Monday, 15 December 2008

Sociability and Solidarity


   I've been reading some of Rob Goffee's and Gareth Jones' Harvard Business review articles and their book, 'Why should anyone be led by you?', following a presentation by Jones recently.

in 'What holds the modern company together?', they make the point that culture is community:

"It is an outcome of how people relate to one another... Businesses rest on patterns of social interaction that sustain them over time or are their undoing.  They are built on shared interests and mutual obligations and thrive on cooperation and friendships."


I like this definition - and I'm increasingly finding that social (plus human and organisational) capital provides a more useful, granular way of looking at organisations than 'culture'.

I also agree with the author's perspective that culture can therefore be examined through the 'lens of sociology, which divides community into two types of distinct human relations: sociability and solidarity".


Solidarity (mind)

Solidarity measures a community's ability to pursue shared objectives quickly and effectively, regardless of personal ties.  It is about relationships which are build on common tasks, mutual interests, or shared goals that will benefit all involved parties.


Sociability (heart)

Sociability measures sincere friendliness and non-instrumental relations (in which people don't see others simply as means of satisfying their own ends) among members of a community, associating with each other on equal terms.  It is based on shared ideas, attitudes, interests and values and is sustained through continuing face-to-face relations.

Sociability leads to enjoyable work environments, morale, teamwork, sharing of information, openness to new ideas, creativity and engagement.  However, reinforcing the recent Demos report, and like solidarity, sociability also comes with certain drawbacks:

"The prevalence of friendships may allow poor performance to be tolerated.  No one wants to rebuke or fire a friend.  It's more comfortable to accept - and excuse - subpar performance in light of an employee's personal problems.

In addition, high sociability environments are often characterised by an exaggerated concern for consensus.  That is to say, friends are often reluctant to disagree with or criticise one another...  The result: the best compromise gets applied to problems, not the best solution.

In addition, high sociability communities often develop cliques and informal, behind-the-scenes networks that can circumvent or, worse, undermine due process in an organisation...  Friendships and unofficial networks of friendships allow people to pull an end run around the hierarchy...  In other words, networks can function well if you are insider - you know the right people, hear the right gossip.  Those on the outside often feel lost in the organisation, mistreated by it, or simply unable to affect processes or products in any real way."


To me, these aren't so much problems with sociability, as with poor execution or sociable approaches.  I think increasingly, organisations do need to be sociable, and organisations need to find ways to avoid the drawbacks outlined by Goffee & Jones / Demos.


Two dimensions, four cultures

Goffee and Jones plot solidarity and sociability against each other to provide the two by two shown in the graphic.  The authors emphasise that "none of the cultures is the best" but when discussing a fragmented culture (low solidarity, low sociability), they note "Few managers would volunteer to work for or, perhaps harder still, run a fragmented organisation."

They also have a few concerns about a communal culture (high solidarity, high sociability) too:

"The communal culture may be an inappropriate and unobtainable ideal in many business contexts...

First, high levels of sociability and high solidarity are often around particular founders or leaders whose departure may weaken either or both forms of social relationship.

Second, the high-sociability half of the communal culture is often antithetical to what goes on inside and organisation during periods of growth, diversification , or internationalisation.  These massive and complex change efforts require focus, urgency and performance - the stuff of solidarity in its undiluted form.

More profoundly though, there may be a built-in tension between relationships of sociability and solidarity that makes the communal business enterprise an inherently unstable form.  The sincere geniality of sociability doesn't usually exist - it can't - with solidarity's dispassionate, sometimes ruthless focus on achievement of goals."


So I think what Goffee and Jones are really saying is that organisations need high solidarity and high sociability, but not both (ie that the ideal culture is either networked or mercenary).

And I'd add to this, that solidarity is becoming more difficult to achieve, and therefore sociability is becoming increasingly important.  So if you have to choose between the two, choose this (ie networked vs mercenary).

However, I still struggle to see how both solidarity or sociability, executed well, can be a bad thing.  I'd respond to Goffee's and Jones' challenges by saying that organisations need to find ways of building sustainable cultures, which can support efficient achievement of goals, and that maybe if we did this, success rates in growth, diversification and internationalisation may be a lot higher than they generally are now!


Building sociability

Goffee and Jones also note that to build sociability, managers can:

  • Promote the sharing of ideas, interests, and emotions by recruiting compatible people - people who naturally seem likely to become friends
  • Increase social interaction among employees by arranging causal gatherings inside and outside the office, such as parties, excursions - even book clubs
  • Reduce formality between employees
  • Limit hierarchical differences
  • Act like a friend yourself, and set the example for geniality and kindness by caring for those in trouble.


I think there are some great suggestions here.



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