Cultural climate matters. There are lots of buzzwords in the consultancy wordpool at the moment – among them, employee engagement, employee cynicism, intrinsic motivation – but what it comes down to is that how a workplace feels, generally, makes a difference to how a person will feel, specifically, while working there. That sounds like a rather banal truism, but it’s a rather banal truism that makes a huge difference in practice.

As indicated in a previous post, I was in Toronto last week giving a keynote on cultural climate and culture change. On the morning of my talk I was delighted to see that Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, had an article in the National Post entitled “How Wall Street Corrodes Your Soul”Wall Street Michael Lewis pic

I find that the article resonates nicely with some of my work on the process of what I call ‘enclosure’ (simplistically, how good situations go bad and how bad situations get worse) and the emergence of ‘environments of enclosure’ (culturally unsustainable environments). The core of the article is the statement,

“People are vulnerable to the incentives of their environment, and often the best a person can do, if he wants to behave in a certain manner, is to choose carefully the environment that will go to work on their characters.”

That’s a lot of jumping between singulars and plurals, but the basic message is pretty much what I was saying in the keynote.

Be careful who you pretend to be, for that is who you may become.
Be careful who you spend time with, for that is who you may become.
Be careful what cultural climates you frequent, for that is who you may become.

Michael Lewis lists what he sees as some of the occupational hazards of Wall Street:

“Some are obvious — for instance, the temptation, when deciding how to behave, to place too much weight on the very short term and not enough on the long term. Or the temptation, if you make a lot of money, to deploy financial success as an excuse for failure in other aspects of your life. But some of the occupational hazards on Wall Street are less obvious …”

  • Anyone who works in finance will feel pressured to pretend to know more than he does.
  • Anyone who works in big finance will find it hard to form deep attachments to anything greater than himself.
  • Anyone who works in big finance will feel pressure to not challenge existing arrangements.

Lewis ties it up at the end:

“The intense pressure to conform, to not make waves, has got to be the most depressing part of all, for a genuinely ambitious young person. It’s pretty clear that the government lacks the power to force serious change upon the financial sector. There’s a big role for Silicon Valley-style scorched-earth entrepreneurship on Wall Street right now, and the people most likely to innovate are newcomers to the industry who have no real stake in the parts of it that need scorching.

“As a new employee on Wall Street, you might think this has nothing to do with you. You would be wrong. Your new environment’s resistance to market forces, and to the possibility of doing things differently and more efficiently, will soon become your own. When you start your career you might think you are setting out to change the world, but the world is far more likely to change you.”

This is a good example of what I mean by the heightened directivity and gravities of an environment of enclosure. In particular, the cultural priming that happens in intense environments like so-called Big Finance.

As I stated it in the keynote

“Within any particular cultural system, prolonged participation in the cultural climate has a tendency to prime people to reproduce the dynamics of that climate (either in that system or upon having moved to another). Within particular qualities of environment people tend to default to particular kinds of change. While it is possible to overcome this priming to a greater or lesser extent, for the most part in cultural priming people turn towards what I call “the adjacent probable.”

“I’ve developed the term “adjacent probable” from the term “adjacent possible” in the work of Stuart Kauffman, a biologist and complex and adaptive systems researcher. This concept speaks to the way that biological developments can only happen within their specific conditions of possibility, “the range of biochemical changes that any living system … could reach without destroying its internal organization.” (Peter H Jones 2013:324). As interpreted by Stephen Johnson (2010), “The adjacent possible is a kind of shadow future, hovering on the edge of the present state of things, a map of all the ways in which the present can reinvent itself. Yet it is not an infinite space, or a totally open playing field …. What the adjacent possible tells us is that at any moment the world is capable of extraordinary things, but only certain changes can happen.”(Johnson 2010, p. 30-31).

“In the context of the Cultural Climate Framework, the adjacent probable tells us is that at any moment we are capable of many things, but we tend to reach for architectures and dynamics of thinking, feeling, and doing that are already dominant in the cultural climate we inhabit, and it doesn’t matter whether our intention is supportive or oppositional. The adjacent probable refers to our default responses in a particular situation, both tacit and explicit, that are both symptomatic of and constitutive of the dominant expectations in the cultural climate.”

This isn’t really anything to worry about in a healthy environment, where the cultural priming process can strengthen and support the life and community that’s there. Anyway, in healthy environments the priming process tends to have a quiet enough character, being experienced more as invitational than highly directive.

Where it becomes a serious issue, and a key element of cultural unsustainability and personal unsustainability, is in an enclosing (often toxic) environment. To enter such an environment without the emotional preparedness or emotional self-defence skills that would otherwise protect you is to risk having your own perspective, your own positioning, your own sense of response-ability and accountability displaced by the unquestioned authorities, gravities, and rule structures of the situation. Sometimes it’s just experienced as getting swept up in and away by the energy, speed, and, perhaps literally, intoxication of the moment.


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