will always need them.
The thing about groups is that they influence our perspective—and we can become extremely dedicated to it. Sometimes it takes a serious event that shows us the extreme opposite to make us realize that we need to shift perspective, like when we hear stories about Bill Cosby that we, at first, struggle to believe. Major perspective shift is what happened in my life, which is where the story starts.
On 9/11 I saw live news on television for the first time in my life. It’s a story that’s too long to tell here, which is why you can read it in more detail at Narratively.com. I had been raised all my life in a Christian evangelical cult that had turned pretty evil, and it was literally all that I knew. In my mind, we were God’s special soldiers and everyone else was on the wrong track, destined for hell. It was while watching the September 11th coverage, and hearing our leaders speaking about how this was God’s judgement on an evil America, that I realized that not only were those terrorists religious extremists—we were too! It was a major perspective shift in my life, which led to me escaping the cult, broadening my world view, and having many different experiences. Every year around this time, I try to remember to take the time to consider my own new perspectives with a critical eye.
Nearly a decade later, 9/11 was still having an impact in my life—I was at war in Afghanistan, an officer in the US Army. I found myself at a memorial service for many of my friends, killed all at once in a horrific terrorist attack. This time they had signed up for it, gone running towards the enemy, in service of their country, their mission, and another very specific perspective. While I will always honor their sacrifices and everything that they stood for, it was always a struggle for me to reconcile the all or nothing mentality of the military. In the words of retired four-star General Stanley McChrystal, who’d just left command of all forces in Afghanistan at that time, “As uncomfortable as it might be, most soldiers understand that our cause might be no more right than our enemy’s” (Leaders: Myth and Reality, p31, Stan McChrystal). It’s an awareness that I always tried to maintain during my military service—and I think it helped me to hang on to my humanity in the face of the things we were required to do.
Why does any of this matter if you are not serving in the military or living in a cult? Well, groups are all around us, in so many different forms that we don’t realize when we are a part of one. As human beings, we need groups, but we also operate completely differently within groups—the reality is that they take on a life of their own. Understanding that can be crucial to successfully functioning within any group, without losing sight of who you are, or having your perspective hijacked. It’s also very important when we’re talking workplace culture.
Cult is a very loaded term—I would know, I speak a lot on the subject. You can’t say the word ‘cult’ without someone getting offended, and yet, cult mentality is everywhere. When we are operating in silos within our organizations, we are building mini-cults. Group norms grow up around us, they give us shortcuts on how to operate to be accepted within the group—every group has them. When they become something that we accept without questioning, feeling automatically hostile should anyone else criticize, we are becoming absorbed into cult-mentality. When we don’t take the time to get out of our groups, to think about things from other angles, and to question our most closely held beliefs and assumptions, we begin to butt up pretty hard against group think. One of the truths I’ve learned throughout my admittedly crazy life is that there is a fine line between culture and cult.
So how do we do it? How do we build a workplace that has a strong supportive culture, a group identity, a sense of community, and is full of innovation, without sliding too far to the other side—the side of group think, of silos, and of unquestioning obedience? How do we build a workplace that is more culture than cult?
- Actively cultivate a culture of questioning:
I can’t think of a single situation or culture where unquestioning obedience is a good thing—not in the military and not in any industry, no matter how dangerous. Yes, you want to train hard. Yes, you want muscle memory and automated processes. And yes, you want a command structure. But without questioning we never improve. Think about it, all science (and scientific advances) really are is people questioning things that others believe to be fact—and then proving that it isn’t. As the leader, it’s your job to make sure that people know that they can question your authority, and you’re failing yourself if they don’t.
- Have critical conversations:
Every time you complete a mission, launch a product, or roll out a new initiative, have critical conversations around the outcomes. Did things go as expected? Did things happen that you weren’t prepared for? Most importantly, did you expect one thing and then find another to be true? Having those conversations, honest reviews and getting all of those findings into your institutional knowledge is the best way to both learn from your mistakes and to ensure that both failure and success are valuable tools in your organization.
- Find Ways to Introduce Outside Opinions:
In my humble opinion, this is a metric that every business leader should track. Where do all of your new ideas come from? How often are you seeking outside counsel, and not just from lawyers? How often do you bring in outside consultants, employees’ spouses, competitor’s best people, or even customers and give them carte blanche to let the ‘good ideas’ fly? Trust me, any place where all the new ideas come from the top is not a place that anyone wants to be.
- Become a Student of Human Behavior:
And understand that sometimes you have to work against it. Group psychology is fascinating. If you don’t know what I mean, watch the crowd at a football game. Perfectly normal people are acting in ways that would never be acceptable anywhere outside of a football stadium. Humans need community, humans need deep connection, and humans need norms to reassure them that they are acting appropriately. But all of these things can take on a life of their own—and it happens much more quickly than we are usually aware of.
- Understand the Need for Balance:
So far, I don’t think anyone has found a perfect formula, and that is because culture is hard. On one side of the spectrum, you have a mechanical organization, perfectly finetuned to produce products and profits, with human beings being just another thing that is fed into the machine. As a society, we’ve mostly rejected this form of operating in favor of workplace cultures that attempt to prioritize their human capital. But the other end is often no better. Hugs and flowers make everyone smile, but if all you do is hold hands, connect, build team spirit and dream about future goals, you’ll go out of business—and did you know that many 19th and 20th century cults started out as businesses? The devil is in the details, and the culture is in learning to balance the extremes.
To quote General McChrystal once again, “It is impossible to master the countless variables of leadership to guarantee a perfect result. Ultimately, the best you can do is to increase the probability of success” (Leaders: Myth and Reality, Stanley McChrystal, 408). There’s no such thing as a perfect culture, there never has been a perfect leader, and there’s no chance there will ever be an easy button. Well, I have to admit, there might be a chance—maybe if we ask enough critical questions, then one day, we will figure it out.
But for now, just keep working at it. And remember, to be great every day!
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DANIELLA YOUNG IS AN ORGANIZATIONAL BEHAVIOR, CULTURE STRATEGY AND LEADERSHIP DEVELOPMENT CONSULTANT AT CAVNESSHR. DANIELLA SPECIALIZES IN HELPING BUSINESSES CREATE A CUSTOMIZED ROADMAP TO THE GROWTH CULTURE THAT EVERY ORGANIZATION WANTS ACHIEVE, BEFORE IT’S TOO LATE. WANT TO LEARN MORE? CLICK HERE TO SCHEDULE AN INTRO CALL.