Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Cultural Assumptions and Communication

A panel of judges recently threw out two cases that attempting to prosecute men held at the Guantanamo Bay internment camp. Court materials submitted by the prosecution referred to the defendants as enemy combatants. According to the the judges who heard the cases the defendants needed to first be classified as unlawful enemy combatants before they would here the cases in question. An army official stated their understanding was that all enemy combatants at Guantanamo Bay are unlawful. But according to the judges who heard the cases there is an important difference in the two designations. The law at issue treats unlawful enemy combatants different from enemy combatants.

This incident provides a great example of how cultural assumptions can develop within an organization. Every organization or group has a culture or shared set of ground rules. These ground rules govern how a group functions, member behavior and how the group should perceive and interact with the outside world. The perception of the army official in the above cited incident was all combatants are unlawful so labels aren't important. The judges who heard the case didn't share the same perception. One definition for communication is the sharing of meaning. How can you share meaning when you aren't speaking the same language or giving words the same definition? We need to be conscious of our perception or assumptions in any situation. We need to also do our homework and be aware of the assumed reality of other communication partners.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Know Your Sandbox: Organization Culture

The title for this posting comes from the expression 'Know whose sand box your in'. This expression means you need to be aware of your social surroundings and who hold positions of power. We assume there are universal rules in the world. But as we age it becomes apparent specific places have their own additional rules. This posting explores the importance of knowing the rules of your current 'sandbox'.

Background
John was a peer who decided to run for an officer position in a local organization. John knew nothing about the organization or its culture. John just felt he would represent a new perspective. When he received notice of his disqualification by the rules committee he contacted me. We had met through a mutual acquaintance. He knew I had been involved in the organization in question.

First Basis For Disqualification
The initial disqualification was based on John having supposedly made false statements while campaigning. In a flyer and online John had listed himself and another candidate as running for President and Vice President. John failed though to line up his name as President and the other candidate as Vice President. John flipped the position titles and listed each person as running for the other person's position. This would not have been important except according to John's application he was running for President not Vice President. According to organization rules no one can run individually for President or Vice President. Each President must have a corresponding Vice President Candidate. President and Vice President candidates have traditionally formed a party with candidates for the full board of directors. This required partnership was a source of misunderstanding for John. Since running for the Presidency required two people he and his Vice President were partners. The ballot would list both of their names together as one choice. Organization members had to accept both of them if they voted for either of them. So why would mixing up who was listed a President or Vice President be important?

John made the mistake of not knowing the organization or culture. Anyone who had been involved in this organization knew the cultural importance of the President and Vice President difference. The organization's culture stressed the importance of the President as the CEO and ceremonial head of the organization. The Vice President is seen as second in command. Being elected as President is also a source of great pride within the organization. This act of failing to align name and title was seen as heresy by the rules committee. All of which were long time committed members of the organization. This act triggered the rule violation of making false statements. This is despite the format and selection restrictions imposed by the ballot structure mentioned above making President and Vice President essentially one choice.

Second Basis for Disqualification
One of the attributes of a strong organizational culture according to academic literature is a shared perception. Culture is essentially shared ideas or perceptions. One of John's platforms was to reward members that were successful in national competition. The perception within the rules committee was that doing so was against national competition rules. John was found in violation of making false statements for recommending this idea. The logic of the election commission was John encouraged doing something that wasn't possible because it violated national competition rules. Because John's idea wasn't possible he was making a false statement. While writing our appeal I decided to verify this assumption. I found that national competition rules actually allowed for specific types of monetary rewards to winning members. The national tournament rules in fact go into great detail to explain what type and level of compensation is allowed.

Appeals
In our appeal to the organization appeals committee I gave the following responses to the first argument for disqualification. I stated that culturally he did not have the organizational background so wouldn't have understood the importance of name and title affiliation. I stated this was not grounds for disqualification. I had several previous rules committee members state false statements had always been understood as publicly lying. I also cited the limitations of the mandated ballot structure and thus restricted choice imposed by election rules and related ballot structure.

For the second argument for disqualification I cited the national competition rules that allowed John's idea. I also cited the point that this was a platform idea. I referenced the historical issue of women not being allowed to vote. Under this standard if John had advocated women voting prior to it being made legal he would have also been in violation. His platform idea was just an idea. It was a goal for his party if elected. The organization appeals board agreed with our appeal and told the rules committee to reconsider their disqualification. The rules committee as expected supported their previous decision.

Organization Culture
This type of incident usually doesn't happen in this organization. Existing members recruit outsiders to join the organization. Through group socialization new members learn the unwritten cultural rules of the organization. Only existing members usually run for President or Vice President. Based on their previous socialization these members know the cultural perceptions and unwritten rules of the organization. There is an official mandatory candidate orientation that is required for all candidates to cover official campaigning rules. The culture of the organization is not covered during this election orientation. It is assumed knowledge of the cultural perceptions are understood. This is based on candidates or Presidential candidates having always been previous members of the organization. Anyone that is a candidate and new to the organization is quickly taught to defer to a member of their party who is an existing organization member.
Another overall important point to make is that being an outsider and running for President or Vice President of this organization is not a positive attribute. Most President or Vice President candidates have ascending through the organization to hold their office. As shared above John had never held a position in this organization. For an outsider to run, although not prohibited by written rules, is not supported culturally. I think the unclear logic on the second violation was actually a result of John being an outsider. John had not come into the organization through social channels. He also attempted to avoid gaining seniority before running for President. This action alone caused John to initially lose favor with the rules committee.

Summary
The rules committee decisions shared above demonstrated more then just concern over rule violations. In some houses of worship you are expected to take off your shoes. Friends from Kenya have remarked how Americans seem so hurried. In America we are very schedule driven and stress monochronic time. Things happen at a certain time and usually one at a time.
The main point of this posting is to know the rules of your current environment. Failing to do so can be interpreted as disrespecting those who are in authority in that sandbox. The written rules may allow for something. But the culture of an organization should also be consulted. Failing to do both has been liken to 'peeing in someone's sandbox'. And like a bad pet the rules committee did everything they could to get rid of John.