In this article, we try to examine and answer the most common questions on organisational culture.
2. Organisational Culture FAQ
Organisational culture is a set of hidden rules and assumptions that govern the behaviour of an organization.
These rules and assumptions allow the organization to respond to external pressures (such as competition) and internal integration pressures (like dealing with conflict).
An influential model of organisational culture is the one developed by Edgar Schein.
If an organization faces existential threats, it might need to change its culture. This is also known as organisational cultural transformation. These are usually painful and can lead to the organisation’s survival or decline and fall.
Leadership influences organisational culture at every stage of its lifetime.
Organisational culture emerges and develops based on the actions/responses of the founding fathers during the early stages of the organization’s life. These initial responses are confirmed by subsequent events and become rarely questioned assumptions.
During the organization’s midlife, leadership maintains the existing culture by influencing and managing the integration of new members and replacing those who moved on.
In times of crisis, transformation leaders are brought from outside the organization to manage the change. Outsiders are not emotionally attached to the existing cultures and are ready to drive the changes through the turmoil.
Organisational behaviour is defined by the organization’s response to internal and external challenges.
How it deals with integration issues, like conflict and challenges to its leadership and external issues, such as competition, changing customer requirements, and disruptive technologies, determine an organization’s behaviour.
The Greek philosopher Heraclitus once said: “change is the only constant”. This applies equally well to organisational culture.
New members coming in, old leaders moving out, new threats, and new challenges are all-natural forces that compel organizations to change.
Two examples of organisational culture (derived from Edgar Schein’s book on organisational culture and leadership) are as follows.
Organization A believes in internal competition, prefers centralized control, and trusts that responsible people with goodwill can solve problems.
Organization B believes in individualism, truth through conflict, personal initiatives, creativity, innovation, and individual responsibility.
Edgar Schein developed one of the interesting theories on organisational culture.
His idea is based on the assumption that a group working towards a specific objective over a shared history will develop shared knowledge (which he refers to as assumptions).
These assumptions govern all aspects of the group’s interactions. These are rules dictating the inclusion or exclusion criteria from the group, agreement on the nature of time and space, development of intimacy, love, and affection, distribution of power and status, rewards and punishments, and finally, managing the unmanageable (such as religion and politics).
One particular model of organisational culture was proposed by Edgar Schein in his 1990 paper on the topic.
Schein proposes a model built around a group that has shared a sufficiently long and shared history. Their common experience in the face of internal and external threats and under the influence of their leaders allowed them to form some assumptions and gather around specific values. These assumptions and values manifest themselves through observed artifacts (such as office setup) and subtle behaviours, such as dealing with internal conflict.
Organisational culture is the invisible hand that governs the behaviour of a particular group, in this case, either the organization as a whole or its subgroups.
Organisational culture is responsible for two aspects of an organization’s dynamics, both of which are vital to the performance and even survival of the organization.
The first is maintaining the group’s cohesion in the face of internal pressure. The dominant culture governs the inculturation of new members, management of conflict, allocation of status and power, and distribution of rewards and punishments.
Another aspect of an organization’s cultural dynamics is surviving external threats and staying in the game. Organisational culture thrives if it allows its regeneration and renewal through transformation. This capability will enable it to adapt and survive disruptive environmental changes.
Cultural clashes 43% and General organisational resistance to change 42% have been repeatedly cited in the State of Agile Report as the top detractors of Agile adoption by participating organizations.
The State of DevOps Report also showed the same signs despite the proven benefits of both methodologies.
Individuals can show resistance for several reasons, especially if it adversely impacts their current status and privileges and challenges the concepts that placed them where they are.
The traumatic and anxiety-ridden experiences it has to go through while it unlearns its previous assumptions and learns new ones can explain organisational resistance to change.
Organisational culture is a cognitive construct that allows groups trying to achieve a common objective to cope with internal and external pressures.
In this manner, it is neither positive nor negative. It can be viewed as a tool for dealing with environmental challenges.
Perhaps a better adjective for organisational culture might be healthy vs toxic. A healthy culture allows the group to grow, perform, and, more crucially, survive disruptive changes.
A toxic organisational culture stifles growth, impedes progress, and endangers people’s morale and mental well-being.
From Edgar Schein’s book: “Whether or not a culture is ‘good’ or ‘bad’, ‘functionally effective’ or not, depends not on the culture alone, but on the relationship of the culture to the environment in which it exists.”
The strength of an organisational culture derives from how strong its values and assumptions are held by its members.
This, in turn, derives from two factors:
A) How traumatic were the experiences from which the culture emerged
B) How much anxiety-reduction capabilities it holds
B) The dominant personalities of its founders
Quoting Edgar Schein from his book on Organisational Culture and Leadership: “If a basic assumption comes to be strongly held in a group, members will find behaviour based on any other premise inconceivable”.
The characteristics (or levels) of organisational culture in Schein’s model are:
B) Espoused Beliefs and Values
C) Underlying Assumptions
The Artifacts encompass the visible organisational structures and processes. These could be the office’s layout or whether a high or low voice is used for communications. Artifacts usually are hard to explain without additional knowledge.
Espoused beliefs and values are the strategies, goals, and philosophies (or espoused justifications that allow members of the organization to make sense of why they are doing things in a certain way).
Finally, the underlying assumptions are the unconscious thoughts, feelings, and axioms that motivate the group’s behaviour.
Successful management of cultural transformations will depend on three factors:
A) Cultural transformations cannot kick off without enough data made available, indicating that environmental changes have occurred and that these changes jeopardize the organisation’s strategic goals.
B) The organization needs to have enough psychological safety to recognize the possibility of a successful transformation without compromising its image and reputation.
C) Change Managers or Transformational Leaders, possibly from outside the organization, are likely to be needed to carry the change over as they will not have the same trouble unlearning some of the now sacred assumptions on which the culture was built.