An Organization Is A Shared Belief - A Fiction

Posted by Walt Brown on Jul 22, 2020 10:45:00 AM

An organization is essentially a fiction, only given meaning and power by those who believe in it, who buy in.

Why do folks always hear me use the term organization and not companies or businesses? For starters, that would be too narrow.  What we focus on transforms any entity that involves people – a business, of course, but also a nonprofit, a trade association, or a university. I work mostly with businesses, but I also coach nonprofits, national laboratories, and other organizations, and all benefit tremendously from keeping the focus on their people.

A more important reason for the word “organization” is that it emphasizes structure, cohesion, and interaction – not products or services. It emphasizes people, and our Cultural, Structural, Operational and Strategic focus are about how people come together to fulfill a common purpose. Without people constantly buying in, organizations are fictitious and exist only on paper.

To state the obvious, people can do incredible things when they unite and organize around a shared belief. In his popular and controversial book, Homo Deus, Yuval Noah Harari argues that much of mankind’s dominance on earth comes from an ability to organize around shared meaning. Consider the great organizing principles of human societies, things like money, borders, religion, and national identity. They are useful only because groups of humans have decided they have meaning, Harari writes. Once people buy in and organize around such shared beliefs, great things become possible – complex economies, empires, technology, revolutions.

Language itself marks a turning point in this phenomenon of “intersubjectivity,” a fancy word for social or shared meanings, closely related to the idea of consensus.  You will hear me repeat that we all must agree on what words mean for language to work, and once we do, mankind makes unparalleled progress through the ability to record and transfer knowledge, to communicate complicated thoughts and concepts. Another shade of meaning for “intersubjectivity” has to do with the transfer of feelings or energy from one person to another. We’ve all experienced this when we’re laid low by someone else’s bad mood or have our days lightened by a colleague’s infectious good humor.

Forgive the philosophical tangent, but it gets to the root of what organizations are – and why they fail. If an organization, as a group of people united around shared beliefs for a common purpose, can achieve great things, it can also implode if its beliefs grow hazy or its purpose becomes unclear. When an organization does not convey a clear purpose and core values, or harbors people who don’t believe in them, dysfunction quickly follows.

On a more day-to-day basis, it is well documented that when humans form into groups they can solve very complex problems, as long as they can agree on how they name the problem and the words and language around the problem. Words and precise usage of language are the keys to solving complex problems and staying focused.  If someone on your team will not agree to the words of the organization, what we call things, then that person does not buy in and will destroy efforts to attack issues, ultimately holding the organization back.

The weak links on a team not only turn in subpar performances, they also infect their teammates and the entire organization. The intersubjectivity that has allowed humans to rule the earth allows for a crippling transfer of negative energy too. Maybe this sounds a little New-Agey, but we’ve all experienced the way that one person’s bad attitude or lack of conviction can affect even the most enthusiastic team players. If enough people stopped believing in money, it would soon become simply paper and the economy would crumble. When people don’t believe in the same borders – think Cyprus, Northern Ireland, the Middle East – tensions rise and hostility, even war can break out.

Like money and political systems, an organization is a fiction, only given meaning and power by those who buy-in who  believe in it. If some members don’t believe, the organization suffers. If enough stop believing, it disappears.

Often, the team members who don’t buy in are hard workers with good intentions, or at least, they started out that way. It’s hard for them to believe and buy in if leaders don’t clearly communicate the beliefs and why at the heart of the organization’s existence. Leaders might fall down here because they themselves are hazy on the true purpose and core values, apart from some dusty, awkwardly worded mission statement, or they might know the why but not spell it out in meaningful ways, or mapped a clear path to the future that supports this why. Language is our greatest example of intersubjectivity, the force behind tremendous achievements and the font of our greatest failures.

For Cultural Clarity and Consistency buy in we use a 7 Question Framework that we measure employee buy in against. In their most simple form the 7 are this and we are looking for a simple Yes.

  1. Do I Belong?
  2. Do I Believe?
  3. Do I understand and embrace what I am Accountable for?
  4. Do I understand and embrace how I am Measured?
  5. Do I understand and embrace how I am Heard?
  6. Do I understand and embrace  how I am Developed?
  7. Do I understand and embrace what Balance means in my organization, how am I Balanced?

It’s no accident that the first two of the Seven Questions are Do I belong? and Do I believe? These are existential questions in the truest sense. For the organization, they force the clear definition of every role, “seat,” or job, as well as its core values and its why. The words must be agreed on, written out, and communicated clearly to the entire team. For team members, the first question – Do I belong? –asks not only if they have the necessary skills for a particular job, but more fundamentally, if they share the organization’s core work values. The second question – Do I believe? – spells out the organization’s purpose and asks team members if they are motivated by it and the strategies used to achieve it.

Neglecting to ask these two fundamental questions risks dysfunction and a team infected by the malignant members who don’t belong or don’t believe in the mission, but the danger runs even deeper. Organizations, as I’ve argued, are fictitious. They exist only because of their members’ belief in a shared purpose and values. Without that belief, they run the risk of extinction. They can grow meaningless over time, just as other shared human constructs – Zimbabwe’s currency, Soviet borders, the Cornish language – lost their relevance when people ceased to believe in and belong to them.

The rest of the Seven Questions largely focus on communication and support the first two. Language is our prime example of and chief vehicle for shared meaning, so communicating effectively is a major part of human achievement. It’s no accident that the presidents who ushered in the most sweeping changes in American society – leaders like FDR and Ronald Reagan – were also among the best communicators.

Questions three and four are: Do I know what I am accountable for, my purpose? and Do I agree with how I am measured? It’s tough to believe deeply in a purpose and a set of core values if you’re not sure exactly how you are supposed to be contributing or don’t have a fair mechanism for getting feedback on those contributions. Has the organization communicated both of these clearly and listened to team members’ reactions? How closely are leaders listening to team members overall? The fifth question explores this necessary condition for getting teammates on board: Do I understand how my opinion is heard? The final two questions – Do I understand how I am being developed? and Do I understand the organization’s work-life balance? – focus on key benefits and effects of the organization on team members’ lives, not only highlighting important reasons for belief but how well the organization is expressing them.

As Harari demonstrates in Homo Deus, humans who come together around a shared belief are capable of astonishing accomplishments. America did not exist until a group of people decided that they believed in and belonged to this ambitious undertaking called the United States. Part of their motivation had to do with feeling that their voices weren’t heard and that they weren’t treated fairly, so they experimented with the best ways to build that kind of participation into the system. In a real sense, they strived to create a Patient Organization, with clear rights and responsibilities, where people could believe and belong and be heard.

Two centuries later, this new organization became the most prosperous nation on earth. The story of the Roman Empire is similar, but becomes a cautionary tale of what can happen when the why fades, core values are corrupted, and too many team members no longer believe.

The Seven Questions offer the clearest way to get and maintain shared belief in an organization’s values and mission. They are the best mechanism to leverage language – the most powerful human example of shared meaning – to achieve incredible results.

I hope you are seeing the impact this will have on our approach to Organizational Culture. You can read more about the 7 Questions in my book The Patient Organization. 

Topics: Balanced, Belong, Believe, Accountable, Heard, Developed, Measured

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