Paul T. P. Wong


Have you ever tried to negotiate an obstacle course? The only thing you can expect is that there will always be something unexpected that throws you off track and thwarts you from reaching your goal. A course that would normally take no more than an hour to complete without the obstacles, would now take a few days or even longer, depending on one’s ability to navigate the course.

Unfortunately, some organizations are just like that. You are so tired of dealing with the endless, unnecessary obstacles that you have little energy and time left to engage in productive work. In such an organization, there are so many “pockets” of power, and each pocket functions like a little warlord, who is more interested in power grabbing than collaboration.


In contrast, some organizations are like a relay team, where everyone helps everybody else to succeed. The mantra is “How can I be of any help to you?” At the end, everyone succeeds as the team succeeds. Clearly, a relay-team organization is more efficient and productive than an obstacle-laden organization; the former represents added values, whereas the latter represents added costs. This difference is sufficient to make or break any company in today’s highly competitive world.

What kind of culture fosters conflict-ridden organizations? What is the meaning-centered approach to cultural transformation? What role can group facilitators and managers play to transform a toxic self-destructive corporate culture into a healthy, collaborative one? This chapter attempts to answer these questions from the perspective of meaning and purpose.


In a knowledge economy, human resources are the most important assets. A collaborative culture is essential to recruit and retain creative and talented knowledge workers. Since these individuals are most in demand, why should they stay in a company, where they have to waste precious time and energy dealing with an unappreciative and bureaucratic management? In fact, why would any person stay in an organization where getting anything done is like overcoming an obstacle course? Who would not want to be part of a company that functions like a relay team?

Given the importance of human resources, for any organization to stay competitive, it cannot function like an obstacle course. It is understandable that no leader would openly admit that their organization is like an obstacle course. This chapter will reveal the underlying mechanisms of this type of dysfunctioning corporations, identify their inevitable waste of the most valuable resources and show how these added costs can be transformed into added values.

The added values of a collaborative culture

Year after year, Fortune’s 100 best companies to work for have demonstrated that these companies possess a positive, cooperative corporate culture that enhances job satisfaction and contributes to productivity. Such a rewarding, transformational culture does not occur by happenstance. It requires a lot of leadership skills to bring different individuals together and develop a cooperative, cohesive, high-performance team. It requires even greater dedication and competencies to create and maintain a positive, collaborative organizational culture.

Freiberg and Freiberg (1998) have revealed that their secret of success in Southwest Airlines is to create a culture where employees are treated as the company’s number one asset. Their formula is quite simple: trust your people, treat them as people, celebrate the good, and make information easily available to everyone. In a positive, collaborative culture, people naturally work together and make Southwest Airlines a financial success.

As I have said elsewhere (Wong, 2002a, b, 2004), culture matters. Organizations need a positive, collaborative culture in order to keep their best workers, motivate their work force, and grow their companies. Similarly, Deal and Kennedy (2000) emphasize that in order to revitalize their companies in today’s environment, business leaders need to pay greater attention to corporate culture, because workers want to belong to purposeful, meaningful institutions. According to Schein (1990), “the unique and essential function of management is manipulation of culture” (p. 317). I would go even further and make the case that the essential function of management is to create a positive, healthy culture, because there would be no added values for workers and customers without a collaborative culture.

The chapter first considers problems of the toxic cultures that reduce the workplace into an obstacle course. It then presents a larger picture of positive management, the meaning-centered approach to organizational life. Finally, it discusses what it takes to create and maintain a collaborative corporate culture.


It is important to know how to differentiate between toxic and healthy corporate cultures, because collaboration is possible only in healthy ones.

Toxic corporate cultures

Wong and Gupta (2004) have identified five types of toxic corporate cultures:

  • Authoritarian-hierarchical culture

  • Competing-conflictive culture

  • Laissez faire culture

  • Dishonest-corrupt culture

  • Rigid-traditional culture

The above five types of toxic cultures are not mutually exclusive. Several problems tend to occur in toxic cultures, as described below.

Abuse of power and control. This is most likely to happen in an authoritarian-hierarchical culture. For the senior management, to perpetuate their grip on power becomes an all-consuming passion. In fact, every position holder tries to maximize their power and control. As a result, much time and energy is wasted in power struggles, and manipulations. Power play becomes the predominant ethos of the workplace.

A rigid-traditional culture also encourages abuse of power and control in order to suppress change. Those who see themselves are guardians of corporate tradition will resort to any tactics to stop progressively minded innovators from having their way.

Abuse of power is evident in various manipulation tactics. The typical tools of manipulation include the following:

  • Deception – It ranges from straight lies, half-truths, and purposeful omissions of vital information.

