ORGANIZATIONAL CULTURE REVISITED: THE FORCE THAT MAKES OR BREAKS YOU.

“For in our shrinking globe, man can ill afford cultural illiteracy.” ─ Edward T. Hall (1976)

Ah, organizational culture, that intangible yet ubiquitous force whose presence tends to elude everyone but the onlooker and who nevertheless determines every member’s thoughts, feelings, emotions, actions, or inactions. You know, that thing that eats strategy for breakfast.

However, everyone aspiring to design and develop better cultures must analyze an existing one and understand its connections with and reciprocal influence on the micro[i]- and meso-levels[ii] of an organization and its ecosystems. Additionally, one must comprehend how the macro-level[iii] influences organizational culture and how meta-organizations[iv] emerge. While vigorous debates over a universally accepted definition of corporate culture continue to this day, and therefore, there is none, it is possible to form an educated opinion about culture.

Bring five people together for a couple of months to solve a problem or to perform a task, pay them, and leave them to figure out the rest, and culture emerges by default. While this may seem like a ludicrous idea, Schmidt and Rosenberg confirm the widespread occurrence of culture by default in their book How Google Works and posit that “most companies’ culture just happens; no one plans it.”[v] Simultaneously, the authors point out that not planning culture reduces one’s chances of success significantly, and thus they suggest that culture by design is possible. Now, before you get practical with culture, you need to get philosophical. It is, as you will see, your philosophy that drives your practice, even if you think of philosophy as nonsense and utter waste of time.

In his original 1988 essay Organizational Culture, Schein[vi] defines the abstract, wholistic phenomenon as:

“1) A pattern of basic assumptions, 2) invented, discovered, or developed by a given group, 3) as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, 4) that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore 5) is to be taught to new members as the 6) correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.”

Culture is a property of a group that learns ways to survive outside challenges, threats, and risks –cut-throat competition, pandemics, regulations — and inside integration issues — get the rookies in line, too many or no captains on the boat — that provoke perceptive, cognitive, and emotional retorts. What binds a group is an impactfulness of learning experiences and its stability over time until it leads to that is the way we do things around here. Then, culture drops out of awareness until someone or something calls attention to it. Within a large group, a sub-group can have its own culture or subculture, a small group of people with its own set of beliefs, values, and assumptions[vii], usually developed in response to challenges that differ from those tackled by other groups. And then, the way we do things around here (e.g., in accounting) is quite different from the way they do things over there (e.g., in sales). Put otherwise, we may share the same logo and slogan, but what we believe, value, and assume over here is not what you think, prize, and hold over there. All of this begs two questions:

Do you honestly believe your company slogans? And how many of your colleagues do?

Both those over here and over there uttering the same slogans and waving the same logo, serve the same customer. For now, we leave her out of the picture. Instead, remember that culture has a time component; it emerges from a challenge and assumptions about how to tackle it and strengthens as a group proves solutions right and defines the criteria for group membership. The learning of shared beliefs results in automatic patterns of perceiving, thinking, and behaving.

“Your beliefs become your thoughts; your thoughts become your words; your words become your actions; your actions become your habits; your habits become your values; your values become your destiny.”

— Mahatma Gandhi

Robbins and Judge, on the other hand, define organizational culture or OC as “a system of shared meaning held by members, that distinguishes the organization from other organizations,”[viii] and, in the case of subcultures, from one group to other groups. Roberts defines OC as “not a passive force but an active discipline with a set of deliberate practices and mindsets. It does not preserve the organization from the forces of change but makes it resilient, adaptable, and always moving forward.”[ix] While Schein’s and Robert’s definitions point more to problem-solving competencies and survival through learning and development, the description of OC posited by Robbins and Judge promotes differentiation. The definitions have a shared set of understandings and practices on the one hand, and values, assumptions, beliefs, and mindsets on the other. Does one hand trump the other?

Icebergs and Onions

In his 1976 book, Hall likened culture to an iceberg to explain that some parts of a society’s culture are visible while others remain hidden under the water surface. Only by deep-diving to the bottom of the iceberg can one uncover the values and beliefs that underlie what is visible: behavior and artifacts. The way we do things around here is visible to the onlooker or the newbie, why we do the things we do is invisible: values and unconscious thought patterns.

In contrast, Hofstede makes an onion the analogy of national culture[x]. As one peels each layer, one travels from the visible and the conscious (symbols and heroes; logos and visionary founders) to the onion’s invisible and unconscious core: values. The practices of an organization that cross-section the onion from the outer layer to the heart of national cultures is what Hofstede calls organizational culture. Organizations, therefore, are subcultures themselves.

“When you are in and of [a] culture –as fish are in and of water — it is often difficult or even impossible to see that culture.”

— Erin Meyer

While in 1976, Hall thought the world was shrinking, it now is evident that the world has shrunk, and his call for cultural literacy is now more relevant than ever. In our globalized and interconnected always-on world, millions of people work in global settings and see everything from their cultural perspectives, that is, in a state of cultural unconsciousness. The most critical paradigms and rules that govern our behavior, and rule our lives, operate below the level of conscious awareness. One automatically treats what is most naturally one’s own -the culture of one’s youth — as inborn. Such automatism is, of course, a fallacy: since 2015, we know that the nature-nurture ratio is on average, fifty-fifty.[xi]

Reflect now, very consciously aware that most learning occurs unconsciously, on the fact that culture develops through a process of learning, and you will realize that culture has critical implications on any business and international corporation.

However, what is true is that as specific motivational and cognitive processes repeat and continue to provide results, they become unconscious. Moreover, about ninety-five percent of our cognition –thoughts, emotions, learning — occurs without our awareness.[xii]

Reflect now, very consciously aware that most learning occurs unconsciously, on the fact that culture develops through a process of learning, and you will realize that culture has critical implications on any business and international corporation.

End Notes:

[i] The level of the individual in an organization.

[ii] The level of the organization, and its key structural elements, including culture.

[iii] The level of institutions, governments, cultural traditions.

[iv] The level of collective action taken by organizations, ensuing from major issues related to sustainable development, human rights and corporate responsibility.

[v] Schmidt, E. and Rosenberg, J. (2014) How Google Works. 1st edn. New York: Grand Central Publishing, p. 29.

[vi] Schein, E. (1988, p.7) Organizational Culture. Sloan School of Management, MIT.

[vii] Lok, P. and Crawford, J. (1999) “The relationship between commitment and organizational culture, subculture, leadership style and job satisfaction in organizational change and development”, Leadership & Organization Development Journal, 20(7), pp. 365–374. doi: 10.1108/01437739910302524.

[viii] Robbins, S. and Judge, T. (2017, p.565) Organizational behavior. 17th edn. Harlow: Pearson Education Limited.

[ix] Sara Roberts. (2016) Nimble, Focused, Feisty: Organizational Cultures That Win in the New Era and How to Create Them. 1st edn. Dallas: Benbella Books, p. 4.

[x] Schram, E. (2014) “Certification courses in intercultural management: Info webinar.”

[xi] Benyamin, B. et al. (2015) “Meta-analysis of the heritability of human traits based on fifty years of twin studies”, Nature Genetics, 47(7), pp. 702–709. doi: 10.1038/ng.3285.

[xii] Zaltman, G. (2008) How customers think. Boston, Mass.: Harvard Business School Press.

© Jef Teugels, 2020.

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