The Power of Incongruence

As individual decision makers and as sports organizations, we often strive for cultural congruence: alignment across the fundamental components (e.g. goals, vision and values) of the institution. A strong culture, we are told, should always strive for consistency.

The Relationship Between Congruence and Culture

Of course, there are numerous benefits to organizational congruence, but little attention is paid to its potential pitfalls. In a 1991 study published in Research in Organizational Change and Development, Kim S. Cameron and Sarah J. Freeman analyzed the relationship between congruence, strength, and type of organizational cultures and organizational effectiveness.

In comparing the cultures of 334 institutions of higher education, what Cameron and Freeman found was that there was no significant difference between those with congruent cultures and those with incongruent cultures. Rather than the level of congruence or strength being the determining factor behind the effectiveness of an organization, cultural type emerged as the being of greatest importance. 

Benefitting From Incongruence

Despite Cameron and Freeman’s research and other subsequent studies, a fully congruent culture is still regularly held up as an ideal in business textbooks. However, evidence is mounting up that displays the power of incongruence within cultures that allow for greater flexibility in relation to hierarchy, ambiguity and problem solving.

In his book, Range: How Generalists Triumph in a Specialized World, David Epstein cites an experiment undertaken by Shefali Patil, a professor at the University of Texas, to highlight the value of incongruence. 

Epstein explains that, “In one experiment, subjects played the role of corporate human resources managers who had to predict the performance of job applicants. The managers were presented with a standard evaluation process that showed them how a candidate’s skills were typically weighted, and then told that they would be evaluated (and paid) based on how they made decisions…Over and over, the individual managers conformed to the standard procedure, no matter what the results told them, even when it was not working, and even when a better system was discoverable. They failed to learn with experience. Until a wrinkle was added. Conformist managers were given fake Harvard Business Review research proclaiming that successful groups prioritize independence and dissent. Miraculously, their minds were opened and they started learning. They began to see when the standard evaluation process clearly needed to be modified or discarded…The managers were benefitting from incongruence.”

Balancing Accepted Practice and Divergent Thought

Experiments such as those conducted by Patil powerfully illustrate the creative potential of individual autonomy within the framework of an organizational culture. Clearly, culture should be aligned and consistent to some degree, but rigid, enforced conformity often restricts the ability of individuals to think innovatively about processes and problems.

If our organizations are to become highly effective in terms of innovation and problem solving, then we need to ensure that our cultures are dynamic enough to balance accepted practice with divergent thought. Only then can we truly unlock the adaptive power of incongruence.

Chris Mann is Head of Content at Sportsology

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