  • Denial – It includes denial of any wrong doing, denying of having made any promises, or denying of having any involvement in anything that has gone wrong. As a result, no one ever owns up to any mistakes or apologizes for anything.

  • Passing the buck – Closely related to denial is the practice of passing the buck and attributing blame to some third party.

  • Paper pushing – The standard bureaucratic control is to make people fill in unnecessary forms and then send them to another department to fill in more forms.

  • Obfuscation – It involves speaking from both sides of one’s mouth, expressing vague support without commitment, and making convoluted and obscure statements to cover up their lack of knowledge or lack of courage to reveal the truth.

  • Stonewalling – When all the above tactics fail, you can always stonewall by refusing to answer emails, phone calls or meet with the person. This delay tactic is most effective in preventing others from accomplishing anything.

  • Covering up – Often, more serious abuse of power occurs because of attempts to cover up some less serious misdeeds and wrong decisions.

  • Dirty tricks – Power mongers often resort to dirty tricks to discredit anyone who poses a threat to their authority; they may include innuendo, false reports and trumped-up charges.

  • Divide-and-conquer – Authoritarian leaders favor this tactic. When various vice-presidents fight among themselves or when different divisions compete for advantages, the President gains power by acting like the arbitrator.

Lack of responsibility and accountability. The root problem of abuse of power almost always stems from a faulty governance structure. The enormous power of a President who also holds the position of Chairman of the Board tends to result in abuse of power. Similarly, abuse also likely occurs, when the President has a hand-picked insulated Board. Any authoritarian system of governance, without checks and balances, and without an effective opposition, inevitably breeds abuse and corruption.

Occasionally, a leader with deep moral convictions and uncompromising integrity may be able to resist the corrupting influence of absolute power; but a more effective way to combat corruption and abuse is to restructure governance so that leaders are accountable both to their overseeing body and their subordinates.

Ironically, when a leader is incompetent, irresponsible and disengaged, it creates a laissez faire culture. Since there is no demand for productivity and no accountability, it is very tempting for workers to be slack and irresponsible.

Lack of integrity and respect for people. The absence of integrity and respect for people can occur in any organization, although it is more likely to happen in an authoritarian culture. When leaders or managers are self-absorbed and preoccupied with power play, integrity becomes the first casualty.

In a dishonest and corrupt culture, where the mission statement is worth less than the paper that prints it and core values are no more than window dressing, one can expect a lack of integrity in all sorts of transactions and decisions.

Some organizations are burdened with a culture of competition and conflicts, with different factions constantly fighting each other for power and control. This often happens after a merger of two companies with different corporate cultures and agendas. Their infights can be vicious and ruthless, aiming at destroying each other. There is little room for integrity and respect in a competing-conflicting corporate culture.

Healthy corporate cultures

Wong and Gupta (2004) also identified four healthy corporate cultures:

  • Progressive-adaptive culture

  • Purpose-driven culture

  • Community-oriented culture

  • People-centered culture

These four cultures contribute to intrinsically motivated high-performance, because they meet people’s deepest needs for meaning, community, spirituality, and agency. The ideal company should possess the attributes of all four types of healthy corporate cultures.

Facilitators and managers need to learn how to understand toxic cultures in order to transform them into healthy ones. Above, I identified some of the structural problems in governance and the functional problems in management. However, the skills involved in a more thorough cultural diagnosis are beyond the scope of the present chapter. The remaining sections of the chapter will focus on the positive psychology of management and the meaning-centered approach to cultural transformation.


Effective cultural transformation may benefit from considering the larger picture of positive psychology (Crabtree 2004 a, b; Wong, 2002a; Wong and Gupta, 2004) and the best practices of positive management (for example, Collins and Porras, 1994; Blanchard, O’Connor, and Ballard, 1997; O’Brien, 1992; Weisbord, 2004; Wong, 2005). These recent developments can contribute a great deal to our understanding of “soft” skills such as community building, communication, and team-building, which are necessary for facilitators in their endeavours to build a collaborative culture.

Every organization is a collection of individuals, with their unique combinations of personal needs and cultural backgrounds. Conflict is an inevitable aspect of organizational life. It requires a lot of leadership skills to bring different individuals together and turn them into a cohesive, productive high-performance organization. The psychosocial dynamics involved are complex and intricate. An important part of the positive psychology of management is concerned with culture-climate (CC) management. The psychosocial dimensions of corporate life are complex and dynamic. In order to unleash human potential, corporate leaders need to know how to manage the social-emotional economy of organizations (Coffman, Gonzalez-Molina, and Clifton, 2002; Frost, 2003; Maitlis and Ozcelik, 2004).

