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We All Care About Congruence. Right?

Published: May 10, 2018

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What is your personal sensitivity to congruence in your org?

Example of congruence (in an organizational setting) might include:

  • Standards/rules applied equally across the organization or group
  • Actions/behaviors consistent with stated cultural values
  • “Walk the talk” and “practice what you preach”
  • Consistency in terms of “what to expect” and “how things work”
  • Authenticity, real-ness, transparency, clear intentions Congruence has fascinated me for a long time. If you were to ask most people about the phrases above, they would reply with something like “that’s important — I really care about that!” Yet when you observe people’s actual behavior in an organizational setting, you’ll notice that they exhibit vastly different sensitivities to (and perspective on) congruence.

Why? A couple ideas…

  • Diversity. Take one rule, one cultural value, one guideline, one statement of intent…and you’ll have as many interpretations as you have team members and vantage points (Experiment #1: have a conversation with a diverse set of team members about “fairness”, “justice”, “meritocracy”, “brilliant jerks”, “diversity”, “move fast and break things”, “radical candor”, “individualism vs collectivism”, etc.) In short, while people seem to universally care about coherence, they care about coherence in sometimes very different ways.
  • Advocacy. Some people are more likely to “take up the cause” for others. They self-identify as an advocate for the under-represented, and those getting the “short end of the stick”. On some level they need a cause, and will find one or manufacture one if one does not exist. Coherence issues are fertile ground for this.
  • Systems vs. “The People”. Individuals have very different views on the balance of systemic causes and individual responsibility in understanding the behavior of a system/org culture. To some, coherence is a result of individual actor decisions. When coherence falters, it is Person X’s or Group Y’s fault. To others, coherence is mostly a matter of system incentives and what the system is “optimized for”.
  • Bias and Self-Awareness. We tend to notice (and judge) the lapses in congruence in others more readily (and more harshly) than we do our own lapses in congruent behavior. In many cases we’re blind to our inconsistencies. The promotion/raise from a boss who happens to be an old friend is OK, and meanwhile that team “over there” is rife with favoritism.
  • Triggers. We respond differently in the moment. I’ve seen two people respond to the same incongruous behavior in markedly different ways….one immediately tense, shut-down, indignant, and the other more curious, patient, and letting it simmer. It turned out they were equally impacted, but responded differently.
  • The ripple effect…actions that feel/seem very coherent one part of the organization, can have very different impacts elsewhere in the organization. The CEOs “above and beyond” effort can feel like a “death march” elsewhere.
  • Depth. Different perspectives on the required “depth” of congruence. For example, Person A might look primarily to consistent process, consistent policy, and predictability as signs of congruence. Person B may be perfectly fine with chaos, surprises, and “new directions” provided that some core element of culture — or more importantly their experience of the culture — remains intact.
  • Aspirations. I can’t put my finger on it, exactly, but some people seem generally more accepting of aspirational values. What matter is that people are trying to “live the values”. Lapses are OK. Other folks are far more literal and unforgiving. You’re either doing it, or you aren’t. Of course, this can change with time. Patience and flexibility can easily run out (or conversely be earned) over time.
  • Proportions. We tend to notice the major infractions, while many congruent actions/behaviors go unnoticed. The 95% congruent environment feels 50% incongruent because of the single CEO slip. And those who seek…find. If you’re looking for cracks (and some people are predisposed to do this), you tend to discover cracks. Why does this matter? It is easy to get hung up on congruence issues and assume that we’re seeing the full picture, and that the people who don’t seem to care (or notice) are somehow part of the problem. This is bolstered because everyone seems to care about congruence — fairness, consistency, predictability, equal opportunity, less favoritism, reliability, follow-through, etc. So if they care, and don’t act like they care (according to our standards), then it must mean they’re in on it. Which feels even more incongruent, which fuels the fire.

You have to break out of that cycle if you’re caught in it.

I’m not saying that some orgs are not downright toxic or that sometimes it is just a poor fit. Get out if that is the case. But if you find yourself harping on mixed messages or “hypocritical” behavior, spinning a fictional victim’s narrative, or making sweeping claims about your org…it might be wise to take a step back and check yourself. There may be more good happening than you are currently absorbing, and more people who may be willing to help you, which is especially helpful and encouraging if you are attempting some kind of change effort.

So…more self-awareness and paying attention. And remember that a lack of congruence often signals an opportunity. On some level, all change requires an imbalance.