Effecting Cultural Continuity and Change

I’m studying The Power of Team Culture on Coursera. These are my revision notes for week 5.

Culture in Time

  • “Cut the end of the meat” story:
    • woman cuts the end of the meat before roasting. Didn’t know why; learned from her mother
    • mother didn’t know why she did it either, she had learned it from her mother (the original woman’s grandmother)
    • grandmother explained that her roasting pan was too short
    • lesson: culture gets passed down over time
  • Culture is a living, dynamic phenomenon.
  • Culture is always changing
  • The culture of the team may be very recently created
    • for example new working group
    • new team culture formed by cultural boundary crossings of initial members
    • actual team culture may have a very short lifespan
  • Other cultures may have greater time depth
    • e.g. American culture, and the flag of America
    • Flag changed with each new state that was added to the union
    • culture changes over our lifetime

The Inertial Forces

  • Existential inertia: someone learns some element of culture because it is there to be learned. It already exists and its existence precedes the learner. Examples:
    • native language
    • brushing teeth after dinner
  • Habitual inertia: the result of doing the same thing over and over again. The result is often embodied cultural patterns, part of the bodily habitus. Example:
    • accent and speaking
  • There is a close relationship between culture and neurology – children of foreign born parents can speak with native accent
  • Habit is second nature
  • Habitual interia resists change

Habit and Drift

  • What side of the road do you drive?
    • American driving in NZ – had to be very careful making turns.
  • Principle of cultural inertia: culture in motion tends to stay in motion at the same rate unless some other force acts upon it
  • Entropic forces (drift): when culture gets copied from one person or one group to the next, it doesn’t necessarily get copied precisely. Changes can be introduced. They can be largely random changes
  • Language is always changing, but we can’t perceive this.
  • Over time, the drift can move a long way, and the langauges can become mutually unintelligible.
    • Latin is a root langauge for both French and Spanish

Inertia and Change: An Ancient Egyptian Case, Part 1

  • Reflective culture (metaculture): new ideas are a part of culture – so they have to move through space and time just like any culture. But they are also peculiar in that they are about culture.
  • Pharaoh Amenhotep IV (later called Akhenaten)
  • Ruled from 1353 to 1336 BC
  • He wanted to change culture
  • Effected change by actively spreading new culture, and removing old culture
  • Akhenaten want to replace polytheism with monotheism. God Bes (Besu)
  • Akhenaten had the power to make change because of his position
  • New religion based on the sun (Aten)

More on Reflective Culture or Metaculture as a Force

  • Rules or laws are part of metaculture (e.g. laws about which side of the road to drive)
  • Natives of the culture don’t need to refer to the laws, as they are part of the habitus.
  • Metaculture was a force controlling driving, compelling to drive on a particular side of the road

Inertia and Change: An Ancient Egyptian Case, Part 2

  • Akhenaten made a number of cultural changes:
    • changed to monotheistic religion
    • changed the artistic style of representations of his family
    • introduced a new type of building construction utilising smaller bricks
  • Egyptian empire can be considered a huge team.
  • Pharaoh as the head of the team has enormous power to influce the culture
  • However, culture is still subject to intertia
    • people will tend to worshipping the old gods in the same way
    • decrees are a reflective culture, and are made about culture (a metaculture)
  • The motion of the habitual inertial culture exercises a counterforce to the metacultural force. It in effect resists the change.
  • Quote from Garth in Wayne’s World: “We fear change”

Inertia and Change: An Ancient Egyptian Case, Part 3

  • Review – three cultural forces:
    • inertial: keeps things the same
    • entropic: random drift
    • metacultural (or reflective): deliberate changes to culture (or resistance to change)
  • How successful was Akhenaten in changing culture?
    • many old gods still worshipped
    • people resisted the change
    • Akhenaten was succeeded by Tutenkhaman.
    • under Tutenkhaman rule, policies were reversed
    • Akhenaten was expunged from official lists of rulers
    • it was like Akhenaten never existed
    • habitual culture won in this instance
  • There are similar examples from the modern corporate world
    • Ron Johnson, VP for retail sales at Apple
    • Developed “Genius Bar”, a concept that had great appeal
    • Because of huge success at Apple, Ron was hired by JCPenny as CEO
    • He did away with discount coupons, not realising how popular they way
    • Ron lasted 17 months, after “one of the most aggressively unsuccessful tenures in retail history”