There is an increasing awareness of the need to move beyond self-interest and the profit motive. Drucker (1995) has identified the worship of a high profit margin as one of the deadly sins in management in a time of change. Canfield and Miller (1998) in Heart at Work also state that there needs to be more than just the “bottom line” to make a business successful. Drawing on general systems theory, Robert Scott Gassler (2004) identifies the importance of altruism and other motives that operate in non-profit organizations. Wilms (1996) has found that at a time of downsizing, robotization, and globalization, both management and unions are more willing to listen to each other and cooperate in order to increase productivity.

The present knowledge economy also demands a collaborative culture. Myburgh (2003) has documented that successful knowledge management can only take place on a collaborative basis. Also, Capps (2002) has pointed out the trend of increasing dependence on virtual communications, such as web conferencing and text messaging. In the virtual world of multinational corporations and outsourcing, we need to discover new ways of fostering a sense of community and collaboration. Advances in technology have created new opportunities for virtual facilitators to explore new ways of collaboration (Bradley and Beyerlein. 2005).

Not only can transformation to a collaborative culture reduces burnout (Frost, 2003) and workplace violence (Minor, 1995), it can also increase morale and productivity. Transformation is necessary in order to turn a failing company into a profitable one, and make a good company great. Managers and facilitators need the competence to assess corporate culture and know how to transform it. To be successful, cultural transformation has to begin top-down and inside-out. Superficial changes such as setting up more committees to solve problems and providing more opportunities for input only provide Band-Aid solutions. Unless there are fundamental changes in the values and practices of the corporation, there will not be lasting improvement in morale and productivity.

For example, Wong (2002a) identified seven dimensions of the deep structure of organizational climate:

  • Controlling – Empowering

  • Oppressive – Supportive

  • Secretive – Open

  • Suspicious –Trusting

  • Divisive – Unifying

  • Political – Professional.

These dimensions provide some indication whether the corporate culture is toxic or healthy. For example, an authoritarian culture will be oppressive and secretive. A competing-conflicting culture with be very divisive and political. A dishonest-corrupt culture will be very secretive and suspicious. All healthy collaborative cultures, on the other hand, can be characterized by being empowering, supportive, trusting, unifying, and professional. Facilitators can use Wong’s seven dimensions to monitor progress in cultural transformation.

Facilitators can play a role in restoring positive feelings in the group process as well as in the day to day workings of an organization. Climate transformation can be achieved at the organizational level and at a departmental level. For example, it is possible to create a positive work climate in a particular department, even when the larger organizational culture remains toxic. Climate transformation will involve training in emotional intelligence, effective communications, effective coping, optimistic thinking, personal meaning, cultural sensitivity, and personal reflections.


 Crabtree (2004a) points out that managers can learn from positive psychology’s “discoveries involving innovation, employees’ need for respect, and the search for meaning in the workplace”. There is much we can learn from psychological research so that our practice of facilitation can be evidence-based. Lessons can be drawn from Weisbord’s (2004) in-depth case studies of strategies that increase dignity, meaning, and community. Leider (1997) has provided a practical guide on how to discover one’s unique calling and a sense of purpose in achieving a full, productive working life.

More importantly, CC competencies demand a fundamental shift in managerial philosophy and critical self-reflections. After all, managers and facilitators need to become healthy, positive people, before they can influence others in a positive way. Thus, CC competencies call for not just acquisition of skills, but also personal growth. Crabtree (2004b) stresses the importance of trusting employees and authentic leadership at work. In the same paper, Bruce Avolio who directs the Gallup Leadership Institute defined authentic leadership as “transparent, positive, ethical, and aware, as well as other-oriented. He and his colleagues have demonstrated that authentic leadership enhances psychological capital in the form of hope, efficiency, optimism, and resilience demonstrated by employees. That cluster of traits, in turn, predicts those employees’ well-being and engagement.” (Crabtree, 2004b). These themes will be emphasized throughout this chapter.

Recently, Lord, Klimoski and Kanfer (2002) documented new developments in the basic theory and research on how affect and emotions influence industrial/organizational psychology. Gallup Management Journal (2003) focuses on the positive psychology of emotions. Current interest in emotional intelligence (EQ) is a good start, but competencies in CC management require a lot more than EQ.

The ethos of the market and profit margin naturally dominate business corporations. Paradoxically, a more meaning-centered humanistic vision is needed to maintain a proper balance between hard-nosed aggressive competition and a respect for human dignity. We need to reclaim the ethos of community and humanity to counteract the profit-at-any-cost mentality. We need to care for the physical, emotional, and spiritual needs of employees. Ultimately it is the human system that is responsible for the success or failure of any organization. Mean-spirited re-engineering may yield short-terms gains, but long-term success demands the creation of positive organizations (Positive Organizations, 2003).


