Plenary debate calls for culture to be recognized as a pillar of sustainable development and as a tool to fight populism and radicalization. Cultural diplomacy a type of public diplomacy and soft power that includes the “exchange of ideas, information, art and other aspects of culture among nations and their peoples in order to foster mutual understanding”. The purpose of cultural diplomacy is for the people of a foreign nation to develop an understanding of the nation’s ideals and institutions in an effort to build broad support for economic and political goals. In essence “cultural diplomacy reveals the soul of a nation”, which in turn creates influence. Though often overlooked, cultural diplomacy can and does play an important role in achieving national security aims.

EU needs a concrete plan to champion culture as a vital element in open, tolerant societies, according to Europe’s leading organised civil society body.

The 350-member European Economic and Social Committee held a debate with Culture Commissioner Tibor Navracsics and voted through its opinion on the EU’s recent strategy for international cultural relations on Wednesday at its May plenary in Brussels.

“Culture has an enormous untapped potential for becoming a unifying and mobilising instrument in Europe. At a time when extremism is increasing, when our citizens are questioning their common identity more than ever – now is the moment to firmly place culture and cultural policies at the heart of the European political agenda” declared the rapporteur Luca Jahier, President of the EESC Various Interests’ Group.

“The EU should grasp momentum and create a concrete strategy and action plan for international cultural relations, including culture as a tool of soft power and promoting it as a pillar of sustainable development”.

A common thread in the study of organizational culture is the idea of culture as a unifying force that brings people together to work productively toward the attainment of organizational goals. In this approach, organizational culture is understood as a variable to be used in projects of social engineering aimed at creating unity and cohesion.

But that’s not really what culture is about, nor is it a useful way to think about organizations. Why? Because culture isn’t just about unity; it’s also about division. Rather than a deterministic “thing” that shapes behavior and unifies people, culture is something people use, often strategically, to achieve goals. It can also provide a basis upon which people contest and counter certain ideas and values while accepting other values associated with a particular cultural context.

Even values presented as commonly held by the organization and its members and, thus, constitutive of a culture usually aren’t really all that common. For example, think of a politician who extols values such as “freedom” and “liberty.” Voters might agree that those are important values yet disagree deeply on what the values really mean. Is freedom supported through social programs that redistribute wealth — as in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s famous articulation of “freedom from want” — or is freedom served through being left to our own devices without government intervention? “Freedom” can be used in both ways and exists as a common value only to the extent that people define it in the same way.

Leaders know company value statements often become nothing more than cosmetic window dressing. What appears less common is their understanding of the destructive consequences of allowing that to happen. They reflexively grasp for the culture lever, assuming the act of crafting and publishing a set of values actually has the power to do something. They are shocked when cynicism, resentment, eventually settling on indifference, are how the organization actually responds.

People want their company’s values to be sacrosanct. And when they aren’t, the logical conclusion they draw is that the organization doesn’t mean what it says, and that behaving in ways that contradict the values is perfectly acceptable. The painful result of widespread misuse of company values, according to one major study, is that only 23% of U.S. employees strongly agree that they can apply their organization’s values to their work every day, and only 27% “believe in” their organization’s values. Another comprehensive study based on more than 1,000 firms in the Great Places to Work database reveals a strong correlation between corporate financial performance and the extent to which employees believe their company’s espoused values are practiced. Values hold the power to drive meaningful differences in performance by shaping a culture, and when misused, can undermine performance with toxic force.

Of the many conditions I have seen in which company values are a powerful force for good, three stand out as uniquely important. First, accountability for living them exists top to bottom. People are selected, evaluated, and trained on how to embody them. Second, the values drive self-honesty, and when the company fails to live up to them, leaders are the first to admit it. And finally, writing a values statement is used as the start of an ongoing, transformational journey, not the conclusion of one. When these three conditions aren’t present, values can get hijacked and misused. Here’s how it happens:

  1. Without accountability, values become a weapon to punish. When a company has failed to genuinely embed its values throughout the organization, their default use is often as a way to shame and punish. In one organization, the alleged commitment to “values accountability” became so twisted that statements like “She’s not aligned with our values” or “I can’t support that decision because I don’t see how it reflects the values” became so reflexive that they shut down honest conversation.

One interviewee in our organization assessment admitted, “If you want to get someone you don’t like thrown out of the organization, just accuse them of not ‘living the values.’” True accountability for living up to a company’s values requires objective behavioral measures, and agreed upon standards that will be consistently applied across the whole organization. In this company’s case, senior leaders who were criticized for not modeling the values quickly ousted their accusers for “not being team players.” The very values intended to unify and inspire the culture had turned it into a poisonous gang rivalry. Eventually, the very expensive “culture change” effort was scrapped and the values simply ignored.

