Organizational Culture and Changing Culture

© Copyright by Carter McNamara, MBA, PhD. Published by Authenticity Consulting, LLC, 2000. .
Adapted from the Field Guide to Leadership and Supervision.

Sections of This Topic Include

What is Organizational Culture?
Some Types of Organizational Culture
Understanding the Culture of Your Organization
Influencing the Culture of Your Organization
Additional About Organizational Culture

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What is Culture?

Basically, organizational culture is the personality of the organization. Culture is comprised of the assumptions, values, norms and tangible signs (artifacts) of organization members and their behaviors. Members of an organization soon come to sense the particular culture of an organization. Culture is one of those terms that's difficult to express distinctly, but everyone knows it when they sense it. For example, the culture of a large, for-profit corporation is quite different than that of a hospital which is quite different than that of a university. You can tell the culture of an organization by looking at the arrangement of furniture, what they brag about, what members wear, etc. -- similar to what you can use to get a feeling about someone's personality.

Corporate culture can be looked at as a system. Inputs include feedback from, e.g., society, professions, laws, stories, heroes, values on competition or service, etc. The process is based on our assumptions, values and norms, e.g., our values on money, time, facilities, space and people. Outputs or effects of our culture are, e.g., organizational behaviors, technologies, strategies, image, products, services, appearance, etc.

The concept of culture is particularly important when attempting to manage organization-wide change. Practitioners are coming to realize that, despite the best-laid plans, organizational change must include not only changing structures and processes, but also changing the corporate culture as well.

There's been a great deal of literature generated over the past decade about the concept of organizational culture -- particularly in regard to learning how to change organizational culture. Organizational change efforts are rumored to fail the vast majority of the time. Usually, this failure is credited to lack of understanding about the strong role of culture and the role it plays in organizations. That's one of the reasons that many strategic planners now place as much emphasis on identifying strategic values as they do mission and vision.

Some Types of Culture

There are different types of culture just like there are different types of personality. Researcher Jeffrey Sonnenfeld identified the following four types of cultures.

Academy Culture

Employees are highly skilled and tend to stay in the organization, while working their way up the ranks. The organization provides a stable environment in which employees can development and exercise their skills. Examples are universities, hospitals, large corporations, etc.

Baseball Team Culture

Employees are "free agents" who have highly prized skills. They are in high demand and can rather easily get jobs elsewhere. This type of culture exists in fast-paced, high-risk organizations, such as investment banking, advertising, etc.

Club Culture

The most important requirement for employees in this culture is to fit into the group. Usually employees start at the bottom and stay with the organization. The organization promotes from within and highly values seniority. Examples are the military, some law firms, etc.

Fortress Culture

Employees don't know if they'll be laid off or not. These organizations often undergo massive reorganization. There are many opportunities for those with timely, specialized skills. Examples are savings and loans, large car companies, etc.

Understanding the Culture of Your Organization

Quite often, a leader has a very good sense of the culture of their organization. They just haven’t made that sense conscious to the extent that they can effectively learn from, and lead within, the culture.

Different people in the same organization can have different perceptions of the culture of the organization. This is especially true regarding the different perceptions between the top and bottom levels of the organization. For example, the Chief Executive may view the organization as being highly focused, well organized and even rather formal. On the other hand, the receptionist might view the organization as being confused, disorganized and, sometimes, even rude.

Here are some basic guidelines to help a leader assess the culture of their organization.

  1. Understand some of the major types of cultures. There are a number of research efforts that have produced lists of different types of culture. You can start by reviewing the very short list in the previous subsection, Major Types of Cultures.
  2. Describe the culture of your organization. Consider what you see and hear, not what you feel and think. Answer the following questions.
    a. Who seems to be accepted and who doesn’t? What is it about those who are accepted as compared to those who aren’t?
    b. What kinds of behaviors get rewarded? For example, getting along? Getting things done? Other behaviors?
    c. What does management pay the most attention to? For example, problems? Successes? Crises? Other behaviors?
    d. How are decisions made? For example, by one person? Discussion and consensus? Are decisions made at all?

