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Bad Company Cultures Rooted in US Culture Flaws

The following is an excerpt from Chapter 4 of Humble Inquiry.

The U.S. culture is individualistic, optimistic, and pragmatic. We do not like long range planning nor do we like to fix things and improve them while things are still working. We prefer to run things until they break because we believe we can then fix them or replace them. We are arrogant and deep down believe we can fix anything—“the impossible just takes a little longer.” We are entrepreneurial and admire individual accomplishment. We are impatient and with information technology’s ability to do things faster, we are even more impatient. Most important of all, we value task accomplishment over relationship building and either are not aware of this cultural bias or, worse, don’t care and don’t want to be bothered with it. 

We do not like or trust groups. We believe that committees and meetings are a waste of time and that group decisions diffuse accountability. We only spend money and time on “team building” when it appears to be pragmatically necessary to get the job done. We tout and admire teamwork and the winning team (espoused values) but we don’t for a minute believe that the team could have done it without the individual star, usually reflected in the much greater pay he or she receives (tacit assumption). 

We would never consider for a moment paying the team members equally. In the Olympics we usually have some of the world’s fastest runners yet have lost some of the relay races because we could not pass the baton without dropping it! We take it for granted that accountability must be individual, there must be someone to praise for victory and someone to blame for defeat, the individual where “the buck stops.” 

In fact, instead of admiring relationships we value and admire individual competitiveness, winning out over each other, outdoing each other conversationally, pulling the clever con game and selling stuff that the customer did not need. We believe in caveat emptor (let the buyer beware) and we justify exploitation with “there’s a sucker born every minute.” We breed mistrust of strangers but we don’t have any formulas for how to test or build trust. We value our freedom without realizing that this breeds caution and mistrust of each other. When we are taken in by a Ponzi scheme and lose all our money, we don’t blame our culture or our own greed—we blame the regulators who should have caught it and kick ourselves for not getting in on it earlier.

In politics we build relationships with some people to further our goals and in order to gain advantage over other people. We build coalitions in order to gain power and, in that process, make it more necessary to be careful and cautious in deciding whom we can trust. We assume that the basic family group is automatically a trusting relationship only to discover betrayal among family members. Basically, in our money conscious society of today, we don’t really know whom to trust and, worse, we don’t know how to create a trusting relationship. We value loyalty in the abstract, but in our pluralistic society it is not at all clear to whom one should be loyal beyond to oneself.

When we deal with people in other cultures that consider relationships to be intrinsic to getting the job done by building trust first, we get impatient with spending time over relationship building dinners before getting down to work. When we are sent off to outward-bound retreats to “build teamwork,” we view that as a necessary price of task accomplishment and sometimes even enjoy and benefit, but still think of it as just a means to the end of task accomplishment.

Have you experienced any of these problems in organizations?  How did you work within your organization to build a more cooperative culture?  Share your thoughts and stories in the comments.  And to learn more about the practice of humble inquiry, and the subtle yet profound changes it can make in your organization, check out the book.

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