It’s painfully common for values statements to get used as yardsticks to discredit leaders people don’t want to support. They can also be magnifying glasses highlighting a leader’s hypocrisy, creating a reasonable excuse not to change one’s own behavior. When values statements are used to justify harmful behavior, it only accelerates their loss of credibility.

  1. Without self-honesty, values deflect attention away from misconduct. It’s very common for chronic bad behavior or a scandal to provoke a renewed focus on values. Genuine failure to live up to the company’s values should be acknowledged with honest humility and resolve to course correct. Without self-honesty, leaders feel compelled to simply appear resolute. Instead of amending their actions, they amend the values, choosing words antithetical to the known cultural norm needing to be cured. “Urgency” suddenly becomes a value when time to market cycles are industry lagging and pressure from the Board is mounting. “Transparency” becomes a value when there’s been a cover up. “Diversity and inclusion” becomes a value after too many discrimination lawsuits.

When a new value is declared with the unspoken intention of fixing the people asked to embrace it, you can bet embracing it is the last thing that happens. Values end up shielding the organization from honesty when they should fortify it with honesty. Like great magicians who use sleight-of-hand deflection to trick audiences, campaigns touting new values arouse the illusion of commitment while the real sources of bad behavior remain lurking in the background.

  1. Rather than starting change, the creation of “values statements” offers the illusion of change. The difficult work of transformation should start with defining core values. But for some companies, their creation is the entire change journey. Teams of people across the organization gathered around whiteboards and flipcharts rigorously debate the merits of different values. All of that is followed by the massive “roll out” campaign. People fill workshops where executives tell heartwarming stories about how the values have shaped their careers and will distinguish their organization in the future. Entertaining videos are distributed for everyone to “watch and discuss” as a team. T-shirts, screen savers, mouse pads, and posters with the values inundate the workplace. For months, the organization’s attention is consumed with the perception that things are really changing and that we are “all in this together.” For some, it’s the first sign of hope after a long drought of stagnancy. I spoke at an event where a company had completed such a campaign about six months earlier. I sensed that not much had happened since. I asked one employee what had actually changed since the campaign and she responded, “Just because everything is different, doesn’t mean anything has changed.”

The destruction from such values misuse can’t be overstated. The emotional carnage can be irreparable and the performance opportunity cost staggering. An organization would be far better off not having any stated values than to develop them only to misuse them.

True cultural norms drive results, are shaped by strategy, and engender strong communal pride. Culture, in such companies, becomes a competitive advantage and attracts top talent. Values that everyone knows mean nothing weaken an organization’s confidence, integrity, and ability to compete, rendering its culture a liability. The forces left to shape behavior become shame, pessimism, and cowardice.

A company’s values must reflect what makes it uniquely successful, conveying to employees, “This is what it takes to succeed here.” Processes like strategy, selection, rewards, performance management, and resource allocation must have values woven deeply into them with undeniable consistency between actions and words. If a company isn’t willing to do the very hard work of embedding its values into every fiber of the organization and hold people accountable for living them, they ought not bother writing them down.

In organizations, people interpret and contest values all the time. One of the core values espoused is responsibility, which is defined as meaning to serve as a catalyst for positive change. We associated responsibility with accountability and duty, rather than with being a catalyst for change. Also, how does one define positive change? I suspect it is quite different from one member of the university community to another. Even if most members of the university agree that responsibility is an important value, many may not agree with what that means or feel that the stated definition represents their own ideas about responsibility.

To further complicate things, people may contest common values while maintaining their commitment to the success of the organization. This may be as obvious as open disagreement, or as subtle as a manager quietly reshaping a project to reflect their personal ideas about how things should be done. It could show up as a tacit rise in absenteeism or overt complaints about decisions made by leaders. Indeed, one might complain about the decisions of leaders precisely because one is committed to the organization and feels that the direction that leadership is moving is wrong.

Even values espoused specifically to bring people together may not necessarily function that way. For example, Build-A-Bear Workshop states that it views Di-bear-sity as a core value. However, it’s fairly easy to imagine that while some might view this as a cute and positive representation of the value of diversity, others might respond that the term trivializes real issues related to diversity in the workplace and more generally in society. Employees might be divided on this point while retaining an overall commitment to the company and even feeling appreciative of the effort despite its weaknesses. Some research has found that rather than making everyone feel included, praising diversity can make some people feel singled out or threatened. It’s not simple.

And this brings us to an important point: The attempt to unify an organization by creating a culture is ultimately an exercise of power. People will react to that expression of power in different ways depending on the extent to which the values associated with the organizational culture resonate with their personal beliefs.