Secret to Successful Cultural Change

  • Good team leaders know when to stress the similarity or continuity. They usually do that when there is a pervasive feeling that too much change is creeping in.
  • Conversely, they can declare two elements to be different een though they are very similar. Again, good team leaders have a sense of when to stress the differences despite the recognisable similarities
  • These examples adjust the transmission of culture by emphasising or de-emphasising aspects of the culture through the description of the transmission. This is an example of the force of entropy
  • The description exerts a kind of force. It is encourages you to think about the replication in a certain way, also to reason about it in a certain way. In this case, in terms of differences between the element and its predecessor. The emphasis is on the difference.

Introducing the Force of Interest

  • The Secret to Successful Culture Change: the new culture must appear to grow organically out of the old culture. It must be new enough to be recognisable as different, but also sufficiently similar that its relationship to the old culture can be sensed.
  • Feelings or affections can propel the motion of culture, or inhibit it. These feelings are hugely influential.
  • Examples:
    • positive feelings: the “Rachel cut” (people copying Rachels’ hair style)
    • negative feelings: eating horsemeat

Interest at the Interface between Different Inertial Patterns

  • Interest is shaped by culture: although affects and emotions are related to our biological processes as human beings, their mapping onto specific elements of culture can vary
  • Strong affective responses, and therefore the forces of interest, frequently appear when two different inertial patterns come into contact
  • Habitual culture is not really thought about, and hence the force of interest does not come into play there
  • However, when the habits are removed or retarted, the force of interest can be very powerful (e.g. craving food from native land when away for a long period)
  • Spacial distance between two people having a converstation. Depending upon the comfortable separation distance for each of the speakers, the force of interest may be neutral, compel them closer or compel them to separate. Habitual inertia is interest neutral
  • Force of interest can either work to keep culture static, or it could drive culture to change.
    • It’s at the heart of successful culture change
  • Model T Ford worked on the same model every year
  • GM used a different strategy: a new model every year (though only slightly new)
  • Incremental new-ness can a positive attractive force.
    • cars
    • language
  • Interest appears as a driving force, moving the culture forward in a way similar to evolution.

The Conditional Motion of Culture

  • Culture seems to move directly because of the interest in it
  • Sometimes the movement of culture is more obviously just a condition for something else that people are interested in
  • For example, culture can be changed because a powerful person decrees it, and can threaten punishments. People have a strong interest in avoiding punishment. See Egyptian example earlier.
  • Regime put in place by military: the interest is in the consequences of accepting or not accepting the culture
  • Wages of employment:
    • employment involves culturally acquired practices
    • the reason for engaging in those practices may not be a direct interest in them
    • interest may actually be in the money earned, and the things the money will allow them do do (eat, leasure time)
  • Sometimes the interest actually is for the thing they do.
  • Work culture over time can become habitual intertial culture
  • The conversion of conditional into habitual cultural motion: a conversion can take place between the conditional and habitual motion of culture, such that the interest that is initially in something else can become interest in the cultural practices themselves


  • The inertial forces: culture gets passed on first and foremost because it is there to be acquired and because it becomes habit
  • Entropic force (drift): the tendency towards disorder in the transmission of culture
    • this works against inertia
    • this means leads may have to step in to keep cultural elements the same, or try to affect changes
  • Reflective or metacultural forces: metaculture is culture that is about (or reflects upon) other culture. Metacultural force result from reflection about culture
  • The forces of interest: these are produced by the feelings and emotions.
    • they impel or retard the movement of cultural elements
    • a good leader understands the emotional responses to cultural elements, and uses this to affect change
  • People in teams are motivated by more than money, or the fear of punishment. They are guided also by the shining ideals that the team embodies, ideals that they try to live up to in their daily lives and activities

Rules, Ultimate Causes, and Cultural Motion

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