Dr. Robert Sternberg, a well-known psychologist and, quite frankly, an absolutely brilliant scientist, just managed to get tangled up in the University of Wyoming’s cultural immune response. He’s hardly the first person who has been caught up in such a reaction, although his case is certainly dramatic: he ended up resigning after barely four months as the president of the university.
The cultural immune response is a phenomenon I discuss in my books, The 36-Hour Course in Organizational Development and Organizational Psychology for Managers.
At root, it’s pretty straight-forward: when the human immune system sees something that doesn’t fit, that triggers an immune response and the body attempts to repel the invader. At an organizational level, when someone enters the organization and does not fit with the culture, that person is seen as an invader. The organizational system mobilizes to fight off the invader. If the person entering the organization is a relatively low-level employee, it’s no big deal. The person either changes to match the culture, they leave, or they are fired. The overall culture barely, as it were, sneezes.
The situation is considerably more complex when the person triggering the response is the new president of, say, a university. As I wrote in Organizational Development:
Remember that culture is a roadmap of how the world works. The longer that culture has been in place, the more successful the organization has been, and the more people like the way things are working and are happy with the current situation, the stronger the culture will be. The stronger the culture, the more the roadmap is trusted. The more the roadmap is trusted, the harder it is to change.
When a new leader comes in who does not match with the culture, problems will immediately arise. It doesn’t matter whether we’re talking a group leader or a CEO, although in general the smaller the group, the weaker the culture simply because it is not distributed over as many people. What the new leader is effectively doing is saying, “Everything you know, everything you believe in, is wrong. Trust me. Follow me. I have the truth.”
Now, I suspect that many of you reading that last paragraph are rolling your eyes and thinking, “Yeah, right. It can’t be that big a deal!”
Let’s consider the situation. For the members of the culture, this roadmap, this view of the world, is their common bond. It’s the thing that holds the organization together. By providing structure and predictability, culture reduces anxiety and promotes a feeling of security. Remember also that culture quickly becomes largely unconscious. Behaviors are chunked, no longer thought about on a conscious level.
Then someone comes along and says, “No, no, that’s all wrong.” Imagine being in that position. How would you feel? How did you feel the last time your company announced major changes or restructuring?