Fundamentally, a culture is not a set of marginally shared values; it’s a web of power relationships in which people are embedded and that they use to meet both personal and collective goals but that can also restrict their ability to achieve goals. Those power relationships can function to pull people together, but they also can pull them apart because they are the product of differential access to resources. And differences in power influence how we respond to and think about values espoused as being shared by members of a group.

Reliance on culture as a way to create unity can mislead those in positions of power into thinking that the core values expressed by the organization are actually uncritically accepted by employees. This can lead to false beliefs that publicly expressed conformity with corporate values reflects personal acceptance of those values. It also obscures the fact that people may align themselves with core values not because they agree, but because they see other values, such as job security, as more important to achieving their personal goals.

The idea that unity can be generated among employees by fixing or creating an organizational culture relies on a naive assumption that culture unambiguously brings people together. But the reality of culture is that it represents a tremendously complex variable that can both bring people together and pull them apart — or do both at the same time.

Regulating your negative emotions is critical to peak performanceWhen you try to inhibit negative emotions that you feel — anger, frustration, disappointment — in the workplace, the rational and emotional systems in you compete with each other. When your brain is busy trying to tamp down negative feelings, you become too distracted to perform well. Two systems in your brain are competing. That leads to not being focused on anything anymore. To regain cognitive control, recognize and ‘label’ how you feel, he said.

Peak performance is not about entering a stress state. Peak performance means that you find the environment that gets you in a position, and in a situation, where you can really perform at your best. We don’t have the idea of a stressed out top performer. Instead, the peak performer is someone whose emotions are under control and as such they can think optimally. We are talking about an easygoing situation where you feel that everything is easy for you to do. The best possible situation in this context is experiencing flow, where everything seems to go very smoothly and you are very creative and everything is coming to your mind easily.

Gender and age matter. A performance profile is the amount of intellectual arousal needed to help an individual achieve peak performance. That amount will make a difference between men and women, old and young. On an axis ranging from deep sleep to a panic attack, some people are sensation seekers and need a lot of arousal to hit their peak. That means they are often running on testosterone, a very male thing, while others can hit their peak with fewer stresses placed on them.

Lean towards rewards, not threats. Every company has a reward circle and a threat circle. In a threat state, you get a rush of cortisol in your bloodstream. That makes your muscles stronger, but it can cut off your cognitive thinking if it is strong enough. In reward circles, people feel good and perform better. Creating a climate of appreciation in companies is the best thing you can do. This is very strongly supported by the research that Google did recently.

Create a psychologically safe workplace. In the end, there is one thing that determines the highest performance, and that is psychological safety. If the team knows it is psychologically safe, which includes the reward cycle, the climate of appreciation, being respected and accepted, there is a high predictability for high performance.

Navigating four typical domains of organizational politics can help leaders overcome barriers to strategy execution. Many CEOs enter organizations with ambitious plans to change strategies or processes. But they often find themselves up against organizational politics. Historical divisions and entrenched power structures can quickly hobble change. Despite this, leaders often refuse to acknowledge the powerful role that politics can play in the success of a good strategy. Instead, they try to force change and often meet strong resistance.

There are four typical types of organizational politics that exist in most organizations. In short, these can be defined as the weeds, the rocks, the high ground, and the woods. In each of these quadrants, personal influence, authority, structure and processes can create barriers to change. But by understanding why and learning to navigate these quadrants, leaders can carefully alter the organizational fabric while keeping it together.

Navigating these domains requires awareness of two important dimensions. First is the level at which the political activity takes place. Political dynamics start with the individual player and their political skills. These evolve into group-level behaviors. Also within this dimension is the broader context, where politics operate at the organizational level.

The second dimension of the political landscape is the extent to which the source of power is soft (informal) or hard (formal). Soft power is implicit. It uses influence, relationships and norms. Whereas political activity based on hard, formal or explicit power draws upon the use of role authority, expertise, directives and reward/control mechanisms.

The weeds

The weeds, where personal influence and informal networks rule, can form a dense mat through which nothing else grows. In these circumstances, informal networks can be a countervailing force to legitimate power and the long-term interests of the organization. For instance, they can thwart legitimate changes needed to put the organization on a sounder long-term financial footing.

To deal with the weeds, get involved enough to understand the informal networks at play. Identify the key brokers, as well as the gaps – if you can fill the gaps — or ally with the brokers, so you can increase your own influence. Conversely, if the brokers are doing more harm than good, you can try to isolate them by developing a counter-narrative and strengthening connections with other networks.

The rocks

Navigating the terrain here, where hard or formal sources of authority reign, consists of drawing on these sources of power, rather than fighting against them. Your best bet is to redirect the energy of a dysfunctional leader, either through reasoned argument or by appealing to their interests. For example, in the case of an advertising company mentioned in the previous article, the chairman used formal power to stop changes and take people off task forces without notice. Senior executives used the argument of “leaving a legacy” to get the chairman to see how he was undermining the company’s long-term interests as well as his own. In fact, it was this sort of political behavior and misuse of power that inspired Max Webber, an early organizational scholar, to write the classic book Bureaucracy. In it, he argued that bureaucracy was the most rational and best way to organize and co-ordinate modern corporations. This leads us to take the high ground.