Within the framework of CC competencies, here are some essential tasks in building and maintaining a collaborative culture. Each task entails a number of tools and skills that are important for group facilitators. For these tools to be effective, there has to be a commitment from senior management to move towards the direction of becoming a collectivistic, participatory, and collaborative organization.

Community building

Community building is a foundational task in cultural transformation. It is fundamental, because it is essential for creating a culture of trust, openness, cooperation, and harmony. HR Departments often organize “community” activities to foster a sense of community. However, these activities will do nothing to build a collaborative culture, when the basic structure and practices of an organization are authoritarian and manipulative. Genuine community building has to begin with something deeper and more fundamental – how we treat each other with consideration and respect, and how we regard every individual as a fellow human being rather than an instrument. Group facilitators need to model these attitudes in all their interactions with people regardless of their status.

Dialogue is an important practice for community building. According to Pyser: “The hallmarks of dialogue are open communication and commitment to common purpose. In dialogue, well-trained facilitators interact with participants to create a safe place where everyone can trust and then think, talk, and gain insights and understanding to resolve challenges. Participants learn from one another in an environment where individuality, diversity, and creativity are not repressed. The dialogue process fosters deep listening and enables participants to connect, communicate, and bond” (2005, p.209).

Gadman emphasized the need to adopt new approaches to organizational culture. He advocated a “new logic, based on values of interrelatedness, and free access to information where ambiguity, confusion, and anxiety were primary initiators of new learning, awareness, and action” (1997, p. 60). Also, he recommended dialogue as one of the new approaches to encourage exploring different perspectives and create a powerful synergy.

Team building

Team building is also essential for creating a collaborative culture, because by definition, a team means a group of people working together for a common goal. Team work becomes increasingly important in virtual organizations and project-management. Many people recognize the importance of team building, but unfortunately teams do not always work for a variety of reasons (Robbins and Finley, 2000). The basic challenge is how to maintain a proper balance between group needs and individual needs (Steelcase Groups and Teams, 2005). Whenever a powerful individual imposes his own ambitions and needs on the group, he will only suck the oxygen out of the team.

The biggest challenge for group facilitators is to recognize and appreciate individuals’ needs for power, attention, recognition and even affection, and at the same time help them recognize that the most urgent task is achieving the common goal of the group. Facilitators apply different strokes to different folks in order to keep them sufficiently satisfied to stay on task. This may involve trying to win over the trust and cooperation of individuals who have the greatest hunger for power and recognition.

Group facilitators also need to demonstrate the ability and leadership to remain focused and unfazed in the midst of conflicts and chaos. They are able to maintain their balance and cool even under provocation, because they are able to distant and detach themselves sufficiently to stay objective and rational. At the same time, they need to possess sufficient wisdom and people skills to circumvent power struggles and turf wars in order to prevent the group process being derailed.

However, even the best teams suffer setbacks because of misunderstandings, which are inevitable. Often, the intentions we try to communicate are not interpreted the same way by some individuals. The same word which seems perfectly innocent may touch a hot button for someone from a different culture or different personal history. When conflict occurs, the group facilitator will make sure that the misunderstanding is clarified as soon as possible. It is important that facilitators model the courage and honesty needed to confess that they have mis-spoken or misunderstood something.

Like community building, team building cannot succeed without the support of senior administration. In other words, the policy and practice of the administration have to send a clear message that it will reinforce collaborative efforts and group-minded behaviors rather than competitive one-upmanship behaviors.

However, there is a need to guard against the temptation to discourage honest dissent and creative conflict in the name of collaboration. Beware of the dangers of conformity and group-think! Often teams fail to be productive and innovative, because of a culture of fear – individuals are afraid to express their own ideas; therefore, they toe the party line or see which way the wind is blowing. Facilitators need to help create an atmosphere of trust and openness, which can survive vigorous debates and disagreements. In fact, creative conflict is necessary for the development of successful teams.

The task of communication

Facilitators live and die by communication. No other profession is more dependent on effective interpersonal and participatory communication (Chilberg, 2005). What makes communication such an essential task for professional facilitators? Kaner (2005) recognized that different stakeholders have different interests and frames of references. This problem is compounded given the same set of facts, human beings construe reality subjectively on the basis of their own sets of assumptions, meanings, and perceptions. (For a related perspective, see Chapter X, Utilizing Uncertainty.) These differences can create enormous obstacles to communication and from reaching any kind of agreement. Not many managers or leaders are equipped with the necessary communication skills to bring different stakeholders to the point of collaboration with each other.

