New Hope For The Workplace

Remarkable progress is being made
in techniques for improving organizational culture

One of the articles in Living Business (IC#11)
Originally published in Autumn 1985 on page 28
Copyright (c)1985, 1997 by Context Institute

Judith Wyatt brings a background as a marriage, family and child counselor into her work as an organizational development consultant. She can be reached at 492 Fair Oaks, San Francisco, CA 94110.

I WANT TO TALK about the seeds of a movement toward deep cultural change in that bastion of old ways of doing things, that place where most people are conditioned 40 plus hours a week: the workplace. I want to talk about the crystallization of new behavioral skills technologies and the slow emergence of entry points in the entrenched corporate structure, where miracles of transformation have already occurred, dramatically affecting thousands of people.

These examples are still very few, but they are the tip of the iceberg. I believe that in 15 years awareness of how we create, maintain or change our organizational cultures will be as widespread as awareness of personal change and growth methods has become over the last 15 years.

The success of the bestseller, In Search of Excellence, signals the major recognition of a climate shift in corporate management theory, away from the assumed necessity of objectifying people, which Frederick Taylor first made popular in the late 19th century, to a realization that including and addressing all workers’ needs and moving toward collaboration actually proves to be a more productive and profitable strategy. This major shift is the backdrop for a mushrooming of new approaches to solving organizational problems by changing behavioral skills and relationship structures among employees on all levels.

As on all frontiers, the range of quality among these approaches to organizational development ("O.D.") is vast. Because of the values of the corporate context in which they have to survive financially, most O.D. specialists cater to needs and interests at the top of the corporate hierarchy. Since corporate leaders are afraid of losing power, they capitulate to more collaborative work strategies grudgingly, as superficially as possible, and only as much as the pressures of the economy force them to. Therefore, most O.D. practices at this point focus on retraining and restructuring of management without challenging the basic culture of the workplace at a depth that would improve the quality of life much for people at the bottom.

However, there are a few approaches that do provide channels for deep level empowerment that includes the lowest level of workers, and change from unconscious, destructive cultural patterns to a conscious cultural recreation determined collaboratively by everyone in the organization. These latter efforts are the exciting pioneering examples which, to me, point the way forward and demonstrate that there are processes which can move people in old world forms and settings swiftly to a transformed consciousness, and without overwhelming chaos.

The most inspiring such example I know is the work of Robert F. Allen of the Human Resources Institute of Morristown, New Jersey. His approach is simple and direct. In his major book, Beat the System, he outlines the basic way cultures operate through unconscious patterns of behavior – "norms" – which all members of the culture must learn in order to be accepted into the culture. These patterns are the rule, "the way things are done"; whether constructive or destructive, they keep the cultural system coherent and running, and any individual who breaks or even questions these patterns suffers various forms of punishment, which are built into the culture. These patterns can be lethal because they, and their reinforcement system, are maintained unconsciously.

The first big secret about norms is that they often contradict the stated goals and values of the organizational culture. Because relationship structures, allocation of resources, reward and sanction systems, and authority role models support these norms, people are forced to follow the norms, rather than the expressed values, in order to survive in the organization. One example is when the boss says, "We believe in initiative here," but there are no acceptable modes for people to make suggestions, people are criticized unless they perform strictly by the guidelines, and those who try creative alternatives are isolated and shunted aside when promotions come up. Another example is the organization that gives pep talks regularly on cooperation and teamwork, but has monthly contests to "spur motivation" in which departments and individuals compete for "best production record of the month" which adds up later to bonuses and promotions.

In the first organization, people will soon learn to be afraid to show any initiative. In the bind of the second organization, people will find themselves having to compete to respond to the sanctions and rewards for winning or losing these contests, and this need to "beat" other people and departments will sabotage their inclinations to act like a team. Internally people may respond to such a bind with anxiety and self-blame, and take it as a personal failure that they are not living up to the stated values of the organization. Or, if they see the bind, they may feel anger and cynicism about the possibility of carrying out such values, or about the intention of management.

This leads us to the second secret about norms, which is that belief systems arise to rationalize them, such as: "People are naturally competitive; they have to compete to be motivated," or "People here are too lazy to want to take initiative; they like the security of being told what to do," or even "People here don’t have the brains to be creative." People at all levels become convinced that it has to be the way it is, and lose even the image of how it could be different.

