Fans of Monty Python’s Life of Brian might recall the haggling scene: desperate to escape from pursuing Roman soldiers, Brian attempts to buy something to use as a disguise. The merchant, however, won’t simply sell it to him; instead the man insists that Brian haggle, forcing Brian to bargain loudly as the Romans close in.
Walking through the bazaar that is the Old City of Jerusalem, I found that Monty Python had, if anything, understated the aggressiveness of the merchants. At one point, my wife glanced at a camel leather bag. Immediately, the merchant opened with, “This bag is wonderful. Only 600 shekels.”
For reference, that’s about $150.
My wife wasn’t particularly interested, and the merchant kept insisting on haggling, much like the scene in Life of Brian. In this case, though, there were no Romans, and before long the merchant had bargained himself down to 90 shekels, or about $22. Even at that price, though, the bag wasn’t worth buying.
No matter which part of the city you might be in, Jewish Quarter, Muslim Quarter, Armenian Quarter, or Christian Quarter, merchants were loud, aggressive, and quick to haggle. You might find it frustrating, or you might view it as part of the entertainment. Either way, though, the behavior never ends. Indeed, anyone who opens a shop soon falls into the standard pattern of behavior.
This is culture in action: although the bazaar may not have an obvious corporate structure, it is still an organization. When you put people together for long enough, culture forms and is passed on to the new people who enter the organization. It doesn’t much matter whether the organization in question is a corporation or a bazaar.
Changing the behavior of a merchant in the bazaar is almost impossible, if for no other reason than each merchant sees what the others are doing and imitates them. In a business, new employees see what the existing employees are doing and imitate them. New employees also hear the history and stories about the company. In newer companies, employees might hear directly from the founders what the founder believes to be the best way to get work done. Finally, employees and managers act according to the way other companies in the area act: at one Silicon Valley technology startup, the expressed mindset was, “We’re a Silicon Valley company, therefore we work long hours.” Performance was measured almost entirely by how many hours someone was in the office, not by how productive they were, how rapidly they met their milestones, or even whether their software worked!
Thus, I’m always somewhat amazed when a manager says to me, “We have to be very careful whom we hire so that we don’t damage our culture.”
These same managers then complain that they cannot find any qualified people. keep reading…