Note that there may not be close alignment between what the organization says it values (for example, creativity, innovation, team-building) as compared to what you’re actually seeing (for example, conformity, individualism). This disparity is rather common in organizations. You might explain this disparity to other leaders in the organization. An ideal time to address this disparity is when developing a values statement during the strategic planning process.

Changing Culture of an Organization

There are four primary ways to influence the culture of an organization.

  1. Emphasize what’s important. This includes widely communicating goals of the organization, posting the mission statement on the wall, talking about accomplishments and repeating what you want to see in the workplace.
  2. Reward employees whose behaviors reflect what’s important.
  3. Discourage behaviors that don’t reflect what’s important. There is no need to punish or cause prolonged discomfort. Rather, you want to dissuade the employee from continuing unwanted behaviors by giving them constructive feedback, verbal warnings, written warnings, or firing them.
  4. Model the behaviors that you want to see in the workplace. This is perhaps the most powerful way to influence behaviors in the workplace. For example, if you want to see more teamwork among your employees, then involve yourself in teams more often.

Here are several articles with guidelines about changing the culture of an organization.

Cultural Change That Sticks
How to Change Your Culture
What Creates Cultural Changes?
How Do You Change an Organizational Culture?
Does Your Culture Match Your Business Model?
Six Things Your CEO Should Know About Corporate Core Values
Why Organizational Innovation is So Difficult

For many more resources about systematically changing the culture of your organization, see the topic
Organizational Change

Additional Resources About Organizational Culture

Interpersonal Interaction Model
What is Corporate Culture?
Deviant Organization Culture
4 Reasons Culture is So Important to Your Nonprofit
Culture Trumps Strategy, Every Time - Nilofer Merchant - The Conversation - Harvard Business Review
The Most Powerful Trainer in Your Organization-Culture

Also see
Employee Wellness -- Diversity
Organizational Change

Return to Overview of Organizations


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To round out your knowledge of this Library topic, you may want to review some related topics, available from the link below. Each of the related topics includes free, online resources.

Also, scan the Recommended Books listed below. They have been selected for their relevance and highly practical nature.

Related Library Topics

Recommended Books

Managing Organizational Change

Growing Your Organization



Managing Organizational Change

Consulting and Organization Development - Book Cover Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development
by Carter McNamara, published by Authenticity Consulting, LLC. Provides complete, step-by-step guidelines to identify complex issues in for-profit or government organizations and successfully resolve each of them. This book is also helpful to organizations that are doing fine now, but want to evolve to the next level of performance. This is one of the truly comprehensive, yet practical, books about this complex subject! Includes online forms that can be downloaded. Many materials in this Library's topic about guiding change are adapted from this comprehensive book.
Consulting and Organization Development With Nonprofits - Book Cover Field Guide to Consulting and Organizational Development With Nonprofits
by Carter McNamara, published by Authenticity Consulting, LLC. Provides complete, step-by-step guidelines to identify complex issues in nonprofit organizations and successfully resolve each of them. This book is also helpful to organizations that are doing fine now, but want to evolve to the next level of performance. This is one of the truly comprehensive, yet practical, books about this complex subject! Includes online forms that can be downloaded. Many materials in this Library's topic about guiding change are adapted from this comprehensive book.

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.



Growing Your Organization

The following books are recommended because of their highly practical nature and often because they include a wide range of information about this Library topic. To get more information about each book, just click on the image of the book. Also, a "bubble" of information might be displayed. You can click on the title of the book in that bubble to get more information, too.



Also See for For-Profits

Strategic Planning -- Recommended Books

Business Development -- Recommended books

Financing Your Business -- Recommended Books

Product Development -- Recommended books

Planning and Project Management -- Recommended Books

Also See for Nonprofits

Strategic Planning -- Recommended Books

Social Entrepreneurship (Nonprofit) -- Recommended Books

Capacity Building (Nonprofit) -- Recommended Books

Fundraising -- Recommended Books

Program Management -- Recommended Books

Planning and Project Management -- Recommended Books

Capacity Building (Nonprofit) -- Recommended Books




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