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Has your organisation turned into a monoculture?

5 Jul 2019 By Alf Rehn

You might believe your business is a great place to work, says Alf Rehn. But your ‘cultural fit’ could be hiding an inability to think differently

Everyone wants to see their organisation as fundamentally open-minded. We’ve often devoted a considerable amount of time to the business we work in, and as a result are prone to viewing it as at least decent. Further, we tend to overestimate the diversity of our organisations, as we ascribe any lack of diversity as stemming from other forces than anything limiting in the culture we are part of. 

But while you may well have a culture that is delightful to work in, it could still show signs of being a monoculture – where only certain perspectives, values and assumptions about the world are allowed. And that means it is a culture that works against diversity.

We tend to think such cultures can be recognised by evident repressive qualities. This, unfortunately, is untrue. Monocultures are quite likely to be seen as positive, supportive and good overall, particularly by the people working in them. They often have excellent PR and may even win awards for being great places to work, even when they also are the kinds of cultures that limit expression and have increasingly narrow scopes for ideas and change. In fact, many contemporary organisations are in danger of gravitating towards being monocultures, and many of the popular ways of talking about organisational culture support and enhances this.

Consider notions such as “cultural fit” or “shared values”. On the surface, these can seem rather nice. Who doesn’t want to work with people who share your values? But these can easily be used to exclude and marginalise those who don’t share quite the same outlook, who present ideas a little off the beaten path or who bring different experiences to the table. No-one discriminates, of course: we just pick people who share our values (and therefore often many other of our characteristics as well) to ensure cultural fit.

So how can you tell if your culture is turning into a monoculture? When does care for a culture turn into something that excludes rather than includes? These are not easy questions to answer, as a monoculture is not something that happens in a single, fell swoop, but rather is established over many years. There are, however, signs to look out for, which can suggest a company either is or is at danger of becoming a monoculture. 

First among these is the organisation’s self-image. A healthy confidence is of course a very good thing, but when this turns into arrogance and the conviction that other, similar organisations are innately inferior, the culture has taken a dangerous turn. A measure of humility and the capacity for critical reflection are necessary constitutive parts of a diverse and healthy culture, and a lack in this area may indicate a budding monoculture. 

A second warning sign is the way in which challenging ideas or critical voices are dealt with. Is there engagement with views that are somewhat at odds with the core culture, or do these get marginalised? A sign that a company is developing a monoculture is that challenging perspectives get caught up in “repressive tolerance”, where voicing them is accepted but in the end they are systematically ignored.

If this – a budding arrogance and a limiting of idea-scopes – is then accompanied by an increasing insistence that all is well, you should start worrying. Healthy cultures understand there is always a need for more diversity, dialogue and development. Monocultures ignore this at their peril. 

Alf Rehn is a professor of innovation at the University of Southern Denmark and author of Innovation for the Fatigued

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