The Yin and Yang of Organizational Culture

This article first appeared in DNA India on 9th March, 2017

I have been reading the book “Management from the Masters” by Morgan Witzel where he has looked through history of what he terms Universal “laws”.

The third law (more like a rule though) that Witzel talks about (from the perspective of a Universal Law) is that of the Chinese concept of yin and yang. This concept is commonly misunderstood as being one of opposites. Yin and yang, however, refer to concepts that are closely intertwined like night and day or light and darkness. Witzel uses the yin-yang concept to discuss paradoxes and their impact on managment. Paradoxes abound everywhere in the world and they are, in the words of Charles Handy, “inevitable, endemic and perpetual”. Often we can get caught up in “solving” paradoxes rather then accepting and trying to work with the paradoxes that we encounter.

Take organisational culture for example. There are at least two paradoxes that can seem insurmountable at first. The first one is about the growth of the organisation’s culture itself. Organisational culture requires nurturing and some degree of control from the top echelons of the company. However, this control can itself lead to a worsening of the culture. On the other, hand a culture that is a free for all, without any form of guidance from the top can also lead to ultimate decay. Such a development where culture emerges organically need not necessarily align with the organisational vision and values. So how does one work with such a paradox where strict control and lack of control seemingly lead to the same result, viz., decay?

One way to work with such paradoxes is to understand that there is a grey area between black and white, darkness and light, night and day. In other words both sides of a paradox have elements of truth that, if accepted and exploited, can lead to a solution. For example, organisational culture can benefit both from a consistent definition and tight control of the vision and values while allowing a considerable degree of flexibility in the actual demonstration of these values at an individual level.

The second paradox is between what organisations think they get from employees and what employees feel they give organisations. If organisations think that they are getting labour (in whatever form, both physical and intellectual) from their employees while employees feel that they are providing their time to the organisation, there is a fundamental disagreement between these issues, or at least so it seems. However, if organisations recognise that since employees bring their whole selves to work, it is actually their time that they are providing, and employees recognise that the reason the organisation has provided them with a salary is to make use of their talent and capabilities, then this seeming paradox can be resolved in a mutually beneficial manner. This can ultimately lead to a more rewarding experience for both the organisation and the employees leading to greater engagement on the part of the latter.