Can Organizations Change Their Values?

Tuesday, June 12th, 2012

Can Organizations Change Their Values?

Greg McKeown writes an important post for the HBR blog: Can We Reverse the Sanford Prison Experiment?  I encourage you to read it. Here is my comment to his post:

Thanks for a fine and provocative post. I think the Zimbardo and Milgram experiments are two of the most chilling I’ve ever read. So I appreciate your question – can we reverse those results?

While small wins certainly are a good thing to do, I doubt that behavior is the answer in some (perhaps many) cases. Take the Stanford prison experiment. If a “supervisor” of the “guards” provided timely positive feedback that reinforced a “slow ascent into goodness” behavior , I imagine the “prison” would begin to reflect that ascent. However, the moment that the supervisor stopped providing that type of positive feedback, I believe the “bad system” would take over. The supervisor wouldn’t even have to give negative feedback. The absence of positive reinforcement would sufficient for the system to revert to the type of results we see in those two studies.

I don’t have an answer to the challenge, but if I were working with that “prison”, I might start by ask the administrators and guards:

Traditionally, what is valued in this culture? I am not looking for what their values statement reads, but what an outside observer might see. An Chris Argyris might put it, what’s their theory in action?

What are the beliefs that create and sustain those values?

Why are these beliefs so important to us? (This begins to get at what Kegan and Lahey describe as Immunity to Change.)

Are we willing to do what it takes to reinforce values that we want to maintain or change?

BTW, I’d love to wrong on this. I would be delighted if you and your readers provided lots of examples like the Royal Canadian Mounted Police story.

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