By Robert E. Quinn
I remember a heart surgeon once telling me about his work. “Sometimes a person is dying,” he said quietly. “I take their heart into my hands, and when I am finished, they are alive.” He made this simple statement with awe and humility at how meaningful this experience was for him every time.
It’s a feeling I know. It occurs when I do cultural surgery. I am regularly asked, for example, to help senior management teams. These are brilliant, successful people with years in business. Their salaries are often staggering. So what could they possibly need from me?
The invitation comes because they know they need to make a fundamental change that they don’t know how to make: to turn themselves into a team. They don’t know how to lure conflict to the surface and transform it into creative collaboration. Yet it’s critical to the organization’s health that they do so. Without a cohesive team, there is no synergy,
This condition is a “silent killer” because few organzations are ready to admit they’re not optimizing their potential. When a team is not cohesive, there is no synergy, which can cause a chronic condition that may indeed threaten the life of the organization.
There are several things that strike me about this. First some senior executives are simply resigned: They cannot even imagine a top management team functioning cohesively. So they expect to have self-interested people working together pretending to be a team. Second, there is no accounting mechanism to show the absence of synergy; how do you measure it? Third, the weakness does not mean that executives are bad people. It means that they are like the rest of us. They do not know how to appreciate and elevate their own culture. You couldn’t perform heart surgery on yourself. Nor could they perform culture surgery on their team.
Cultural change requires bringing conflict out in the open and transforming it. It is natural to flee from or try to dominate conflict—to succumb to the “fight or flight” impulse that is as old as human experience itself.
Learning to and identify, touch, talk about, and transform conflict is an acquired skill. It is the essence of leadership, but it’s not second nature.
Enter the cultural surgeon. I focus on the corporation’s brain—looking at the neural pathways that are misfiring or broken, determining which synapses need rehabilitation to reconnect properly. My job is to rewire that brain, to move the group from one mindset to another.
Beyond transforming the conflicts I uncover, I am able to prompt other valuable outcomes that transcend the “What’s wrong here?” conversation and sets the corporate “patient” firmly on the path to wellness. Our work together creates new capacity in the team that can spread through the organization and into society. This transformation represents tangible, sustainable change with impact far behind the team of executives on whom I “operate” directly.
As often as I have done this, I still find it deeply satisfying. Like the surgeon, I am filled with a sense of awe. I am grateful to do what I love. And my patients thrive.
Question: What do you do that fills you with awe?