The third secret about norms is that people in the culture learn to be blind to them. This is true even though, to an outsider, it may be obvious that these norms are particular to this culture, and likewise obvious how these norms are reinforced. The most destructive norm of all is the super- norm of silence, which forbids seeing and talking about the norms at all, or how they operate, and which is very common.

It is important to realize that the depth and persistence of this blindness often goes far beyond simple ignorance. People systematically "blind" and numb themselves to endure conditions that are so painful that awareness would overwhelm and immobilize them. Many who have lived through a trauma or disaster – war, rape, flood – can describe going "on automatic," doing and not feeling, in order to make it through, and only later feeling the fear and pain.

What most of us overlook is the traumatizing effect of working day after day in deadening, dehumanizing and degrading roles. The despair, fear and anger produced when people believe they are trapped in these conditions has to be denied for the people to be able to continue to get up and go to work each morning. In order to effectively suppress these feelings, people must distort, deny or rationalize their very perceptions of these deadening conditions. And this whole process must happen unconsciously.

This leaves many working people in the ironic dilemma of desperately fighting against the very process of awareness that is the first necessary step toward changing their situations. What is important for us to understand is that their fight is for daily emotional survival. The super-norm of silence functions as much more than a means of social control and a way to maintain the culture; it acts as a personal emotional defense enabling each member of the culture to survive the pain of living in it.

How does Robert Allen help change this? He starts with an organization that is hurting economically, and he explains to the key decision-makers that in order to achieve genuine, long-lasting production goals and program objectives, the culture has to be examined and changed for the ways it is currently preventing these goals from being reached. He insists that top management put, not only resources, but their own personal willingness to undergo behavior change, publicly on the line, demonstrating to all lower levels their commitment to the change over and over again.

He and his team then live in the work culture at all levels, like anthropologists, learning the norms and finding indigenous cultural leaders who become creators of the first conscious description of the norms in the culture. These leaders put together a survey, distributed to everyone in the organization, to identify what unconscious behavior rules they recognize in their own organizational lives. These are scored to see where agreement is, and the work of change then progresses to workshops attended by everyone to learn about how norms work and to discuss the findings of the survey.

The normative change process moves through four stages. After this introductory and diagnostic first phase, people begin to meet in experiential workshop groups – to choose which norms to replace, to define and practice the new behaviors, and to set up monitoring and reinforcement systems to help implement them on the job. The third phase consists of in-depth implementation of the new norms and program changes organization-wide. The final renewal phase is a repeated check-up to evaluate and make new changes as necessary.

Robert Allen has done this kind of cultural change work with numerous organizations, from state government to a court diversion program for juvenile offenders, to hospitals and businesses of all kinds. But the most inspiring success he’s had, for me, is the change made by hundreds of migrant laborers picking fruit for Coca-Cola in Florida. These incredibly exploited and demoralized people not only changed their work norms and conditions in the fields, but organized themselves to start and run their own medical and dental clinic, a library, and a child development center, as well as building new housing for themselves, and further extending their resources to agricultural laborers all over the state.

Their story, documented in The Quiet Revolution, brought me to tears often, because it demonstrated so clearly what I have always believed: that, given a good process, people can turn an organized atrocity into a garden of endless possibilities. A good process seems to require two major ingredients: 1) a way for people to mobilize their trust and heart energy and resources to sustain it, as demonstrated in this case by key managers in Coca-Cola as well as the migrants; and 2) a crucial set of skills and understandings about their own behavior and beliefs. "Ordinary" people, with proper skills training, in a well sequenced and orchestrated depth change process, can accomplish things they never dreamed they could do. The synergy of the shared liberation, the joy of watching each other transforming at no one’s expense, can create true community where there was only a feeling of isolation and prison – perhaps a deeper sense of community than the people have ever felt before.

Several elements seem to be crucial to ensure that this synergic, deep level change in the quality of work life succeeds. The first key element for success is that people down to the lowest level must be shown real commitment from the power structure to their participation in making decisions about their own culture change. This does not have to mean that management give up the power of setting limits on the kind or degree of input to decision-making they will take from subordinates. Cultures change toward increased participation most comfortably in stages, as shown by the work of Rensis Likert. But this element does require that management be honest and congruent: if you say all groups will design their own normative changes, you don’t then try to bring in an outside manager to instigate and control the change process. Hierarchy can be used to set limits and to support the process, but indigenous leaders need to generate their own issues, demands and goals, congruent with the company’s goals. In most work cultures the line workers are highly suspicious that any talk about participation is lip service, and they are often accurate. Who wants to put energy into a change process that claims to represent your needs and empowerment, but is really a sham?

