The risks of believing your own hype

There’s always something new to learn in any given situation as I recently found out on a trip to Italy. I was looking forward to some time away – sunshine, good food and some rest and relaxation. We decided on this occasion to stay in a hotel in the Umbrian Hills, a recipe for perfection you would think, but not quite so! Yes, the views were to die for, the setting was perfect, but that’s where the imagery ended. The hotel was tired, unloved, the staff rather lack lustre and the food absolutely terrible. Of course, one would think in Italy, good food is practically obligatory, but not in this case and after 3 days we took the option of eating out in a local restaurant 2 minutes’ walk away from the hotel. What transpired over the next few days, in conversation with others, was that the poor quality of food was being discussed widely amongst guests, with many also opting to eat out. The quality of the food was a point of common conversation uniting us!

If life has taught me something, it’s good to be honest, having difficult conversations can be hard, but when done well they can also be helpful to enable others to think and reflect. So, I  delivered the message to the hotel staff in a calm and objective way, filled in a feedback form and waited for a response. I also took time to review trip advisor reviews just to see what other were saying. Many reviews were highly positive, talking about how good everything was. In addition to this, the response from the hotel was not what I expected, they basically stated that their food was great, and many other guests agree!

It was one of those moments of complete disbelief – what do you do when you see one thing, in this case terrible food, which everyone is talking about, but external reports and those in a position of power to change it simply don’t see what you see?  I have to admit, on this occasion, I felt a little helpless and frustrated, not sure what else I could do to convince the hotel staff that the food was bad, but it did occur to me though about how this is very similar to work TWBC often does around culture. Sometimes we see something in particular, we point it out and no one believes or sees it.

Johnson and Scholes (2002) cultural web is a helpful framework to suggest why this may be the case. The framework illustrates six key elements that make up a ‘paradigm’ or a mental model of how organisations view themselves – the way they think, behave and operate. Over time, many believe things about themselves, due to such things as previous stories, myths, symbols, power and organisational structures. In this case, it struck me that that perhaps the hotel in question believed so much about how good they were (in my words, their own hype), they could not see the things that potentially could be their undoing in the long run. Indeed, if the food did not improve, something would possibly happen in the long run to affect their customer base and overall reputation.

cultural web

There are, of course, many ways of testing out where you are now using the Culture Web, but I’ve often found a few things particularly helpful as a starting point:

  • Do not overly rely on formal mechanisms to be informed on how well you are doing, it may not give you the full picture. Hearing the ‘noise on the ground’ will often give you a much clearer idea.
  • Create a space to listen and value all stories, even the ones that make you feel uncomfortable. If people are having repeated negative dialogue around something, there is likely to be some element of truth around it.
  • Create a space to reflect yourself! Be prepared to have your own beliefs about your organisation tested out, it is easy to hold onto to one key story and build everything around it, but much harder to test out if that story is shared and believed by others.

So, whilst I’m not sure how long it will take the hotel I stayed at to ‘wake up’ to how bad the food is, I do know that with a change in mindset, and organisational behaviours, it is perfectly possible to get a much clearer and honest view about how things actually are.

For more info on the cultural web https://www.mindtools.com/pages/article/newSTR_90.htm.

Tim Coupland -Consultant, TWBC.

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