Bringing Conscience to Culture

Parents and pupils in class on school meetingA consultant named Ryan was leading a workshop for people in school districts.  The day’s objective was to raise the level of measurable performance.  The participants were cooperative, but they knew all the conventional constraints and it was clear they did not believe a jump from normal performance to excellent performance was possible.  Few people in any organization carry this belief, and few organizations transcend conventional expectations.
Ryan recognized that to move the group he had to create unconventional beliefs and aspirations.  He asked everyone to identity a student who could not possibly pass the standard tests at the required level.  Each participant did this.  Ryan then asked the participants to imagine that after graduation their own child decided to marry the struggling child they just selected.  This was a startling image.  Ryan then asked the unsettled participants to formulate what they could do to bring the hopeless child to excellence.
Ryan called on one engaged teacher who was still thinking conventionally.  She shared a long list of necessary resources.  She then said, “I could never come up with these resources.”
Others agreed and the conventional thinking brought a sense of hopelessness to the room.  At that crucial moment, one of the administrators raised his hand and said, “Do not worry about that.  It is not your job to come up with the resources: that’s my job.”
This surprising statement transformed the conversation.  The discussion turned to possibilities, and positive emotions began to move in a viral fashion through the social network.  The positive emotions gave rise to more positive thoughts and behaviors.  The conversation became richer, learning accelerated, hope increased, and a new vision began to emerge.  This happened because Ryan brought conscience to culture.
Now consider the backstory.  Ryan stayed awake the entire night pondering how to do what the group needed.  It was clear the participants were trapped in convention and could only imagine traveling on the already cut paths of cultural convenience.  They could only imagine doing what they had always done and producing what they were currently producing.
After spending the entire night in intense reflection (which was a sacrifice for the common good), Ryan received an insight in the form of a strategy for helping the group take a more moral orientation to their work.  It called for integrating convention (objectified, problem students) with virtue (the love of their own children).  This integration of tensions produced increased engagement and the emergent co-creation of a new social order.
To move out of the conventional system, Ryan had to become more virtuous: he had to truly care for the participants, sacrifice sleep, find inspiration, exhibit the courage, engage uncertainty, and risk public failure.  He had to act on the belief that his strategy would stimulate a new conversation and that he could nurture the conversation until one person became a positive deviant and a model for others to follow.  Ryan had to trust in the capacity of a constrained human network to initiate the co-creation of a new future.
Ryan was paid for his work but he was not working for pay.  He was intrinsically motivated and fully engaged and in the pursuit of the common good.  Ryan brought his conscience to the culture and the culture transformed.

  • What is culture and what role does it in play in every organization?
  • What is conscience and how does it differentiate leadership from management?
  • From your own life, surface an illustration of bringing conscience to culture. What happened?  What implication does it have for the present?
  • How could we use this passage to create a more positive organization?


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