Baker and Fraser (2005) have identified the following communication competencies as important in creating a participatory environment:

  • Applies a variety of participatory processes

  • Demonstrates effective verbal communication skills

  • Develops rapport with participants

  • Practices active listening

  • Demonstrates ability to observe and provide feedback to participants (p.469).

In fact, each of these skills represents a family of related skills. Some of these competencies require continuous education and practice. Take listening for instance. Unnecessary conflicts often occur because someone fails to listen actively and accurately. Assumptions and biases often distort what one hears and impute wrong intentions to the speaker.

The paradox of communication. Harvey (1974) wrote an article entitled The Abilene Paradox: The management of agreement, which demonstrated dramatically the danger of pseudo-civility and conformity. The article has become very influential in management circles, because it encapsulates the paradox of communication: people can miscommunicate from the good intention of being agreeable and collaborative. This further reinforces my earlier point that pseudo-civility can be a kiss of death to community building. Group facilitators need to ensure that group members feel safe to express their ideas and feelings freely.

The need for openness. Openness is the key to honest communication and effective collaboration. When there is a distinction between insiders and outsiders, communication flow is stifled. Ideally, in a genuine community or team, every member is a collaborator and should be treated as such. However, being open means willingness to be vulnerable and to let go of control.

Without open communication, the “Abilene paradox” will be repeated over and over again to the detriment of every group member. Group facilitators need to devise strategies and fine tune their skills to make open communication an essential part of building a collaborative culture.

Building trust

Finally, we come to the most fundamental task of building trust, which is the bloodline to community building, team building, and effective communication. Weaver and Farrell’s (1997) use of the acronym TARGET to describe the characteristics of a collaborative culture: Truth, Accountability, Respect, Growth, Empowerment, and Trust. Strengthening any of these components would increase the effectiveness of collaborative relationships.

Stephen Covey (1990) compared trust to a bank account. It takes time to build up trust, but it can be spent quickly. The tragedy is that in human relationships, when trust is depleted, it may never be completely restored. The memory of betrayal often lingers on for a long, long time. Trust is a very fragile thing, which needs to be carefully guarded. A single unintentional false statement, a minor misunderstanding, if not cleared up quickly, can permanently erode trust.

In the absence of trust, any working relationship becomes difficult. Even the simplest statement can be misinterpreted, and the noblest intention is maligned. Suspicion feeds suspicion. People begin to resort to manipulation, deception, and control to protect their self-interests. According to Rodas-Meeker and Meeker (2005), “Absence of trust has an extremely negative impact on groups, and at a very high organizational cost. When trust is absent, negative emotions and actions, such as suspicion and blaming, can steal from an organization’s productive energy and undermine the positive work that people should be attending to” (p.89). In other words, lack of trust can result in added costs to the organization.

Ultimately, trust has to be based on such virtues as being truthful, responsible, dependable, faithful, loyal, and genuine. However, even the most trustworthy person with an impeccable character can experience problems of trust for three reasons: (a) So many people have been so injured that they have difficulty trusting anyone; (b) Currently, we are living in a cheating culture (Callahan, 2004), in which our general experience is that most people tell lies (or white lies) as a matter of routine; and (c) Often in haste, things are not communicated clearly, resulting in misunderstanding and mistrust. That is why building trust can be difficult. Many people want to experience trust in order to place trust in others. Leaders need to possess both a character of integrity and the necessary skills in order to create an environment of trust.

The practices that help to build trust, if practiced daily, will not only strengthen our character but transform our working relationships and the organizational culture. When we practice these, we will realize that even with wisdom and finesse, some of the skills do not always work. For example, when you validate and empower your workers, some may take advantage of your trust and feel that they are free to do as they wish, resulting in negligence of their responsibilities. That’s why trust must go hand-in-hand with accountability. Failure to exercise proper supervision can result in harm to both workers and the public. Empowerment does not exclude performance appraisal and the need for continued training. Rodas-Meeker and Meeker (2005) also warn that “Leaders should not abdicate their responsibilities in the name of empowerment. Instead, they should commit to facilitate the development processes that will lead to greater levels of empowerment and trust” (p.97).

Caproni (2001) points out that creating a high-trust organization requires more than interpersonal trust. There needs to be institutional mechanisms, such as norms, values, structures, and rituals that sustain and promote trust. Such mechanisms will encourage the development of a collective identity and group goals through participation and sharing.

Stories telling about the organization’s history and mission also help create a common culture and inspire a sense of shared vision. Stories work because they reach people at the emotional level and express their common hopes and fears. Stories give life to what people need and value. Thus, building trust must proceed at both the interpersonal and organizational levels.