The high ground

If you find yourself on the high ground, which combines formal authority and organizational systems, you can use feedback from clients, customers or end-users to highlight difficulties and make the case that your current structure or process is constraining the organization. Since organizations with a problematic high ground tend to be risk-averse, you can also try emphasizing that not changing can be even riskier than trying something new.

You can also argue that a separate group or task force needs to be set up to examine an issue or bridge silos. It creates a ‘working space’ outside of the habitual structures, norms and routines of the organisation. It’s vital for innovation and change. For instance, a public agency was hampered because of slow structures and formalized steps to stop potential fraud. It meant that millions in tax revenues were not collected at the end of the year. Senior leaders decided to set up a dedicated task force outside of the formal organizational structure to solve the problem. After the first year, they had reduced the problem by over 50 percent and reached a 95 percent recovery rate by the second year. The organisation then changed its official processes to match these improved methods. Other well-known examples of similar methods include the changes at Nissan, pilot projects at Asda and companies opening up innovation labs in Palo Alto to reduce bureaucracy.

The woods

The woods are characterized by informal processes and guidelines. The challenge here is to make the implicit explicit. Ask “stupid” questions, bringing implicit organizational routines and behaviors to the surface. Ask clients, recent hires or temporary contractors about their observations and experience at the company; a fresh pair of eyes will often identify things that incumbents can’t see. Get benchmark information from surveys and specialist experts. Once the implicit assumptions are out in the open, ask your team to reflect on whether they’re helping your company or hindering it. For example, in our consulting with a newly merged, international telecoms company, we conducted a simple exercise to help the newly merged entities to describe their cultural norms and those of the other parties. It quickly generated truths and myths that could be discussed and used to iron out blockages as they rolled out their distribution and cable network – the key to capturing subscribers and business operational success.

Politics carries many negative connotations, but it is not just a tool for the self-serving. For politics to be an asset for strategy execution, it needs to be reframed as a natural, useful tool necessary to change efforts. Understanding the landscape and how to navigate it can help managers leverage political dynamics. At the very least, leaders need to be aware of the lay of the land so they can defend themselves against the pushback they may receive in the course of strategy execution.

While welcoming the recent Joint Communication ‘Towards an EU strategy for international cultural relations’ the EESC urged the Commission and EEAS to, amongst others:

  • Implement a clear action plan (and governance structure) to enhance European culture and international cultural exchange, partaking advantage of the momentum created by the 2018 European Year of Cultural Heritage
  • Recognise culture as a pillar of sustainable development, along with economic, social and environmental pillars
  • Make full use of culture in peace building and conflict resolution strategies, and for the EU to take its place as a global leader in peace promotion worldwide

Commissioner Navracsics praised the EESC’s opinion and agreed on the importance of all stakeholders, especially civil society, in the implementation strategy. “The role of culture is very high on the Commission’s agenda. I have no doubt that it can play an enormous role in preventing conflict and social and economic difficulties, and 2018 will be a very important year for us to have a debate on the relevance of European heritage in the creation of a European identity”, he added.

Members also highlighted the need for further understanding of how culture, or the loss thereof, can lead to radicalisation among young people.

“When social fragmentation and populist tendencies are gaining ground, culture has an increasing role to play in reinforcing ties between civil society, promoting mutual understanding, encouraging diversity and exchange, and countering simplistic views”, stated EESC President Georges Dassis.

To this end, the EESC suggested including interreligious dialogue as part of the intercultural exchanges promoted by the Communication.  Erasmus-style exchanges between students and scholars of faith-based universities, as well as between cultural operators, were among the initiatives considered worth trialling.

An evaluation of the Erasmus+ program (encompassing all education, training, youth and sport initiatives) was also approved in the plenary. This found an increased budget had increased effectiveness, though there was still room for improvement, such as through greater access for disadvantaged groups and a stronger emphasis on the lifelong learning dimension. The EESC members said it was crucial for the programme to receive additional funding.

“Could Erasmus function better? It could and it should,” said Indré Vareikytė, the rapporteur for the Information report on the Erasmus+ mid-term evaluation, adding that it is the best time to review what should be done differently to achieve the necessary goals.

“But Erasmus is deservedly called the flagship European programme,” Ms Vareikytė said, maintaining that it helped many young people to “improve their skills in a way the formal education system failed”. It has also helped build a European identity which is ever more important in the times of rising populism and xenophobia as it promotes important European values, she concluded.


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