Second, a willingness to go the depth of exploring all norms and norm enforcement systems is a necessary ingredient for large-scale participative change to work. Many models address structural change, communication of feelings, goals realignment, or external skills training, and yet fail to confront the unconscious norms that will undermine all these new behaviors. People can have marvelous intentions and goals, dynamic task forces, fantastic skills training, but if they return to an environment in which everyone is unconsciously set up to reinforce the old behaviors and punish the new, they will still behave in the old ways in order to survive.

Third, job-integrated skills training in properly sequenced phases is essential, to help people handle the new roles and responsibilities that participation requires. This is true both for managers and subordinates. Cooperation requires a level of sophistication in communication, self-knowledge, and group problem-solving which does not evolve automatically, overnight, or without resistance in people who have been programmed all their lives not to trust themselves or others, to compete for space or to surrender it to superiors, to win points, to placate and avoid conflict, and so forth. In cultures so painful that people are deeply invested in denial of their feelings and behaviors in order to survive, there will be great resistance to any raising of consciousness. Gradual adjustment processes will have to be invented to help such people face their pain and make the needed transitions. Training has to move in step with the changes in both the group and the individual. It has to be job-integrated so that it is practiced, and congruent with the person’s work role and relationships.

Arranging and sequencing all of this in a way that is responsive to the organic growth of the change process is what I mean by orchestration. The participative change project at the Bethlehem Steel Company in Pennsylvania is an inspiring example of such an effort on a huge scale. The consulting firm of Weisbord, Block and Petrella worked in conjunction with Ben Scribner, the internal specialist at Bethlehem Steel, to prepare and train a group of selected managers to go back and train others in their departments, before large scale participative change could even begin. When it did begin, people at all levels were introduced to each phase of the change through experiential workshops, using a particular theme which then became an integrated part of their daily job. This process, affecting a workforce of some 60,000 people, has proved so effective that laid off workers were coming a to work without pay because they were so excited by their new closeness with fellow workers and by the process.

I see this kind of awareness of and change in the culture of organizations as a much needed learning for our planet now, an essential aspect of the shift in energy we are undergoing, and an essential step toward the evolutionary leap we must make to survive. I see it as healing a kind of splitness and craziness in our vision, where we have engaged often in conscious healing alone or in our relationships, yet have felt so stymied and overwhelmed by our organizations that we have seen no recourse except to leave them, to escape. Most people can’t "escape," because they depend on jobs in organizations to survive and to support their families. As long as they continue to feel trapped by violence and powerlessness daily at work, how can they genuinely embody or believe in planetary peace? Peace and oneness become almost insane abstractions when we are abandoning ourselves personally to daily violations we believe we have no power to stop.

Currently, my partner, Chauncey Hare, and I are working on ways to bring this new consciousness and cultural change to government agencies, where the normative cycle of fear and distrust and the need to keep up appearances demoralizes the workforce and reinforces them to act ineffectively, even on tasks they may feel committed to accomplishing in their private hearts. We are raising these concerns in the O.D. community with the hopes of organizing support to address the Congressional Clearinghouse on the Future, because Congress is the body most clearly in a position to instigate and support a cultural change exploration in federal government that would not be undermined by the existing normative system. But whether this particular action happens or not, whatever new forms this movement takes, I am convinced that the seeds are spreading. I see our species on the brink of joyful discoveries that will allow us to handle ourselves in organizations with an ease and grace we never imagined possible, and heal an incredible amount of pain for many people. I welcome correspondence from anyone working along the same lines, with a similar vision, and especially in government.


Allen, Robert F. and Charlotte Kraft, Beat the System! A Way to Create More Human Environments (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1980).

Harris, Sara and Robert F. Allen, The Quiet Revolution: The Story of a Small Miracle in American Life (New York: Rawson Associates Publishers, Inc., 1978).

Likert, Rensis, The Human Organization: Its Management and Value (New York: McGraw-Hill Book Company, 1967).

Peters, Thomas J. and Robert H. Waterman Jr., In Search of Excellence: Lessons from America’s Best-Run Companies (New York: Warner Books, 1982).

Scribner, Ben, presentation to 1983 O.D. Network Conference, taped transcript.

Hare, Chauncey, "Making It Real: A Change Effort at the EPA", in Vision Action (San Francisco: December, 1984 issue).

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!