Tinkering with Culture

One dissecting the culture, the tiny traits that we need to consider and intend a mindset shift when deliberating policies.

In some sense, I have already written this article, in Culture of Competition. But I thought that rather than prescribing things, I want to think through the culture that has been created over the years a little bit more. I am not trying to be definitive but just to kickstart some thinking along this dimension where few have bothered to tread meaningfully other than to conjure some social critique or unconstructive sarcasm.

Harking back at the article I have written, I must applaud some of the qualities Singaporeans generally have:

  • Largely rational
  • Results/outcome-oriented
  • Generally hardworking

These qualities also make us very operations-oriented, tending towards the side of being skeptical about abstractions and theoretical matters. This perhaps relate to our slightly more simple, non-scholarly ancestry, particularly for the Chinese. We don’t generally try very hard to translate theory into practise, choosing instead to ideate on practise in a separate, parallel track. This is related to our constraints of being a small country without much resources so the lofty thinking always must be kept apart from the practical considerations lest those executing lose heart when they know of the longer term strategy and plans in place. Unfortunately, along the way, I think we easily and quickly lose sight of the ‘meaning’ because the much longer term ‘why?’ that truly was driving the shorter term ‘how?’ was lost in the process.

Happiness, Prosperity & Progress
We want to thrive, not just survive. We want to be happy, we try our best to learn to be content. And because our thinking habit tend to deal with the practical bits at a separate, albeit parallel level, we orientate goals towards careers, grades, social recognition, paycheck, without establishing the proper linkage with the notions of thriving and happiness. We fail to be rigorous at the last mile where it matters.

Or, to put it in public service terms, we may establish that foreign direct investments are strongly related to job creation, knowledge transfers; and that direct investment abroad generates strong backward linkages that enhances our human capital, diversify our risk portfolio. And we may even manage to establish that job creation, knowledge transfers, enhancement of human capital and risk diversification generates greater economic growth (in terms of growth figures), promotes economic stability and robustness (in terms of volatility and fluctuations in growth rates). But how are all of these related to happiness, prosperity and progress of the nation (ie. the people)?

Our response to that had been to repair the pipes, to make sure that the value that flows from FDIs are connected directly to job creation (perhaps through application of conditional tax incentives), then possibly even tying them to jobs of citizens so that the various discipline’s graduates do indeed become employed after university (prosperity, checked). When Singaporeans are dissatisfied with jobs, then the question becomes what jobs they want and the public service is rallied to create those jobs (happiness, checked). So our new generation is better paid than the previous and also enjoy access to better quality of life (prosperity, checked).

Meaning & Purpose
So what is wrong? We have confused the ‘sense’ of happiness, prosperity and progress with what they really are. We cannot guarantee that everyone in the nation can have all 3. So what does it mean if one group has all 3, another few different groups have variation of one or two of them? Did we pass our key performance indicators? To ask that question is to miss the point totally. And that is what we are suffering from, having dupe ourselves into focusing only on the hard stuff – on the tangible, specific, measurable goals.

Our culture suffers from a void of meaning; the finger-pointing from dissatisfaction with job, government, friends, the world, have much to do with our inability to create meaning in the first place. Purposes are dictated by others – your teachers, parents, nanny, government, boss, system. Yet there is no process or upbringing that help us relate our concrete actions and our daily thoughts and deeds to those purposes. This void of meaning underlies the sense of entitlement (or strawberry generation), the disillusionment of the previous generation who have worked hard, the gloomy outlook.

Meaning matters, yet we are so desperately skeptical of its role in our lives. We sink into the unproductive ‘complaining spirit’ when we should be encouraging each other and reinforcing more positive self-talk. The power of meaning to shape behaviours radically is abused. Edward Hess recounts this story for his MBA class at Darden School (University of Virginia):

An entrepreneur was in the waiting room of a heart clinic, having waited for 5 hours and checked in with the nurse multiple times only to be reminded they will eventually attend to him each time. At some point a cleaner came into the clinic with a mop, brush and bucket of water. The entrepreneur watched and observe the cleaner in the heart clinic – he was so conscious of his job, kneeling down to scrub the floor of dirt when he sees them. The entrepreneur knew a thing or 2 about building maintenance and the hard work, having grown his business through developing and providing facilities management for commercial buildings.

He went to the cleaner and asked “I’ve never in my life seen a cleaner work like that and I wouldn’t imagine myself cleaning like that? Why is it that you do what you do the way you do it?”

The cleaner answered “Doctor Brown is in the business of fixing people’s hearts. And I support him by making sure this clinic is free of germs because germs does bad to people’s hearts.”

We may not be cleaners but we can connect with what he said. We know at the back of our minds the larger role that our job and tasks are playing. But we have doubts whether they actually achieve that ultimate bigger picture. We need to be less self-absorbed that we may shift our focus away from the dreary and come to see it hand-in-hand with the bigger role that our work plays in the lives of others and the whole economy.

Tiny Traits
I’ve taken a really tiny small thing and blow it up to make it big. Meaning by itself is tiny even if it underlies many things. But this would have incredible impact on a multitude of things. When we engineer policy that is supposed to create mindset changes, we need to think about the culture that will be created by the policy, and not just try to manage the culture through the process that is tied to the policy.

Then consider whether the culture spin-off is actually in line with our greater vision for the future (which I briefly mentioned in the first original article on Labour Perspectives). For all the stakeholders down the chain and the target audience, we need to ponder over what the deliberated policy really mean for each of them. Or are announcements for various packages, initiatives just times where various parties pounce on the public sector and try to see if there’s anything in for them? That is just one of the tiny traits borne of the void of meaning, together with many others including the complaining spirit characteristic of Singaporeans, the sense of entitlement we observe.