More than two decade ago, Ouchi (1981) made the same point in his Theory Z approach to management. The basic point of this approach is that the collective involvement of workers is the key to increased productivity. The first lesson of Theory Z is trust. What is the basis of this trust? It comes from two sources. Firstly, the experience of complete openness and candor in working relationship. Secondly, it comes from the organizational culture, which is expressed through ceremonies, myths, symbols, and stories. Therefore, trust needs to be embedded organizationally through its values, norms, and structures. Interpersonal trust can only contribute somewhat to a collaborative culture, but ultimately, there has to be formal organizational support of trust and collaboration. Additional perspectives on trust can be found in Chapter X, The Development of Cross-Sector Collaborations in a Social Context of Low Trust, and Chapter X, Exploring the Dynamics of Collaboration in Interoganizational Settings: A Theory Building Approach.


The meaning-centered approach adopts a two-pronged approach: (a) Understanding what both the group and individuals mean and need. (b) Discovering the meaning and purpose of the group. This approach emphasizes our common humanity as the basis for empathy and mutual understanding. Kaner (2005) points out that “thinking within a framework of mutual understanding” means that we take time to understand “someone’s perspective well enough to be able to think from that person’s point of view, with or without affinity for that perspective” (p. 117).

Elsewhere (Wong, 2005), I have presented the humanistic-existential perspective of my meaning centered approach to facilitation. Here, I want to summarize the propositions of this approach as follows:

  • It emphasizes clear, honest, and open communication so that every group member and different stakeholders can all understand the meaning of what has been said and what is being proposed.

  • It advocates the practice to hear deeply, think deeply, and see deeply so that every hidden agenda is exposed, and nagging feelings are expressed, and a deeper mutual understanding can be achieved.

  • It insists on confronting and accepting reality as the basis for problem solving and transformation.

  • It encourages the development of shared mission, vision, and core values through a participatory process.

  • It creates a safe and trusting environment for meaningful participation, collaborative problem-solving, and creative solutions.

  • It emphasizes the values of being courageous and authentic in making choices and assuming personal responsibilities for the decisions and outcomes. In other words, it will discourage finger-pointing and blaming when the group experience difficulty or when the outcome is negative.

  • It seeks to balance group needs with individuals’ needs. Ideally, the common goals are compatible with group members’ personal needs and aspirations.

  • It takes into account the higher purpose of making a contribution to society and humanity in organizational goals. Bringing in the larger picture and broader perspective will enable group members to achieve a better understanding of specific minor issues.

We have already discussed various cultural-climate competencies in building positive, collaborative cultures. The meaning-centered approach also identifies several corporate values as being essential for the successful execution of these skills.

The imperative of meaning and purpose

Karl Albrecht (1994) states that “Those who would aspire to leadership roles in this new environment must not underestimate the depth of this human need for meaning. It is a most fundamental human craving, an appetite that will not go away” (p.22). Much has been written on how to create a work environment where meaning flourishes (Autrey, 1994; Epps, 2003; Handy, 1994; Terez, 2002; Wong, 2002a). When the larger issue of meaning and purpose is taken care of, there will be lasting improvement of morale and productivity (Terez, 2002; Taylor, 1994).

Typically, the meaning and purpose of an organization is captured in its mission, vision, values and strategic direction (Straus, 2005). Dilbertesque cynicism lives on in so many organizations, because there is a disconnect between mission statement and day-to-day practices (Terez, 2001). One of the challenges facing group facilitators is to make meaning and purpose the central focus in resolving problems and settling differences. Make mission the real boss. When every major decision is mission-centered and purpose-driven, there will be a lot more collaboration and unity in the organization. Furthermore, to stay focused on purpose is the best way to prevent falling into the traps of power and greed.

If we probe deeper, we will discover that meaning and purpose are rooted in values, virtues, and beliefs. Certain values such as fairness and integrity are the moral foundations for a culture of collaboration. Genuine core values always find a way to manifest themselves not only in policies, but also in the day-to-day interactions.

From this broad perspective of positive psychology of management and meaning-centered approach, we need to turn to the imperative of core values, which must be at the center of developing a collaborative culture. Skills and practices that do not reflect positive values will be perceived as manipulation tactics. A meaningful and purposeful workplace has to be based on positive core values, such as honesty and integrity. Collins and Porras (1994) have documented that companies that practice and stick to these positive values tend to outlast those who don’t.

The core value of integrity

One of the main themes of the meaning-centered approach is integrity. We come full circle to my earlier remark that corporate cultural transformation must be inside-out. In other words, personal growth and character cultivation must be part of the professional development, if we want to be effective in transforming corporate cultures. Integrity is one of the inner virtues which need to be cultivated, because skills can only take us so far. Without integrity, we can only achieve limited success. Elsewhere, I have characterized the challenge of living a life of integrity as follows:

Integrity does not offer an escape from the mundane, daily grinds of human existence; nor does it offer hope for prosperity and creature comforts. It only promises a long journey through the jungles and deserts, through the dark valleys and the precipitous mountain ranges. It is the daily discipline of doing the right things, undaunted by difficulties [Wong, 2004].

