What’s the Value of Cultural Range?

Tight and loose words in culture


Some cultures are (up)tight, and some are l o o s e. Ten years ago, in a quest to explain human behavior's variance, psychologist Michele Gelfand studied 33 nations. As she explains in the abstract:

Tightness-looseness is part of a complex, loosely integrated multilevel system that comprises distal ecological and historical threats (e.g., high population density, resource scarcity, a history of territorial conflict, and disease and environmental threats), broad versus narrow socialization in societal institutions (e.g., autocracy, media regulations), the strength of everyday recurring situations, and micro-level psychological affordances (e.g., prevention self-guides, high regulatory strength, need for structure).

Culture is like water. It's all around us, yet we hardly ever notice its influence in our lives. Gelfand's definition of tight is: many strong norms, low tolerance of deviant behavior. Loose culture is the opposite: weak social norms, high tolerance of deviant behavior.

As you can imagine, the first resist change, but are reliable and good with stability. The second are less disciplined, but greater appetite for risk. Try and merge two companies with such different risk and norm profiles, and you're asking for trouble.

Most of us sit somewhere on the spectrum between tight and loose. But we gravitate toward one or the other based on circumstances and our level of stress.


A word on words

Words are not always what they mean. They need context.

The list above is part of a dictionary Gelfand and team created after analyzing words in newspapers, constitutions, and other public documents. Technically, we've moved from tight to loose words in the last 200 years. And of course all the words in both columns are good words. Context tells us what we're trying to say.

I say technically, because it depends on the context. Industries and companies that face threats and need strong coordination are tighter. You don't want nuclear plants, hospitals, construction sites, and airlines play loose with their operations. Quite the opposite, you'd want them to run a tight ship.

Safety at work is a physical requirement. Rules that enforce that are non negotiable. You'd want to have at least that, before talking about safe space in a broader sense. Constraints and compliance are good for preventing issues. The military is the ultimate example of discipline and application of strong norms.

Industries and companies that face less threat tend to be more horizontal and open in their approach. The tech industry is an extreme example of this. And since technology drives so much of the current culture the world over, the words have become like mantras, writing a new narrative.

Technology moved us squarely into what German sociologist Gerd-Günter Voß calls a situational “conduct of life.” We've all become agile improvisers, because tech could disrupt us (or we could disrupt ourselves), so why bother thinking long term? This has strong implications for nature, which is extrinsic in this model, and humans.

Because we've now become “human resources,” along with having “natural resources.” You can see how words change thought and action. We used to have social traditions and families, then a life with a plan and goals, and now we have an avalanche of disruption.


What happens when we apply stress?

One of the aspects of my research and practice on culture that fascinates me the most is what happens when stress is part of the context. Since we were talking about words and behavior, that's where we'll look first. For that, I use Shelle Rose Charvet's application of Language and Behavior Profile (LAB) to the people business.

The working stress response changes based on whether you're a person with the feeling pattern, a choice individual (the majority), or someone who leads with thinking. It's a bit intuitive, so you would be right in assigning high emotion to feeling, and low (or non existent) to thinking. While choice can move in a spectrum from emotion to rational.

As for language, you need to look at non verbal. Because you get the best clues. Feeling people change their body posture, muscle tension, vocal tone. Choice people will move between emotional and unemotional state. Thinking people will show no emotions. They're difficult to get excited. The body is where you can see the 'tells.'

Why not focus on the words? Because we've learned to game the system. We say what we think people want to hear. Everyone does this. to the point that often people end up saying something completely at odds with what they meant. 

A broader cultural context changes the words, too. Just in Anglo-Saxon cultures, Americans have a very loose range: something is either amazingly wonderful or a complete disaster. English Canadians go from pretty good to pretty bad. While the Brits' range is from not bad to not good. The negative in front of the opposite is a characteristic many European nations share.

When I cross reference language with behavior, I get something like this:

Stress in Culture

These responses will also vary based on the specific kind of threat. I was talking with a colleague in Italy this morning about how it's become impossible to know where the line of pandemic risk ends anymore. Governments, mainstream media, and any online publication in search of a click have flooded the zone with words.

Too much information, not enough trust. A recipe for stress.


What cultural range looks like

Tight and loose hang in silos. Manufacturing and regulatory, tight. Research and development and marketing, loose. Tight prefer to work in hierarchies, because it's more efficient. Loose gravitate more toward networks, because it's more diverse. Extremes are problematic, nobody can get along to get things done.

At the individual level, tight looks conscientious and careful, while loose is more open, a risk taker. Many entrepreneurs fit the loose profile. But then they get in trouble when the company grows, because their flexible, experimental, informal practices can't hold a bigger group of people together. Socialization is too weak.

Hence, the practice of standardizing, creating efficiencies, and inserting some formality in processes. Calibrate to the right stage of growth, and you strengthen socialization. Your leader is tight if they're confident and autonomous. She's loose when she's collaborative and visionary. However, the magic is in between: the ability to operate in both ranges.

How do you balance an organization? You add (some) structure to the loose parts, and aspects of flexibility to the tight. Goldilocks had it right, after all. And we can always learn a character-building lesson from a story.

You tighten a loose organizations by centralizing, enforcing rules, increasing mentoring, setting benchmarks, and focusing on reliability. You loosen a tight organization by decentralizing, encouraging pushback, introducing flexibility, allowing exploration, and encouraging individual agency.


Why bother?

All this may seem nice to know. But, as the partner of an accounting firm put to me recently, what's the utility? His actual wording was even more specific: how do I profit from it? Because love, beauty, and trust have no intrinsic value left to humanity Nor has nature, it seems, unless it is in the service of the money god.

However, I do acknowledge that gratitude goes only so far. After all, your grocer, as mine, does require payment.

The 'so what' is effectiveness. And I'm sure nobody wants to invest in change that doesn't change anything. It's doesn't only impact optics; it could be career-ending. Think of how “culture eats strategy for breakfast.” A short hand for Peter Drucker's insight that company culture constrains strategy and can defeat strategy.

To go back to Gerd-Günter Voß' thinking about “conduct of life.” We've shifted from traditional, where actions stemmed from a pragmatic and concrete social and familial context to a more ethereal strategic level, a movement that emerged in modernity, to situational. Continuity of preservation is less valuable in this mode.

But since technology has brought us squarely into this mode, an understanding of culture's impact on how a company, group, individual, or society responds (or reacts) to change is critical. I've used linguistic analysis applied to stress caused by crises, industry change, and competitive shifts my entire career.

I met Tom Peters when he first spoke about the rapid acceleration of careers in 2001. Given my experience with narrative and repositioning businesses whose value could not come across in a shifted context, I had already experienced the 2.8-3 year mark in jobs he was talking about. Companies were just beginning to feel the heat.

The trick is to apply wisdom and experience from a cultural context (nation, industry, line of business) that understands longevity in one that defies it. That's where you not only stand out, but get stronger and endure creatively to market cycles.

This is the value of cultural range. And it's something that is very hard, if impossible, to buy on the spot. Hence, the increased shortness of business life.