Cat memes and corporate culture
How "memetics" is the most important part of shaping your organization
Corporate culture is clearly important, but how to shape it favorably is less clear
Mission and values set the tone, but everyday behaviors of people dictate culture
We all have a strong tendency to mimic behaviors we see others exhibiting
Behaviors are observed & those that are rewarded or punished are passed along
Maintaining healthy culture means modeling ideal behaviors to be copied by all
Memes as a “viral” unit of cultural information
I’ve always had a range of interests and one area I have explored a bit in the past is an overview of genetics. Many years ago I enjoying reading The Selfish Gene by Richard Dawkins which has remained a powerful metaphor (albeit controversial) to explain natural selection since its initial publication in 1976. On a very basic level, Dawkins argues that it is not organisms that seek to ensure the continued propagation of its species, but their genes that work hard to replicate themselves to ensure survival. The view of natural selection from the perspective of a “gene” was a new framing by Dawkins, building on earlier ideas of Charles Darwin and many other scientists.
In The Selfish Gene, Dawkins also introduces the concept of a “meme” and defines it as a unit of cultural information that is replicated widely, just as a gene is a unit of biological information that is replicated widely. Similar to genes, memes are contained within a “host” and passed along to other hosts through strategies such as variation, mutation, competition and inheritance. A broader study of memes called “memetics” took root for a time, but more recently has fallen into disfavor. While memetics as a discipline may no longer be popular, the concept lives on in the form of Internet memes as part of online culture. And who among us doesn’t love a funny cat meme every now and then?
Life rarely comes with an instruction manual
More recently, I came across a podcast featuring author Luke Burgis who spoke about his book called Wanting and the concept of “memetic desire” first developed by French philosopher René Girard. According to Burgis, humans are not born with an instruction manual and as a result, we are unsure on how to life our lives: what we should desire, how we should behave, etc. To determine this, we are unconsciously influenced by others, what they want and desire and how they behave in search of fulfillment. To Burgis, part of the key to living a fulfilling life ourselves is to recognize the power of memetic desire and to not let it steer us off course from what we truly want ourselves.
Both the idea of the infectious nature of memes and the power of memetic desire point to the realization that most people working in an organization are unconsciously following the behaviors that others demonstrate. While most jobs come with limited formal training and written instructions, the vast majority of learning is OJT: on-the-job training. OJT often takes the form of mentoring and mimicry: someone else will “show you the ropes”. When there is no formal mentoring, newer employees copy what they observe others around them doing. People also are experts of seeing which behaviors are rewarded and which are punished within an organization, and then moderating their behaviors to match those demonstrated by others. In short, corporate culture is replicated thousands of times throughout the day, each day, in both large and small actions taken by the people working there. All of the lofty words and ideals that senior leaders say they value are quickly forgotten in the mimicry of daily behaviors by the people you are surrounded by at work.
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Be conscious to model behaviors worth copying
When leaders understand how “viral” behaviors can be in terms of spreading throughout the organization, it makes it much clearer how much modeling the behaviors that are ideal for the organization matters. Just like children learn to model their behaviors from the example (not words) set by their parents, so do employees typical model the behavior of their leaders, particularly their immediate supervisor. In large organizations, senior leaders often complain that their message is not making it through to the lowest levels of the organization: it is getting lost in the middle management layer. To understand why this is happened, senior leaders must do some investigation. One area to look at is what behaviors that lower levels of management exhibited to earn their positions: are these the right ones to model? Far too often, the highest producer in a particular role gets promoted to be a supervisor, ignoring the importance of soft skills and relationship building.
The most powerful advice in guiding behavior in the workplace that I have received over the years is this: assume positive intent. Rather than ascribing reasons behind mistakes or lack of progress, it is advisable to follow Stephen Covey’s advice to seek first to understand and then be understood by others. Be open to feedback from others and use tools such as personality assessments and StrengthFinders to learn more about how team members prefer to operate at their optimal peak. Look at how adoption of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) initiatives can help foster an improved culture by raising awareness of microaggressions and unconscious bias at work. Ensure good use of metrics to assess and reward performance, including both elements of what was accomplished (quantity) and how those results were achieved (quality). By going beyond platitudes to closely examine specific behaviors and how these “memes” propagate throughout your organization, you will be able to counteract negative trends and proactively plan ways to shape your corporate culture in a positive manner.
Can you think of examples where certain behaviors spread throughout your organization like a meme? What are some ways you can quantify culture at a granular or meme level? How can small behaviors be replicated when desired and modified when counterproductive? Who sets the tone in your organization: senior leaders, direct supervisors, or frontline employees? Can customers shape culture at organizations? If so, in what ways? Is this good or bad?