The concept of organizational culture


Culture is an abstraction, yet the forces that are created in social and orga­nizational situations deriving from culture are powerful. If we don’t under­stand the operation of these forces, we become victim to them. Cultural forces are powerful because they operate outside of our awareness. We need to understand them not only because of their power but also because they help to explain many of our puzzling and frustrating experiences in social and organizational life. Most importantly, understanding cultural forces enables us to understand ourselves better.

1. What Needs to Be Explained?

Most of us in our roles as students, employees, managers, researchers, or consultants work in and have to deal with groups and organizations of all kinds. Yet we continue to find it amazingly difficult to understand and jus­tify much of what we observe and experience in our organizational life. Too much seems to be “bureaucratic,” “political,” or just plain “irrational.” People in positions of authority, especially our immediate bosses, often frus­trate us or act incomprehensibly, and those we consider the “leaders” of our organizations often disappoint us.

When we get into arguments or negotiations with others, we often can­not understand how our opponents could take such “ridiculous” positions. When we observe other organizations, we often find it incomprehensible that “smart people could do such dumb things.” We recognize cultural differences at the ethnic or national level but find them puzzling at the group, organizational, or occupational level. Gladwell (2008) in his popu­lar book Outliers provides some vivid examples of how both ethnic and organizational cultures explain such anomalies as airline crashes and the success of some law firms.

As managers, when we try to change the behavior of subordinates, we often encounter “resistance to change” at a level that seems beyond reason. We observe departments in our organization that seem to be more inter­ested in fighting with each other than getting the job done. We see com­munication problems and misunderstandings between group members that should not be occurring between “reasonable” people. We explain in detail why something different must be done, yet people continue to act as if they had not heard us.

As leaders who are trying to get our organizations to become more effective in the face of severe environmental pressures, we are sometimes amazed at the degree to which individuals and groups in the organization will continue to behave in obviously ineffective ways, often threatening the very survival of the organization. As we try to get things done that involve other groups, we often discover that they do not communicate with each other and that the level of conflict between groups in organizations and in the community is often astonishingly high.

As teachers, we encounter the sometimes-mysterious phenomenon that different classes behave completely differently from each other even though our material and teaching style remains the same. If we are employees considering a new job, we realize that companies differ greatly in their approach, even in the same industry and geographic locale. We feel these differences even as we walk in the door of different organizations such as restaurants, banks, stores, or airlines.

As members of different occupations, we are aware that being a doctor, lawyer, engineer, accountant, or manager involves not only learning t echnical skills but also adopting certain values and norms that define our occupation. If we violate some of these norms, we can be thrown out of the occupation. But where do these come from and how do we recon­cile the fact that each occupation considers its norms and values to be the correct ones? How is it possible that in a hospital, the doctors, nurses, and administrators are often fighting with each other rather than collaborating to improve patient care? How is it possible that employees in organizations report unsafe conditions, yet the organization continues to operate until a major accident happens?

The concept of culture helps to explain all of these phenomena and to “normalize” them. If we understand the dynamics of culture, we will be less likely to be puzzled, irritated, and anxious when we encounter the unfamiliar and seemingly irrational behavior of people in organizations, and we will have a deeper understanding not only of why various groups of people or organizations can be so different but also why it is so hard to change them.

Even more important, if we understand culture better, we will under­stand ourselves better and recognize some of the forces acting within us that define who we are. We will then understand that our personality and character reflect the groups that socialized us and the groups with which we identify and to which we want to belong. Culture is not only all around us but within us as well.

2. How Does the Concept of Culture Help?

I did not really understand the forces operating in any of these cases until I began to examine my own assumptions about how things should work in these organizations and began to test whether my assumptions fitted those operating in my client systems. This step of examining the shared assumptions in an organization or group and comparing them to your own takes us into “cultural” analysis and will be the focus from here on.

It turned out that in DEC, senior managers and most of the other mem­bers of the organization shared the assumption that you cannot determine whether or not something is “true” or “valid” unless you subject the idea or proposal to intensive debate. Only ideas that survive such debate are worth acting on, and only ideas that survive such scrutiny will be implemented. The group members assumed that what they were doing was discovering truth, and, in this context, being polite to each other was relatively unim­portant. I become more helpful to the group when I realized this and went to the flip chart and just started to write down the various ideas they were processing. If someone was interrupted, I could ask him or her to restate his or her point instead of punishing the interrupter. The group began to focus on the items on the chart and found that this really did help their com­munication and decision process. I had finally understood and accepted an essential element of their culture instead of imposing my own. By this intervention of going to the flip chart, I had changed the microculture of their group to enable them to accomplish what their organizational culture dictated.

In Ciba-Geigy, I eventually discovered that there was a strong shared assumption that each manager’s job was his or her private “turf” not to be infringed on. The strong image was communicated that “a person ’s job is like his or her home, and if someone gives unsolicited information, it is like walking into someone’s home uninvited.” Sending memos to people implies that they do not already know what is in the memo, which is seen to be potentially insulting. In this organization, managers prided themselves on knowing whatever they needed to know to do their job. Had I understood this aspect of their culture, I would have asked for a list of the names of the managers and sent the memo directly to them. They would have accepted it from me because I was the paid consultant and expert.

In my Cambridge meetings, different members had different prior expe­riences in meetings. Those who had grown up with a formal Robert’s Rules of Order system on various other nonprofit boards were adamant that this was the only way to run a meeting. Others who had no history on other boards were more tolerant of my informal style. The members had come from different subcultures that did not mesh. In my human relations train­ing culture, I had learned the value of involving people to get better imple­mentation of decisions and was trying to build that kind of microculture in this group. Only when I adapted my style to theirs was I able to begin to shape the group more toward my preferred style.

In Amoco, I began to understand the resistance of the engineers when I learned that their assumptions were “good work should speak for itself,” and “engineers should not have to go out and sell themselves.” They were used to having people come to them for services and did not have a good role model for how to sell themselves.

In Alpha, I learned that in the safety area, all work units had strong norms and values of self-protection that often over-rode the new require­ments imposed on the company by the courts. The groups had their own experience base for what was safe and what was not safe and were willing to trust that. On the other hand, identifying environmental hazards and cleaning them up involved new skills that workers were willing to learn and collaborate on. The union had its own cultural assumption that under no conditions would one “rat out” a fellow union member, and this applied especially in the safety area.

In each of these cases, I initially did not understand what was going on because my own basic assumptions about truth, turf, and group relations differed from the shared assumptions of the members of the organization or group. And my assumptions reflected my “occupation” as a social psycholo­gist and organization consultant, while the group ’s assumptions reflected in part their occupations and experiences as electrical engineers, chemists, nonprofit organization board members, and electrical workers.

To make sense of such situations requires taking a “cultural perspec­tive,” learning to see the world through “cultural lenses,” becoming com­petent in “cultural analysis” by which I mean being able to perceive and decipher the cultural forces that operate in groups, organizations, and occu­pations. When we learn to see the world through cultural lenses, all kinds of things begin to make sense that initially were mysterious, frustrating, or seemingly stupid.

Source: Schein Edgar H. (2010), Organizational Culture and Leadership, Jossey-Bass; 4th edition.

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