Organizational Culture – and Violence in the World

Linda and I visited the most famous castle in Denmark yesterday, Kronberg Castle, with our wonderful friends, Thomas Fischer and Louise Heller, and two of their three children. Kronberg Castle, a heavily fortified Renaissance Castle, was made famous worldwide through Shakespeare’s Hamlet. Touring the castle triggered an insightful conversation that carried on over dinner about Danish and American history, violence, and the state of the world.

Kronberg Castle

Kronberg Castle, Denmark

The Danes, especially during the viking days, were quite a violent society, but not any longer. In fact, gun violence in Denmark today is very uncommon. It simply doesn’t happen much at all. A couple days ago, I asked an East Indian taxi driver, who’d lived in Denmark for 17 years, why he loved the country so much. He simply replied, “Because it is so safe.” Contrasting that with safety and violence in America, and I could not help but be curious about differences in the two countries, especially the systems and cultures, to see if I could tease out any reasons why violence levels are so radically different.

With the recent violence in Egypt, Darfur and Arizona looming, and with violence increasing to intolerable levels in most places across the globe, discovering new insights about what causes violence and how to limit it is becoming critically important. The human race often seems to be between two dark, but real, possibilities: will we end it all first by killing each other or by destroying the planet environmentally? Because I stand for the possibility of global breakthrough to learning to live co-creatively with both each other and the environment, our dinner conversation about the causes of violence had real meaning for me.

So why so little violence in Denmark, and so much in America? Most people answer that question by looking at the systems of the two countries and identifying their differences. In America, roughly 30% of the population owns a gun, most saying they do so to “protect themselves.” And many people carry these weapons daily, to the grocery store, on the bus, and while walking their dogs.

In Denmark, the only people who own guns are hunters, who must study diligently and pass three exams to get a hunting license, the police and the military. Casual gun ownership simply does not exist. In fact, if you are caught with simply possessing a gun without a hunter’s license, you end up in jail for three years or more. The only guns available for highly regulated purchase are hunting rifles and shotguns. No pistols, no automatic weapons. Not even the police have automatic weapons, just the military.

No one really questions this, because citizens see a direct relationship between gun ownership and violence, and they feel so safe that they do not need to protect themselves. But there is more to the story, which is how did these two countries end up with such different systems and different public attitudes about guns? How did the two cultures emerge over time so differently? This is where it gets quite interesting for those of us seeking answers about how to change organizational cultures, or how to reverse the trend toward greater and greater violence in the world.

As some of my Danish friends have remarked, “Denmark has an embarrassingly violent past. We know the perils of violence. We perpetrated war on many nations over hundreds of years. We lost most of our country’s land through war, and we know through experience that the answer is not violence.”

Contrast that with America’s history. We’ve written into law the “right to bear arms.” It is a pillar of our democratic system. Why? Because America was created to be “the land of the free and the home of the brave,” meaning, that America was first and foremost a sanctuary from British rule and the oppression of over taxation. Our founding fathers ensured our legal ability to rise up and fight against tyranny, first the tyranny of excessive British taxation, and second, the tyranny of our own government should it ever become overly oppressive itself. Our “right to bear arms” was our right to maintain a life of freedom from our own government!

From each country’s history, you can easily see why the current systems and cultures have developed over time in their very different directions. You might want to ask – Which system is right? Which is better? – but those are the wrong questions to ask. They usually lead to an ideological debate about gun control, an ideological argument about the right to bear arms versus the need to control arm’s ownership.

But each ideology, and those that hold them, live inside a larger cultural context, a history that was created across multiple generations. And this larger context is mostly invisible, forgotten, by those in the debate. But once we look across the broader perspective of time – the “process dynamics” of each country’s history – we see that each ideology has merit and logic inside its own evolutionary perspective. And if perhaps we first sought greater understanding of why we each think what we think, then we could have a more fruitful conversation, not about which ideology is “right,” but what system and culture would best work for us going forward. Perhaps we ought to begin by first nurturing our collective broader and deeper understanding, to make conscious the unconscious assuptions we were each handed by history, then attempt to crawl out of them to see more objectively our current reality and the future possibilities we can imagine together. Seeing our mostly unconscious historic influence and our current mindsets in this way, we just might be more aligned than our ideologies might have us believe. Then we could ask questions like: what are the principles we want to live by going forward, where we could all feel safe and people could thrive? What culture and system could we collectively devise that would align to those principles? How might we evolve to create that from where we are today?

I am sure there is a significant conversation brewing in your company about your organizational culture, both what it is and what it needs to become. Usually, these conversations miss these all important variables of history, unconscious assumptions, and change process dynamics. These are so critical because they reveal the trajectory of the organization’s evolutionary process. Knowing this trajectory is absolutely essential to seeing where the organization’s culture and systems are naturally heading, and for gaining insight about how best to nudge them consciously toward more positive future possibilities, rather than watch them unconsciously fall into decay and dysfunction.

In your organization, how can you stimulate meaningful conversation about how your culture and systems got to where they are today? How can you tease out the unconscious assumptions that lie underneath the ideologies about what your culture ought to become? How can you help people co-create a shared vision of a positive future and not get stuck in the cycle of debating ideologies?

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