Why a corporate context entices transactional behaviors

A colleague sends an email asking for information, but your helpful response doesn’t receive a Thanks! A prospect wants a video call with free advice, then a customized proposal, but you never hear back, even after sending multiple requests for an update. Do you recognize this? A leader expects you to reschedule your appointments so you have time to meet with her. Clients expect immediate and satisfying answers, even after office hours.

Yes, we are busy. But the way we treat each other in a professional context is also influenced by corporate culture. If we treat others as people we make life at work not only energizing but also more productive.

The context at work is based on corporate thinking. That makes sense, as an organization is not just a group of people, but a vehicle for a shared business goal or societal goal (governments, NGOs, etc). The organization exists to deliver added value to clients, shareholders, and citizens – it has a purpose.

In the case of businesses, it should also deliver a return on investment for the owners. If you don’t make more money than you spend, you can’t pay the bills and wages. In the case of government and not-for-profit organizations, the public tax money or donations that they spend should deliver societal value according to their purpose.

Efficiency and efficacity

This means that efficiency and efficacity are important. Customer satisfaction matters, as do reliability, quality, planning, and control, getting things done, achieving shared goals, competing in the marketplace, or serving citizens. The corporate context, our life at work, happens in this rational context.

You are hired as a “human resource” – for the output you deliver, your expertise, and your contribution to the shared goals. You’re not hired for your brown eyes or your likable character, though personality characteristics and background influence recruiting and hiring, too.

You can’t just enter the workplace as a professional robot, so you always bring your personality, your background, your assumptions, and your emotional triggers to work. You bring yourself, but you are supposed to emphasize your professional role.

If you are familiar with the Competing Values Framework by Cameron & Quinn, you may recognize some features of the Control and Compete culture types:

The Control Culture type is a formalized and structured workplace. Procedures direct what people do. Leaders are proud of efficiency-based coordination and organization. Keeping the organization functioning smoothly is crucial. Formal rules and policies keep the organization together. The long-term goals are stability and results, paired with efficient and smooth execution of tasks. Reliable delivery, continuous planning, and low cost define success. Personnel management has to guarantee work and predictability.

The Compete Culture type is competitive and focused on goals. Leaders are hard drivers, producers, and rivals. They can be tough with high expectations. The emphasis on winning keeps the organization together. Reputation and success are the most important. The long-term focus is on rival activities and reaching goals. Market dominance, achieving your goals, and great metrics are the definitions of success. Competitive prices and market leadership are important. The organizational style is based on competition.

When these cultural features are over-emphasized their “shadows” aka the not-so-effective behaviors can emerge. Robert Quinn calls this a transactional mindset in his excellent book Change the World – How ordinary people can accomplish extraordinary results.

You are hired as a human resource – that is a transaction. You can be replaced. It’s not about you as a person. You focus on your self-interest and behave to comply with what is expected or rewarded within this system. Organizations develop patterns for allocating rewards to people who conform to their collective expectations and punishments for people who deviate. Organizational culture reinforces this. If you want to fit in, comply and achieve our shared goal. If you don’t, you have a hard time or can be fired. So, this transactional attitude can be rational.

Simply put: you are seeing and treating people as a means to your ends. What’s in it for me? It saves time to NOT send a thank-you response. You “ghost” the consultant that helped you if you don’t want to hire them. You use ranking power to suit your schedule… The reason: you are being treated (used) the same way by others. You are under pressure in this system, where you have to deliver more, faster, and better. (Because if the organization doesn’t grow and speed up, it might not deliver sufficient return on investment).

These behaviors can emerge in this corporate context (culture) that emphasizes the bottom line, cost reductions, and achieving the goals at all costs.

But what happens if you are hired as a human being, a valued person on the team? (See down below).

Organizations with legal personhood

These transactional behaviors emerge because organizations have legal personhood. They are not informal groups where everyone is personally accountable. Here is an explanation, taken from the book Woke, Inc. – by Vivek Ramaswamy.

Corporate law creates an obligation owed by managers to the owners of a business. That obligation is known as fiduciary duty- the highest form of trusted obligation that one person can legally owe another.

Enter the “board of directors.” Because shareholders are often disparate geographically and unknown to one another, they elect a board to look after their affairs. The board then becomes the so-called fiduciary of those shareholders: they owe the shareholders the highest level of care.

What’s more important is that shareholders have limited legal liability. Corporate law creates a legal barrier that prevents anyone wronged by a corporation from holding an owner of that corporation personally liable. This is arguably the most important feature of the corporation: it’s a legal shield that was created to bear liability so individual people didn’t have to.

Limited shareholder liability empowers entrepreneurs to raise outside capital from investors to build businesses that they could never have built on their own. No investor would put up capital to fund any venture in the absence of limited liability.

