On Culture And Rumors

In the absence of information, rumors will be born because humans are narrative beings who need some level of coherence as a way of explaining the facts of their lives. Information and rumor are two types of communication, both serving the same purpose but in the Venn diagram of understanding, they are not mutually exclusive. The only way to completely remove Rumor is to be totally open with Information. The caveat of course is that the information has to be trustworthy, it has to explain all, or at least most, of the pertinent facts of a given situation and the people who are being informed have to believe the information is worthwhile and explanatory. If Information fails these basic categories or requirements, the humans, being narrative creatures, will make up a story that explains the pertinent facts of their situation and because the made up information will be far juicier and dopamine producing, the rumor will spread, take hold and become what the humans believe to be true.

Rumor can also start not because of information withheld but because of poor communication. This may even be the main genesis of Rumor. You as a leader may believe that you are communicating clearly and with purpose but chances are, your blind spots and your biases prevent you from actually telling a cohesive story. There will be nooks and crannies of what you have tried to communicate that exist explicitly because your world view is decidedly different from the world view of those you are trying to communicate with. Because you rarely have an actual discussion with those people, you do not understand what people believe or live with.

There is a dirty secret around Rumors as well that most people don’t think about. Rumor is contraindicative to Culture. If Rumor thrives, Culture wanes. Again, from the level of a leader, you may think that Culture is thriving because you regularly communicate, though often with asymmetrical information, the events and stories that make sense to you. But because the information is in fact asymmetrical (you are hiding things unless you explicitly go out of your way to unhide them), Rumor begins and slowly expands into the fissures and cracks of your Culture, freezing and thawing over and over until the rock that you thought was holding every thing together splits and your Culture is broken in pieces. If in the intervening time period you have also changed the organizational structure in fundamental ways, the Culture is further broken. A company can have a Culture that crosses the boundaries of organizational charts but it is an exceptionally difficult thing to do well and nourish.

What is Culture? Superficially, it’s the norms and rules that a group of people function under, possibly outside the bounds of the group’s stated goals or missions. Often, things like happy hours or game rooms or any number of other superficial things are cited as evidence of culture in the working world. These are what Clay Christensen called hygienic factors in How Will You Measure Your Life? But a real culture is deeper than these factors anyone with a checkbook could implement. A real culture is deeply ingrained in the people who come into and are accepted by it. Long time members of the culture are fierce protectors, buffering it against change through rules, spoken and unspoken, that are enforced militantly and without exception.

Leaders often like to act like Culture is just something people step into and adopt, like a team uniform that a player puts on when they get traded. The hygienic factors of culture are exactly like that. But the real Culture, the one, if it exists however unlikely, that ebbs and flows through the veins and arteries of the body is not something you just put on. It is something imparted with difficulty and learning and discovery that must be actively cultivated (they share the same root, “cult” which has its own connotations that are relevant) and nourished. Talking about a great culture can certainly help sustain one that exists but it will never be sufficient to restore one that has faded or create one out of nothing.

Culture in the workplace is even harder to sustain and foster and more susceptible to the insidious effects of Rumor. It is almost natural for leaders to withhold information from those people most likely to support or undermine the culture. It seems logical to not tell people the full story about changes because perhaps the full story isn’t as rosy as one might hope. But because humans are narrative creatures who attempt to make sense of their world, a poor story, full of plot holes, will be collectively improved through rumor. If what people are told is stupid, they will, those who remain, try to make sense of the situation by gathering together and working out the details like a theatre workshop. The spread of information will not stop at the boundaries of the meeting where you told a goofy story. It’s just that the information will be created by the people who are most affected by the missing pieces. That information created without guidance or basis on the actual situation will begin to degrade the actual facts because the made up story will be far juicier and ready for easy transmission through the organization than the original ever was.

Culture can also not stand for a sea change of group members or a shift in leadership of the group. Culture requires the absorption of new members in a slow process that imparts upon them both the norms and benefits of the culture. When too many individuals join or leave the culture, it is almost impossible to do the work to sustain it because new members, no matter how much they talk about how much they appreciate the culture, have no reference point for what it actually means to be a part of. Often, cultures are barely held together by the force of personality of a particular leader and when that person leaves or is replaced, the thin threads that hold it all together cannot support the weight of keeping things as they were. Change sweeps the culture aside. A turnover of group members will have the same effect as too many people cannot be assimilated into the group in the ways of the past and they will bring with them their own ideas of norms that are important. If a strong voice, individual or collective, cannot impart upon the swath of newness the importance and enforcement of the prior culture, the culture will change or die entirely. That’s why when a company chooses growth, it’s culture almost always radically changes. Think “Do No Evil” at Google and how it has gone entirely missing in recent years.

A word one rarely sees Harvard Business Review studies on or reads in the hottest TechCrunch article is tradition. Culture is constantly talked about and pushed but no one discusses tradition which is the actual mechanism of passing norms and behaviors to later generations. This is likely twofold in nature. One, cultures, sharing the same root as “cult”, are often actually weak, ephemeral and top-down. They are the force of a outspoken and strong leader. They are hygienic and not intrinsic. A cynical take might go so far as to say the implication of a culture is a way to enforce a normalization of voices within the organization as a mechanism for control. By hearing there is a culture over and over again, one may actually begin to believe there is one even if evidence to the contrary becomes overwhelming.

The second reason tradition never comes up is because it is where the hard work actually lies. It is the mechanism for passing the culture on to new generations of members. Because it involves generational learning, it takes longer to develop. It is the backbone of culture enforcement where new members learn what the rules are for the culture and how they are to operate within it. Without strong long lasting traditions, the culture is merely hygienic at best and cynical at worst. If a person can’t come into a culture and immediately understand the boundaries of the system through the spoken and unspoken traditions of the group, there is no real culture. When I first started working at One Technologies, there was a tradition that every developer got a pairing station. A pairing station is a single computer with two keyboards, two monitors, two mice, totally set up so that two people can work on the same thing. Pair programming involves two developers working together on a problem. There is some debate on whether this actually leads to better code and as with many things in the software world, the answer depends entirely on the implementation, the people, the considerations of other factors, etc. But the point is, that at OT, there was a tradition. You knew it on day one (and even in interviews) that the expectation was that you would pair program.

Developing a culture and then maintaining it is hard. It involves vision, honesty, an exceptional level of communication, an ongoing commitment, and near universal acceptance of the members of the usefulness of membership in it. For it to really last, it has to provide intrinsic meaning to the members via some mechanism beyond the superficial. People’s identity need to be involved with it. Without those characteristics, almost impossible to develop and maintain in a narcissistic, greed based world, culture is just something those in power use to manipulate the nominal members of the culture. Without real meaning, culture devolves into an ironic state of serving the opposite characteristics that the leaders are regularly touting as beneficial.