Simply put, integrity means genuineness and authenticity – the touchstone of living a meaningful life. More specifically, integrity means that one’s behavior not only remains consistent across situations, but also truly reflects one’s beliefs and values. Welch and Welch provided a vivid portrait of a leader of integrity. The presence of such a leader can have enormous positive impact on the organization:

Your people should always know where they stand in terms of their performance. They have to know how the business is doing. And sometimes the news is not good – such as imminent layoffs – and any normal person would rather avoid delivering it. But you have to fight the impulse to pad hard messages or you’ll pay with your team’s confidence and energy.

Leaders also establish trust by giving credit where credit is due. They never score off their own people by stealing an idea and claiming it as their own. They don’t kiss up and kick down because they are self-confident and mature enough to know that their team’s success will get them recognition, and sooner rather than later. In bad times, leaders take responsibility for what’s gone wrong. In good times, they generously pass around the praise [Welch and Welch, 2005, p. 71].

The meaning-centered approach demands that leaders and facilitators be persons of integrity; because without it, they cannot inspire trust, no matter how articulate and skillful they are in self-presentation. Integrity cannot be faked; it can only be cultivated.

Organizational integrity represents an even greater challenge for facilitators. It means that at all levels of the company, the day-to-day culture needs to be congruent with its mission and vision. It means that all the corporation’s policies, procedures, and practices are all based on its professed mission and core values. This can happen only when the senior administration model the core values and establish structures and mechanisms to reinforce these values.

Organizational fairness and justice

I have alluded to the importance of parallel processing in corporate culture – personal virtues need to be supported by organizational values. Thus, fairness must be both personal and organizational in order to impact the corporate culture. When organizational structures and practices are at odds with personal morality, eventually, many individuals will lose their sense of fairness and justice.

Perceived fair treatment is an essential component of meaningful life (Wong, 1998). When there is no fairness and justice in society or in the workplace, when rewards are based on favoritism and cronyism rather than merits, people would feel less satisfied with life. I have discussed various issues related to fairness and justice elsewhere (Wong, 2005). Here, I want to emphasize that organizational justice – the perception of fairness of the organization they work for – is the key of employee motivation (Moorman, 2000). There cannot be a sense of unity, when workers feel that they are being treated unfairly and unequally by their immediate supervisors (Pillai, Schriesheim, and Williams, 1999).


Having laid the groundwork for a collaborative culture and identified its characteristics, we can now discuss the strategy of cultural transformation. The present meaning-centered approach borrows generally from the influential work of Straus (2002, 2005). The basic strategy is top-down and inside-out. It begins with the top administration and focuses on internalization of values essential for building a collaborative culture. Here is the general design:

Confronting the need for change. The facilitator needs to work with the senior administration and expose them to the urgency and seriousness of the situation.

Commitment from the top. The facilitator has to win the trust and earn the complete support of the senior administration and the board regarding the strategic interest to transform the organizational culture. They must demonstrate this commitment by investing in the process and modeling new attitudes.

Mutual understanding. The next step is to achieve a common understanding among all stakeholders regarding the purpose and plan of cultural transformation, which necessarily involves some organizational restructuring to support the change.

Shared acceptance. This phase will involve debate, conflict, and disagreement, until all can accept some form of revised mission, vision, and core values as the blueprint for reform. This agreement can come about only when all are convinced that these changes make good sense in that they not only ensure institutional survival, and improve working conditions, but also serve a higher purpose.

Sustained implementation. Continued training is needed to educate people regarding the cores values and positive practices that can transform the day-to-day culture. New policies, structures, and procedures are introduced and aligned with the collaborative culture. This phase is crucial in changing the organizational mindset, internalizing the new corporate values and norms, and replacing the old manipulative practices with collaborative skills.

Continued monitoring. The changes need to be monitored and measured on regular intervals to see what works and what does not. Concrete evidence of success will encourage reform. Setbacks can be corrected to ensure greater success.

In addition to the above strategies for cultural transformation, I propose that we also need the courage to overcome the following challenges:

Confronting the bleak reality. This is probably the most difficult step, because the natural tendency of those in power is to deny that they have messed up the company. They want to maintain the status quo so that they would not lose their power and privileges. They may agree to some cosmetic changes to make people feel better without changing the corporate culture.

