Navigating Differences: An Application of Cultural Theory

In January 2018, there was an article published in the Harvard Business Review called “The Leader’s Guide to Corporate Culture” (authors Boris Groysberg, Jeremiah Lee, Jesse Price, and J. Yo-Jud Cheng). Following extensive research in corporations around the world, the authors have designated eight basic corporate cultures, defined by the primary focus of the culture, the work environment, and the uniting factors that bring the group together.

The original article gave names to each of the eight culture types, but I’m going to call them “Type A,” “Type B,” etc. because many of the words used in the original article have different meanings in the Quaker world, and I suspect that those different meanings might cause us to misidentify the cultures we’re living in.

Below, I’ve summarized the basic breakdown. As you read, think specifically of the Quaker faith community that you spend the most time with. That might mean the adult population of your local church or meeting; it might mean the First Day School or Sunday School or other children’s group; it might be a summer camp or a yearly meeting gathering or a retreat center or a young adult worship sharing group. Later, I’ll talk a little about comparing these, but for now, see which rings true for the Quaker community that you’re with more often than any other:

 

Type A

Community focuses on: relationships and mutual trust

When we’re together, the environment feels: warm, collaborative, and welcoming

What unites us is: loyalty to one another

 

Type B

Community focuses on: idealism and altruism

When we’re together, the environment feels: tolerant, compassionate

What unites us is: a focus on sustainability and doing good for the long-term future of the whole world

 

Type C

Community focuses on: exploration, expansiveness, and creativity

When we’re together, the environment feels: inventive and open-minded and full of new things

What unites us is: curiosity

 

Type D

Community focuses on: fun and excitement

When we’re together, the environment feels: light-hearted and full of people doing what makes them happy

What unites us is: playfulness and stimulation

 

Type E

Community focuses on: achievement and winning

When we’re together, the environment feels: outcome-oriented and merit-based, with an eye on top performance

What unites us is: a drive for capability and success

 

Type F

Community focuses on: strength, decisiveness, boldness

When we’re together, the environment feels: competitive

What unites us is: strong control from authority figures

 

Type G

Community focuses on: planning, caution, and preparedness

When we’re together, the environment feels: predictable, risk-conscious, with lots of careful thought

What unites us is: a desire to feel protected and anticipate change

 

Type H

Community focuses on: respect, structure, and shared norms

When we’re together, the environment feels: methodical, with people playing by the rules

What unites us is: cooperation

 

Did you identify the culture type of your Quaker faith community—more specifically, the portion of that community where you spend the most time? It’s possible that yours might be a pretty even tie between two culture types, but it’s less helpful if you say “we’re not really any of these.” Identify one or two that seem relevant and work with it for a few minutes here. Nobody’s looking over your shoulder.

It’s important to understand that the culture of the group can be one type even when an assortment of types are present in different individuals. You might find yourself saying, “Well, we have some Type D people and some Type C people and . . .” And that’ll be true, but there’s probably a certain type that describes how the group functions together as a whole.

When I started looking at my Quaker community—which is really my Quaker communities, because there’s more than one—I realized very quickly that I’m traveling in multiple cultural groups. My thought process went something like this:

I really wish all groups of Friends were: Type B

My own monthly meeting seems to be: Type A and Type G

But the First Day School (the children) of my monthly meeting are: Type D

And during business meeting, we become: Type G and Type H

When my yearly meeting gathers for sessions, we function as: Type H

Except for the children’s program at yearly meeting sessions, which is: Type A and Type D

And the child/teen retreat program that meets on weekends throughout the year is: Type A

But me personally? At heart, I’m probably: Type C

 

If we put that as a visual, it looks like this:

Navigating Differences

 

Why did I place the groups where they are?

Well, I really do wish that we were all Type B. To me, the very concept of building the kingdom of God on earth means focusing on the long-term well-being of the entire world. But I don’t see that as the way that any group of Friends is primarily functioning, really.

I placed my own monthly meeting in Type A and Type G because we are immensely loyal to one another, even to a fault sometimes, and because we emphasize relationships and trust. (We’re not always good at it, but we emphasize it.) But we’re also incredibly cautious about everything we do. Business meetings tend to last three hours or more, historically. New proposals are pondered for months if not years, even if their potential impact is really quite small. We are extremely slow to change.

In business meeting, my meeting continues to operate from caution (Type G) but also really operates from shared norms (Type H). In fact, we work so hard at shared norms that during meeting for business we tend to forget all about building relationships with each other and lose our Type A culture altogether.

All of this is totally different from how the First Day School community operates. That group of kids (and occasionally teens) is nearly entirely based in having fun together (Type D). There’s often a lesson, but the factor uniting the community generally is not what’s being learned; it’s a sense of playfulness.

There’s a similar adult/kid split at yearly meeting sessions, where the adults are mostly operating in a Type H culture, basing everything around our set of shared norms—the committee system, the rituals around business practice, the worship sharing rules, and so forth. Even the fun aspects of yearly meeting sessions are really rooted in shared norms. The talent show happens on Thursday night, and heaven help you if you suggest that we might try it on Wednesday . . . that sort of thing.

The kids’ program at sessions, on the other hand, mostly emphasizes fun (Type D) and relationships (Type A), with Type D probably being the dominant unifying factor—it’s hard to build relationships in a community that meets for three hours a day, six days out of the year.

The youth retreat program of our yearly meeting, which gathers kids for several weekends per year throughout their middle and high school years, has more chance to build authentic relationships and functions almost entirely as a Type A community.

And then there’s me. Yes, I’m altruistic, and I’m all about building the kingdom of God on earth, but I do it from a curiosity/learning/experimenting place. Anybody who’s likely to study the Harvard Business Review at length and then apply what they’ve learned to Quaker communities and write a blog post about it is probably most at home in a Type C culture.

