• Dean Williamson

Doing culture work and organisational design in Australia

Because of my recent involvement in the international community around organisational development and design, I've been thinking a lot about Australia. Not koalas and politics and pies. As Human Systems Co. has worked across more organisations, we've noticed that we have some interesting challenges which seem to be different to other countries. I'm tired of kicking it around on my own with international colleagues, so I'm throwing open the doors to Aussies.


So what is it about Australia that makes us unique in how we turn up to work, and the organisational cultures that we produce?

Understanding national culture first

The work of Geert Hofstede is pivotal in understanding national cultures. His 6-D model proposes "six basic issues that society needs to come to term with in order to organize itself". The six issues are:

  • Individualism

  • Power distance

  • Masculinity

  • Uncertainty avoidance

  • Long-term orientation

  • Indulgence

Understanding the 6-D model of national culture gives a starting point for the design of culturally-relevant organisational systems. For example, in the 6-D results Australia is relatively low in power distance, meaning that we're more likely to enjoy our leaders being approachable, open and "down in the trenches" with us - we won't respect distance and decision-making which feels aloof, and doesn't pay attention to the voices of the people. I see this all the time in organisations - bureaucracy is really disliked.


The interplay between national culture and organisational culture

An organisation is like a tree - it draws upon the environment around it to grow. Trees that don't need much water grow in deserts. Trees with high water needs grow in rainforests. In the same way, an organisation draws upon the culture around it to organise.


I think that, too often, an organisation is seen as an entity of its own - one that at its formation was a blank slate. If we understand that our organisations derive first from a national culture (and of course regional cultures etc.), then we can understand the similarities we will likely experience between organisations in our cultural context.


Knowing the makeup of national culture then allows us a lens to understand the makeup of an organisation. Lisa Gill's Leadermorphosis podcast has had some exceptional cross-cultural episodes, exploring new-wave organisations and their national contexts in places like India and Japan.


What does this mean for organisational design in Australia?

So now I'd like to get to Australia. To be honest, some of this sits right at the crux of frustration in organisational design work for me, so I'd love some more allies! I'm going to list the Australian results across the six elements of Hofstede's 6-D model above. For ease, I've classified them as low through to high:

  • Individualism (High: 90)

  • Power distance (Medium-low: 38)

  • Masculinity (Medium: 61)

  • Uncertainty avoidance (Medium: 51)

  • Long-term orientation (Low: 21)

  • Indulgence (Medium-high: 71)

I'm going to call out some of the more interesting parts above, and mash some of my thoughts or reflections from the practice of doing change work across more than a dozen organisations.


Power Distance and individualism:

Our relatively low power distance result says that, as a culture, we don't like aloofness or excessive hierarchy. Our ANZAC stories are punctuated with this national trait - the best officers were those who "cared about their men", and were approachable and happy to get "down in the trenches" with their blokes. This is often (quite literally) contrasted against British Officers. Two other national pillars - our "larrikin"/salt-of-the-earth nature and our strong tall poppy syndrome show that we don't embrace power distance.


Placed alongside this, I'm not sure what to make of our (really) high individualism. We don't like individuals being above us, but we're all trying to look after ourselves and get ahead? This probably goes some way towards explaining a lot of the leadership dissonance that I see culturally and in organisations - Australians find it very hard to "step above" others and lead - we won't respect them for looking out for themselves or for their status - it creates almost a "lead without overtly leading" paradox. It's also why our leaders (think ScoMo) try to be so "down to earth" and relatable. We also can't just ask someone to do something - Australians love being bought in to the "why".


I also feel that I have seen this need for low power distance manifest itself worst in government clients - they are more bureaucratic and naturally have higher power distance and less autonomy, and Australians really seem to languish here.


Masculinity:

One of the more interesting results here is masculinity. I thoroughly suggest watching this video where Hofstede discusses the traits of masculine vs feminine societies so that you can understand what this means, but on the whole a society is more masculine if there is an emotional role separation - where the men are expected to be more "tough and focused on material success, while women focus on quality of life." A feminine society is one in which this emotional role separation doesn't exist.


There is a really interesting dialogue in Australia at the moment about masculinity, and the low-range masculine result here is felt often. In organisations I see it all the time, with leaders leaning into a generally "tougher" and less emotional masculine stance, but often having just enough awareness to wish for more emotionally mature ways to lead. However, these wants are rarely embraced by the wider organisational culture, so the train trundles on in an unhappy state, lurching unevenly between attempts at psychological safety and cutlass-waving win-at-all-costs approaches. Honestly, doing the work we do, I would love to see this result be 39, not 61 - our organisations would be much healthier places.


A call for help

There's a lot more here to unpack, but my aim here is to start a dialogue. I'd love to engage with you and develop an Australian approach to:

  • How much of our experience in Australian organisations is rooted in our national culture?

  • What do we have to adapt to make practices which work overseas work here?

  • What is the uniquely Australian approach to organisational design and development, which understands who we are and what we need as a culture?

  • What is our minority experience in Australia? What should our approaches to DEI, JEDI, BIPOC etc look like?

  • What does our unique access to the most continuous living and sustainable culture (at approx. 60,000 years) mean for our work? What can we learn and weave through our designs?

Let's get into it Aussies!

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