Limited liability was created to defy the basic principle by which ordinary people live: that you bear the consequences of your actions. That’s why movements such as Extinction Rebellion (XR) target businesses and organizations, rather than individuals. They want to hold the “legal persons” accountable.

I think that we should also hold the people in organizations accountable – leaders and employees. As people, we all influence our direct co-workers daily, and, thus, the organizational system that we are part of. But this takes courage and bringing our “whole selves” to work…

Organizations aren’t real, they are legal entities. People are real.

Trust, collaboration, development, and innovation

Quinn argues that the transactional world tends to drive us toward hypocrisy. You lose the contract if you don’t fit in. You won’t be promoted if your KPIs aren’t great. So, you pretend that you care, but you focus on your professional role and your goals. You push for your goals. You don’t treat others the way you would like to be treated (the Golden Rule). You don’t treat them as persons who might like it when you reply to their emails or help them out. You use them as means to your ends – then drop them when you no longer need them.

Even though efficiency and efficacity sound great – too much focus on this leads to so much pressure that it stifles learning, innovation, bonding, trust, brainstorming, sharing, and helping each other. Those are features that you need, too, to be a successful organization in our challenging, changing times.

People won’t share, won’t bond, won’t help, and won’t bring out the best in each other if the culture is only a corporate context. People also need to know, trust, and like each other. They have to be willing to give more than their working hours: their passion, their energy, intrinsic motivation! Excellent, positive organizations offer a meaningful shared purpose, passion, and community. That goes way beyond the rational corporate approach.

Looking at the Competing Values Framework, positive organizations also need:

The Create Culture type is a dynamic and creative working environment. Employees take risks. Leaders are seen as innovators and risk-takers. Experiments and innovation are a way of bonding. Prominence is emphasized. The long-term goal is to grow and create new resources. The availability of new products or services is seen as a success. The organization promotes individual initiative and freedom.

The Collaborate Culture type offers a friendly environment. People have a lot in common, and it feels like a large family. The leaders are seen as mentors or maybe even father figures. The organization is held together by loyalty and tradition. There is great involvement. They emphasize long-term Human Resource Development. Success is defined within the framework of addressing the needs of the clients and caring for the people. The organization promotes teamwork, participation, and consensus.

Quinn says: Being transformational is a choice. It means choosing your response regardless of the context.

It takes courage to live in alignment with your values and speak up, show vulnerability, and be authentic, regardless of the context. Showing up as yourself means being transformational. You’re still a professional, doing your work in the best possible way, being rational and results-oriented. But you are also true to your values, you are not fake and playing a role if you don’t mean it.

You acknowledge yourself as a human being, with good and bad days, far from perfect. When you do, you set an example for others – you influence the people around you and might entice them to bring their “true selves” forward – thus, building trust between you.

You feel like a human being, a valued person on the team… (regardless of your output, though, of course, you contribute to the team and the results).

This can be transformational, as everyone learns and adjusts their ways of thinking, acting, and interacting. “We do not need to be in positions of high authority to be transformational. We need no other authority except the authority of our own souls. We are all change agents,” says Quinn. “If I change my behavior, I change the relationship. I distort the balance and they have to pay attention, find a new response, and change themselves while doing so.”

Wholeness

Frederic Laloux also emphasized (in his book Reinventing Organizations) that new, excellent organizations embrace wholeness at work. He says: “We have an emotional, intuitive, rational, and spiritual side. The rational is appreciated in the workplace, but we are supposed to leave emotions, intuitions, and spiritual considerations at home. So, we end up showing this very narrow rational masculine ego side of ourselves only. That’s not all of our energy and passion.

While in those new organizations, I’ve researched – we show up with our whole selves. They brim with energy and authenticity. To be whole at work, they have reinvented things like safe space, meetings, storytelling, working hours, onboarding, feedback, and evaluations. They’ve created a safe space – or we won’t show up fully because we’re vulnerable. New organizations use practices to make it safe, and to invite us to be truly human.”

Amy Edmondson’s book The Fearless Organization can help you build a socially safe culture. Also, see my earlier blog post on her book.

  • Who are you at work? A role? Or a person who reciprocates?
  • Are you hired as a human being, a valued person on the team?
  • Or were you hired as a human resource, only valuable if you deliver sufficient output?
  • In the professional context, do you reply to others with Thank you?
  • In the professional context, do you reply at all – even if you can’t do anything for them?
  • In the professional context, do you shift appointments to accommodate their schedule?
  • In the professional context, do you expect an immediate, satisfying answer after office hours?
  • Are you kind?

© Marcella Bremer, 2023

The time for a positive transition is now. This decade until 2030 determines the future. Let’s help people and organizations become future-fit.

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