It’s worth noting that some people would probably disagree with my analysis. That’s okay. Take it with a grain of salt. What’s most important is not that I’m exactly right about the groups I’m looking at; what matters is how we handle the differences from one group to another.

 

Why does all of this matter?

I think it matters in a lot of ways.

Today, I’m going to explore the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are, and then I’m going to explore the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

Later, I’ll write some additional blog entries about how age group transitions are affected by culture change and how culture types can be altered.

And then, who knows? There might be more.

 

First—looking at the difference between what I wish Friends were and what Friends are.

This is important to recognize. For me, it’s about wishing that the community of Friends was Type B. You might wish that the community of Friends functioned as some other type. But we get ourselves in trouble when we start assuming that the community is what we wish it would be—or also, when we start assuming that everyone wishes the community were what we wish it would be.

A Type B community is united by doing good for the long-term future of the whole world. If I assume that my Quaker community is a Type B community (because that’s what I want it to be), then I’m going to walk in expecting to present Type B sorts of ideas and have the community respond immediately and uniformly enthusiastically. But this simply doesn’t happen. If I don’t understand that this stems at least in part from a cultural difference, I’m going to be confused and disappointed and angry.

In fact, I can get confused and disappointed and angry even when I assume that everyone wants to be Type B. (I have learned from experience that they don’t.) Almost everyone agrees that altruism is a good thing, but for many Friends, relationships or fun or caution or shared norms are genuinely more important. At least in the beginning, it’s good to hold off on any value judgment about this and just recognize what is.

Whether I choose to change my expectations, to try to change the community, to leave the community, or simply to live forever in dynamic tension, the first step is to see that a difference exists. What I wish Quaker culture were isn’t what Quaker culture is.

 

Second—looking at the difference between the community’s culture and mine.

As I said above, I function most authentically as a Type C. I might long to be part of a Type B community, but at my own heart, I’m really a Type C. (Which isn’t necessarily an inherent conflict; healthy communities often contain a mixture of individuals that align with the overall culture type and also individuals that don’t. If you’re all exactly the same, you become more and more collectively unhealthy—and less and less able to change.)

As a Type C person, I love—and live in—exploration, expansiveness, creativity, inventiveness, open-mindedness, newness, experimentation, and curiosity. At least as an individual (though possibly not in a group) I value these qualities above the other types. Inventiveness, experimentation, and curiosity mean more to me than relationships, collaboration, and loyalty (Type A), fun and playfulness (Type D), caution and risk management (Type G), and rules, structure, and cooperation (Type H).

My Type C nature doesn’t prevent me from valuing relationships, collaboration, loyalty, fun, and playfulness, and I do value those things. But my natural Type C instincts are often in direct conflict with the values of caution, risk management, rules, structure, and cooperation, and these values are a big part of the culture of my Quaker community, especially in the realms of business and committees.

How do I handle this?

The first thing I have to do is recognize that my yearly meeting—and often my monthly meeting, too—are functioning as Type G and Type H cultures, and I have committed to joining them nonetheless. We are different. Pretending we are not different will not help.

The second thing I have to do is recognize the value of my own Type C contributions. Just as I have committed to joining my Quaker community, my Quaker community has made a commitment to me. They may or may not have recognized my innovation/experimentation/curiosity tendencies when I came in the door, but they did accept me into membership—all of me. And now we have to engage with each other.

It’s important to name that, generally, when a Quaker body acts in a way that prioritizes caution and/or maintaining or shared norms over trying new things, everything inside me tells me that this is wrong. Not just different from what I would do, but fundamentally wrong. Then I have to move past the adversarial mindset that this tends to set up and find ways to work within the community culture to be faithful to genuine leadings from God. This can be very tricky. Sometimes I’m more successful than other times.

It can help when I flip things around so that I can imagine the opposite point of view. For a Type G/H person or group, the most important things are planning, structure, caution, shared norms, preparedness, and cooperation. From that point of view, my constant drive to experiment appears reckless and—it’s true—seems fundamentally wrong.

In reality, of course, neither of us is actually wrong. All of these values—innovation, planning, structure, experimentation, caution, shared norms, curiosity, preparedness, and cooperation—are worthy. The difference is which we prioritize and how often, and in my Quaker circles, the community as a whole mostly subscribes to Types G and H. No matter how I choose to respond to that, I’ll do better if I begin by understanding it.

To depersonalize this for a minute, remember that the individual/community culture conflict can materialize in a variety of ways.

If you’re a Type A (prioritizing relationships), you might struggle in a Type B community if the community’s drive to helping the whole world takes away time from forming relationships within the community itself.

If you’re a Type D (prioritizing fun), you might struggle in a Type H community if the community’s shared norms don’t include much time for play.

If you’re a Type B (prioritizing altruism), you might struggle in a Type D community where projects that make a difference in the world aren’t valued very much unless they’re also fun and exciting.

And so forth.

 

Summing it up . . .

– Most groups of people function within a certain type of culture. This culture can be identified by what the group values, how the environment feels, and what unifies the people within the group.

– Groups of people functioning within a certain type of culture aren’t necessarily uniform. The group culture is identified not by what individuals do or value but by what the group as a whole does or values.

– Within your own Quaker circles, it’s likely that different circles are functioning as different types of cultures.

– There’s often a difference between what type we wish a group would be and what type that group actually is. That’s when it becomes important to recognize the difference and then decide how to handle it. Pretending there isn’t a difference can quickly get us into trouble.

– There’s also often a difference between the culture type we, as individuals, most naturally fit in and the culture type of the group. Again, it’s important to recognize that difference and then decide how to handle it.

 

Next time—what are the implications of transitioning from one group of Friends to another, when the cultures of the two groups might be very different?

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