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Friday 29 March 2013

Opposed cultures and bridging cultures

Opposed cultures and bridging cultures

This post continues to examine the dynamics of the 'Culture Triangle'. See earlier posts for an explanation of the six cultures and additional information about how they perceive and behave towards each other.

Opposed cultures
As implied by their positions at opposing corners of the triangle, some cultures can have a strong tendency to come into conflict. These are the political, passionate and expert cultures. Like natural enemies in the wild, they can circle each other warily and if sufficiently provoked they can even attack each other viciously. Alternatively, they can retreat into their corners, snarling and baring their organisation's sharpest teeth to ward off unwelcome encroachments upon their territory. 
The above, sometimes violent, oppositions are caused by the conflicting first instincts the cultures demonstrate in response to any significant activity, initiative or project that gains their attention: 
  • The first instinct of those from political cultures is to look inward at their internal relationships and dynamics, and they will judge any activity, initiative or project in terms of how it could affect these relationships. Will it deliver the results that the key players in their organisation expect? Will it improve their own credibility and standing within the organisation? Will they be able to use their involvement in it and the results it achieves to enhance their power and influence within their organisations? For example, a professional politician will judge any initiative or project in terms of how consistent it is with their previously stated views and the policies of their party. They will also be extremely mindful of whether or not involvement in a project is likely to enhance their credibility and influence with the party’s power brokers. This is why politicians sometimes make choices or do things that are unpopular with the public. For the most part it is the party and its grandees that can assure a politician’s professional future, not the general voting public.
  • The first instinct of those from passionate cultures is to look outward towards the areas and people they wish to help, and they will judge any activity, initiative or project in terms of how effective it is in enabling them to do this. Will it deliver the results that are really needed by people? Will it make the best possible difference to people’s lives or whatever else is the focus of the activity? Will it enhance their ability to carry on with and develop their work? For example, when a partnership was formed to prepare and deliver a pilot for providing digital hearing aids on the NHS, the key focus of the charitable institutions involved was to produce the maximum amount of aids for the minimum price, so doing the most good for the most people.  Other considerations such as procurement and contractual obligations, although important, did not figure quite so highly in their thinking.
  • The first instinct of those from expert cultures is to gain and apply knowledge and expertise, and they will judge any activity, initiative or project in terms of how effective it is in enabling them to do this. What new knowledge and experience will they gain from a project? How can they most effectively apply their existing knowledge, skills and expertise to an initiative? What have they used elsewhere that could be adapted to the new situation or problem before them? For example, high technology companies in the pharmaceutical and biotechnology industries help to set up biotechnology and bio science parks in partnership with NHS hospitals because it provides them with opportunities to gain valuable information about the local population, apply their high level specialist knowledge and skills in a practical setting, and perhaps find out if something that has worked in one environment will work in another. 
The above differences in perception and judgement can lead to those from different cultures pulling and tugging an initiative in painfully different directions. This can lead to it being violently dismembered into rough, unequal parts, with people fighting over what they consider to be the choicest bits: those that will suit their organisations’ tastes and, more importantly, appetites.
For example, a town centre development became bogged down and endangered because the private developers (if not exactly political then at least entrepreneurial in culture) wanted to maximise their profit by building a significant number of private flats, whilst others representing the local community (definitely passionate in culture) were pulling the development in the direction of improved public amenities, services and social housing. The differences were eventually overcome when the protagonists stopped pulling in separate directions and began seeking imaginative solutions that would meet the needs of developers and the local community alike.

Bridging cultures
The cultures positioned at other points of the triangle can, if necessary, act as bridges between the above opposed cultures.
The strongest ‘bridging culture’ is the pragmatic culture. It can act as a three way bridge connecting the three opposed cultures. Pragmatic cultures are very aware of their environment and, when there is a practical reason for doing so, they are willing to engage with most of its aspects. When necessary, they will acknowledge the importance of political activity, engage with it and even initiate it. They also exhibit similar attitudes and involvement with regard to community engagement and support (a passionate culture interest) and acquiring and applying expert knowledge (an expert culture interest).
If organisations involved in collaborative projects seem frequently at loggerheads, it could be because there is an absence of people from pragmatic cultures. Inviting such people into the project (they tend to come primarily from service and financial organisations) is likely to provide practical insights and ideas that could help bridge the differences between the three opposed cultures.
The artistic and functional cultures can also build bridges towards other cultures. They can provide single bridges between the political and passionate and political and expert cultures respectively.
The artistic culture can have both an inward and an outward focus. People from this culture tend to focus upon not only their personal needs and development and how to achieve them (a link with political cultures), but also where their artistic activities can make a meaningful contribution (a link with passionate cultures). This means they are likely  to contribute perspectives and ideas that can create bridges of understanding between political and passionate cultures.
The functional culture can also have both an inward and an outward focus. People from this culture are very aware of not only hierarchy and their standing and influence within it (a link with political cultures), but also the specific role and related expertise they need to undertake and deliver during activities or projects (a link with expert cultures). This means they are likely to provide perspectives and ideas that can create bridges of understanding between political and expert cultures.

Click here to read the next post in the series.

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