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  • Debbie Dougherty

Hey Managers, If Your Organizational Culture is a Web, are You the Spider or the Fly?

Updated: Feb 21

Spider character in a pink suit next to a fly character in a blue suit. The fly is stuck in a spider web.
Spider or the Fly? Picture by Freya Clark

Usually when I ask organizational change agents this question, they get a little resistant.

“I hate spiders.”

“Do you like flies?”

“No, I hate flies too.”

“If you had to choose, would you rather be the spider or the fly?”

“They are both creepy.”

“Maybe, but one creates the web, and the other is trapped in the web. So, which is it going to be?”

I find the web metaphor a useful tool when I am trying to explain how wicked problems, like sexual harassment, come to be woven into organizational cultures. This is how I describe the cultural web in my newest book:

Organizational culture is a system of meanings that are constantly employed, negotiated, and contested. Although these meanings may not be universally shared, they are interwoven in powerful ways. Visually, it may be helpful to think about systems of meanings as a spider web that is constantly being woven and rewoven. These interlocking meanings are mutually supporting and make the web very difficult to unweave. As a result, it is not possible to point to a single context or action, such as predatory sexual behavior, and trim it from the culture. Why? Because predatory sexual behavior is supported by many strands of meanings that are woven together to support the behavior.

The spider web metaphor is a useful metaphor for several reasons.

· First, spider silk is one of the strongest fibers found in nature, yet it appears fragile. Organizational cultures also appear to be fragile but are very resistant to change.

· Second, most of the time, it is hard to see spider webs, unless the light shines on them just so, or dew has accumulated, making them shine in the early morning light. Similarly, your organizational culture is very hard to see, unless you can shine a light on it just so.

· Third, when a thread breaks, the spider reweaves new strands. Similarly, your organizational culture is constantly being woven and rewoven, making it very challenging to pin down.

Who is the Spider? Who is the Fly?

Of course, if you take the web metaphor to its natural conclusion, then it becomes necessary to ask who creates the web? Who is the spider? Who is the fly?

A spider draws a strand of silk across two points. A fly buzzes past, easily escaping the sticky strand. Another strand, and another fly escapes. Each strand of silk creates a new hazard for the fly, but a clever fly can move past. As the spider begins to connect the strands, flies begin to tangle. When the spider weaves the last strand, escape becomes impossible. (Excerpt from The Reluctant Farmer: An Exploration of Work, Social Class, and the Production of Food).

Myths About Organizational Culture

To answer the spider or the fly question, it is necessary to first address two fundamental myths about organizational culture.

Myth one—the spider’s job is simple. There is a wide group of people who believe that organizational culture is easily changed with just a few simple tweaks. For example, I cannot tell you the number of people who have told me that to change a culture all you have to do is change the organization’s policy. As anyone who has struggled to solve a culturally woven problem can tell you, simple changes will not solve complex problems.

Myth two—everyone is the fly. In contrast, another group of people believe that organizational cultures cannot be changed. As a result, there is no point in doing culture work. It is a waste of time. For these folks, the only answer is to find the bad guys and punish them. Sadly, as anyone who has struggled with a culturally woven problem can tell you, responding after the fact is important, but does not prevent the problem from happening in the first place.

The reality is that neither of these are correct. Organizational culture is not easily changed, nor is it an unchanging monolith. Instead, organizational cultures evolve over time. As change agents, our job is to help direct the path of that change. That means that culture work requires patience and persistence.

So are You the Spider or are You the Fly? Is this a Trick Question?

Yes, it is a trick question. If you have been paying attention, you might recognize that when it comes to organizational culture, we are both the spider and the fly. Cultures are comprised of meaningful behaviors that are patterned and persistent over time. When you engage in those patterned and persistent behaviors, then you are reweaving the cultural web. You are the spider. But, as Karl Weick is so fond of saying, you are also reproducing the environment that you live in. In other words, you are also the fly who is caught in the web that you and your organizational colleagues have woven.

Maybe we should be thinking about shaping the cultural web that we want to be caught in? How can we be a proactive spider so that we can be a satisfied fly?

Action Steps

I obviously cannot give you the answers in this short blog post, but I can make a few suggestions. First, since your culture is woven through communication, it is time to think in more complex ways about your internal organizational communication. Communication is not just about sending information or crafting messages. Communication is about creating your culture. It is about the organizational meaning systems. Think bigger when creating your internal organizational communication plan. You might want to start thinking bigger about communication by reading the digital publication Communication Currents.

Second, as a change agent, you are not helpless. Neither are you the Lone Ranger, riding in on your horse Silver, single handedly vanquishing the bad guys (for more on this check our this blog post). It takes multiple people working collectively to help an organization evolve. I hope you like working in teams, because that is what it will take.

You see, unlike the lonely spider creating a web, organizational cultures are webs of meanings built by a lot of people working together. It should comfort you to know that as you evolve your culture, you are not the only spider weaving the web, neither are you the only fly caught in a web of your own design.

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