Some facilitators may not want to confront the reality, because this is very unpleasant and risky — it may evoke resistance and even antagonism. However, realistic acceptance is more important than appreciative enquiry when the most urgent task is to diagnose the root problem and revive a sick organization. Straus (2005) points out, unless the senior management recognizes the strategic importance of cultural transformation, they will not be committed to this long and costly process.

Overcoming fear, mistrust, and cynicism. This is another common challenge in cultural transformation. One way to overcome the burden from the past is to demonstrate a new openness, transparency, and accountability for the Board and Senior Management. The flow of communication is no longer controlled by the President’s office. The walls between different levels within the hierarchy become more permeable.

Implementation and accountability. Old habits die hard. Those who have practiced manipulation and deception for many years may find it difficult to speak a different language and follow a new pattern of relating. Without accountability, they may continue to do things the old way and get away with it. Also, it is very difficult to replace the old mentality of “don’t rock the boat. Just obey orders” to a new mindset of caring for each other, assuming personal responsibility for the community and making changes to improve the workplace. Therefore, the group facilitator can guide discussions on how to hold each other accountable in implementing the new values throughout the organization. For example, we can honor those who are voted by their peers as being most cooperative and helpful to others. We can also reward those who are very successful in eliminating added costs in their department.

One useful strategy is to first concentrate on one or two departments which are most eager to incorporate the new culture in their daily practices. Secondly, the facilitator can initiate discussions on how HR personnel can become champions for the employees. Ulrich (1997) has identified four distinct roles for HR professionals: a strategic partner of the administration; administrative expert in personnel matters; a change agent; and an employee champion.

Monitoring progress. Accountability requires monitoring and measurement. Wong’s (2002a) dimensions of organizational climate can be used to indicate whether a corporate culture is moving towards greater collaboration. A reduction in stress leave and sick leave can also provide evidence of progress. More specifically, facilitators can introduce the following methods to monitor progress in eliminating added costs.

  • Operational analysis — At the structural or operational level, we can measure how many steps to complete a routine task or provide a routine service.

  • Task analysis — Does the organization have people with the necessary competence and skills to do the task? Lack of competence in specific areas can also be monitored by taking note of decisions and practices which deviate from acceptable professional standards.

  • Conflict analysis — The biggest source of waste comes from interpersonal conflicts. Conflict analysis can reveal (a) the frequency and duration of interpersonal and interdepartmental conflicts, (b) the frequency of uncooperative behaviors such as delaying tactics, paper-pushing and buck-passing.


Facilitators can play in major role in cultural transformation because of their special skills and trainings in the following areas:

  • The ability to maintain neutrality and objectivity even in a complex political situation, where every faction wants to gain some advantage.

  • The ability to use descriptive, objective language to describe events that are highly emotionally charged and contentious, thus providing a model for stakeholders to communicate effectively.

  • The ability to move the group process forward towards achieving consensus and solutions in spite of mistrust, resistance and bad feelings.

  • The ability to earn the trust from both the management and the rank and file in order to bridge the gaps.

  • The ability to create a safe and trusting environment for people to freely express their feelings and thoughts in an honest and respectful manner.

  • The ability to identify obstacles to collaboration and transform obstacles into stepping stones.

These skills are essential in cultural transformation. Engaging the services of competent facilitators may be the most effective and economic way to transform a toxic organization into a collaborative workplace.

A decade ago, Drucker (1995) predicted that the greatest change in organizations is that management growth will not be based on ownership but based on partnership such as joint ventures, out-sourcing, and semi-formal alliances of all sorts. Furthermore, modern organizations depend on knowledge workers with their narrow areas of expertise; a clear and common vision is needed to pull them together. Finally, organizations have replaced church and family as the major place for social integration. In view these changes, a collaborative culture becomes increasingly important in the global market place.

If we really believe that people are our greatest resources, then we need to make sure that we earn people’s trust and inspire their passions. To unleash the full potential of people power, we need to create a collaborative culture, and eliminate all the unnecessary hindrances, whether they come from traditionalism, hierarchical authoritarianism or dysfunctioning leadership. No organization can long survive if it refuses to turn an obstacle course into a relay-team.

It takes dedicated visionary leaders to create collaborative corporate cultures. Group facilitators can play a major role in working alongside with the leaders and senior management to bring about cultural transformation. The meaning-centered approach provides a comprehensive conceptual framework and a flexible set of tools to facilitate this transformation.



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A chapter originally published in S. Schuman’s (2006) Creating a culture of collaboration.


Wong, P. T. P. (2006). Is Your Organization an Obstacle Course or a Relay Team? A Meaning-Centered Approach to Creating a Collaborative Culture. In S. Schuman (Ed.), Creating a culture of collaboration (pp. 229-256). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass/Wiley.