Rituals, Trait Making, and Culture

In order to understand an organization’s culture it is often helpful to look at a simple and familiar form of organization, such as the family. A good place to start is family rituals. These rituals might include family meetings to establish or reevaluate house behavior standards, family vacations, holiday celebrations, and the presence or absence of family reunions.

A very good example of a family ritual is meal time. Who eats with whom? Who helps prepare for the meal and who helps clean up? What is discussed at the meal table? What behavior is accessible? Are people focused on each other or on a television, video games, etc.? Does the family eat together or does each person take the food to a separate eating area?

Leo Buscaglia, in his book Papa, My Father, relates the story of growing up in an incredibly loving Italian family. His father, always at the head of the table, expected each child to come to the table prepared to relay something they had learned that day. As the meal came to an end, he would light up his pipe, pull his chair back, and ask each child in turn what they had learned.

They children never hesitated to prepare themselves, even if it meant glancing at the encyclopedia for some factual information. If a child had nothing more to say than stating the population of Nepal, the answer was taken seriously. Papa would get a globe out to examine where Nepal was and reach for the encyclopedia to ascertain more information. Leo credits this family ritual with instilling in all the children a curiosity about life and a love of learning.

Paul Welleford, Ph.D., wrote his doctoral dissertation on TAP during the 1990s. Using a word analysis model, he queried TAP leaders, board members, staff, and volunteers about the top words they would use in describing TAP. He then compared these answers to the key words most often mentioned in the agency’s publications. Paul found that there was a general agreement that TAP had a very specific culture that was suggested by the following words:

  • Dedicated to mission

  • Education

  • Needed

  • Entrepreneurial

  • Team focused

  • Family

  • Caring

Welleford credited TAP’s early involvement in the experiential interpersonal and team development training known as “sensitivity training” as the ritual that produced the agency culture in which TAP was frequently referred to as a family. Scores of TAP employees had been participants in week-long residential training events in which they learned how to share feelings, give behavior-based feedback, handle conflict, and work in a team situation in which they focused both on task issues and interpersonal maintenance issues in order to create a more successful team product.

In Elliot Aronson's book Not by Chance Alone, one of the great social psychologists of the twentieth century talks about his involvement in these training groups. He speaks about how the “T-group” was accidentally invented by Kurt Lewin, the father of social psychology. Lewin had initially been testing the assumption that “small group discussions might lead to creative solutions to social problems.” He had some graduate students observe the groups during the day and then discuss the groups’ dynamics during the evening. Unexpectedly, the day group participants asked to be in on the discussion, leading to vigorous conversation between observers and participants.

Aronson recounts: “Lewin was quick to grasp the significance of this event. A group that forms to discuss how to solve a problem can benefit enormously by taking the time out to discuss its own feelings and intentions, and the members do not need training in group dynamics to do this. Indeed, the participants themselves are much better observers of their own process because each is privy to his or her own intentions.”

Over time the T-group evolved, an agenda-less group with no formal plans other than to talk about its own dynamics with the goal of helping its members improve their ability to communicate with one another about their feelings and intentions and to get feedback from others as to how they were seen by others during these interactions. Aronson said, “The T-group quickly became the vanguard of the human potential movement.”

It was in the early days of the crucible of T-group training that many of the norms of TAP dealing with straight talk, openness with feelings and feedback were formed. However, Welleford did not see that it was in the team retreat, the ongoing organization ritual, in which individual sharing, feedback, and straight talk about the agency task that kept the same norms alive that he had witnessed during his study.

Furthermore, the T-group whose participants met without reference to their work position or to their family relationships but simply as persons shorn of title and position encouraged TAP staff to see anyone who comes to the agency for an opportunity as someone no different from themselves.

Aronson invested three summers in the T-group experiment as a participant, leader trainee, and leader under the tutelage of National Training Laboratories. (Bristow and I would attend our first T-group session at a NTL-sponsored training at Hilton Head Island in South Carolina.)

About the T-group experience Aronson said, “T-groups provided participants with illuminating exercises that they could take away with them. These skills made them better friends to their friends, better teachers to students, better bosses to the employees, better parent to their children, better spouses.” He might have added, better anti-poverty advocates as well.

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