Homeostasis and Organizational Evolution

Living organisms are characterized by a drive for homeostasis, or consistency. For example, most of us prefer consistency in our lifestyles, the types of people we hang out with, and in the foods we eat. Although we often like to think of ourselves as adventurous and free-spirited, research shows that we actually make choices that promote the status quo rather than change. The same is true with organizations.

If you are an internal or external consultant, how many times have you heard someone in an organization say, “We need to be more innovative,” or “We are too soft on under-performers?” These phrases are the most-often uttered when you ask someone about an organization’s biggest challenge. However, these “problems” tend to endure for years and seem almost impossible to change. Why? Because organizations, like individuals, trend toward sameness rather than change. How, then, can an organization change the organizational culture from, for example, more cautious and rule-compliant to more innovative and risk-taking?

The first step is understanding/admitting that organizational change needs to occur. In the case of changing organizational culture, step two is hiring people with a different profile—more risk-taking than cautious or more innovative than compliant, for example. However, it is important that organizations make incremental, rather than radical changes in the people they hire in order for changes to be accepted and effective.

Understanding the typical leadership profile that exists today is step one toward making meaningful change—leaders’ values drive culture. Thinking carefully about the leadership profile that might begin to pull the organization in a new direction is step two. Take a step too far in that new direction, and the organization will practice organ rejection—the new leader will be unsuccessful. Remain too cautious about shaking up the status quo, and you are unlikely to effect change because the organization will rebel against the new leader. Deliberate, thoughtful, and incremental change in the hiring profile can bring about change that stretches the organization, but doesn’t trigger organ rejection. Measuring personality characteristics and values of leaders accurately, both to gain an understanding the current leadership signature of the organization and an understanding of the kinds of leaders that may be needed for the future is critical for moving the needle on organizational culture.