Dealing With Culture

I expect most of us have, at one time or another, worked in an organisation with a corrosive culture.  In such organisations the expected behaviours of the organisations stakeholders damages, and often destroys that organisation.

Then more damage is caused by senior managers trying to impose new cultural norms on the organisation.   Management my be in charge of process and procedure within an organisation but that organisation’s culture belongs to all its stakeholders.

Organisational culture is therefore a critical part of strategy making.  Organisational culture is central to developing strategy.  Sometimes organisational culture is so strong, it becomes an organisational ideology.

An organisation isn’t it’s structure, or it’s processes, it is its culture.

So how do you ensure that your organisation does not develop a corrosive or damaging culture?

Henry Mintzberg created the following stages to instilling a new culture in an organisation:

  1.  Root Ideology in a Sense of Mission:  Many organisations begin when a single entrepreneur identifies a mission; a product or service which is to be delivered in a special way; and they select a group of individuals to deliver that mission. In such circumstances, this group, the new organisation, does not develop at random.  the group coalesces because its members share norms and values.  A mission statement added to these shared values helps develop a sense of mission amongst the group.  New organisations tend to be small and unbounded by procedures and policies so the organisation has wide latitude for manoeuvre.  In new organisations, the founding members often have shared beliefs and they want to work together. Finally, the entrepreneur may have strong charisma and a personal devotion to the organisation and its mission.  The entrepreneur can therefore rely on his personality to drive the organisation rather than formal policies or procedures.
  2. Develop the organisational ideology through traditions and sagas:  In an organisation myths develop around important events and the actions of important past leaders.  the organisation develops its own history.  All this forms a database of tradition which members of the organisation share.  these traditions influence behaviour and behaviour feeds back to influence the tradition.  this feedback process creates an organisational ideology.  Believers in the ideology become loyal to the organisation.
  3. Reinforce the ideology through physical identifications:  Think of military units.  Regiments have mascots and traditions.  For example, British submarine crews fly the skull and crossbones on their return to port to emphasise the piratical nature of the submariners wartime role.  Paratroopers have ceremonies when they complete a certain number of training jumps.  Businesses also develop such traditions e.g. McDonald’s ‘burger’ university where staff receive awards for completing training programmes.  Japanese firms are filled with such organisational identifiers, be it only the daily physical warm up before the start of work or singing the company song.  Some individuals will naturally recognise and be attracted to these physical identifiers.  Others can be recruited through the organisation selecting candidates not only on their ability to do the job but also on how they fin in with the organisational culture.  Those who best fit with the organisational ideology should be prime promotion candidates.
  4. Evoke identification with the organisational culture through socialisation and indoctrination:  Think of the Quaker confectionary firms which developed in the UK during the 19th century such as Cadbury and Rowntree’s.  These firms didn’t just create job roles for their staff, they developed sports and social clubs, libraries, hospitals and even model villages in which their staff lived.  the firms ideology and culture was instilled beyond the workplace and into personnel’s social life.  thus the organisational culture becomes internalised and staff behaviour becomes consistent with the organisation’s ideology.

Some organisations become missionary organisations where ideology is strong and the organisation effectively has a life of its own.  Attempts to change organisational culture in such organisations can be difficult and damaging.

Rather than trying to use a sledgehammer to change corporate culture, managers in such organisations are better to act with care and over time.  Develop strategies that achieve goals but which are also compliant with the existing organisational change. Incremental change is often the best approach.