Culture or the ‘way we do things around here’ symbolizes the way organizational members behave and the beliefs, values and assumptions which they share. Some of these assumptions may be so taken for granted that they become invisible and only become visible when change threatens them. The assumptions may be apparent in the formal systems, such as the reward scheme, or may be more active in the informal or ‘shadow’ system in which the grapevine, political behaviour and networks flourish.
Typically, the culture is most visible in expressions such as the way employees treat one another, how they dress, the size and layout of office space, the look of the reception area and how customers are treated. Less visible, but good pointers of culture are the rituals and routines which staff engages in, the amount and nature of political activity and representation of certain aspects of an organization’s history.
Roger Harrison has identified FOUR broad types into which organizational cultures can be classified. Any organization has a blend of these types of culture, though some types may be more characteristic of some organizations than others.
Power Culture – A power culture empowers through identification with a strong leader but can disempower through fear and through an inability to act without permission.
Role Culture – A role culture, such as in a bureaucracy, empowers through systems which serve the people and the task, reducing confusion and conflict. Such a culture disempowers through curbing autonomy and creativity and erects barriers to cooperation.
Achievement Culture – An achievement culture empowers through identification with the values and ideas of a vision; through the liberation of creativity and through freedom to act. It disempowers through burnout and stress; through treating the individual as an instrument of the task and through inhibiting dissent about goals and values.
Support Culture – A support culture empowers through the power of cooperation and trust; through providing understanding, acceptance and assistance. It disempowers through quashing conflict; through preoccupation with process and through conformity to group items.
Each of these types of culture has its strengths and limitations, as well as its ‘dark’ side where strength becomes a limitation. It has the capacity to empower or disempower people. Organizational excellence is achieved through exploiting the dynamic tension between the strengths of these different cultural types.
Chaos theory suggests that while an organization can exist in a stable or unstable state, the state most productive of change and new possibilities is the “edge of chaos”. The organization has to have the capacity to be stable, but also to change or evolve. If there is too much stability, however successful the organization is, complacency can set in and the organization can become internally focussed. Too much change can lead to chaos, lack of coordination and waste. The edge of chaos, where there is experimentation but within a framework is most conducive to emergent culture change since the people who are likely to be affected by the change are the ones who introduce it. Edge of chaos states are typified by jumbling through, searching for error, brain-storming, use of intuition and agenda building.
Change travel from the state of chaos to the state of stability. Factors which affect the direction in which the cultural change travels are as follows:
How richly the network is connected – do the feedback loops work across the organization and through the management levels?
How quickly, or otherwise, active information flows through the system?
How anxiety is contained?
How power differences are used?
The diversity of “mind-set” of the people within the networks
To reach the state to stability, you have to recognize that the formal and informal systems co-exist and follow steps listed below though not in any particular order –
Do not over-control or predetermine goals and agendas. The informal networks themselves must generate their own order and change.
The role of the senior managers is to articulate ideals, open-ended challenges capable of different interpretations, umbrella concepts and metaphors.
Avoid being either highly controlled or widely distributed and hardly ever use authority.
Actively promote a diversity of culture.
Create forums where individuals and groups can operate in a spontaneous and self-organizing way.
Develop group-learning skills and encourage the development of the informal organization.
Provoke challenges which are ambiguous and which may generate conflict; create an environment in which senior managers are open to challenge from subordinates.
No matter what you do, people will resist change. Resisting is first stage of defence. For people, change can represent a major personal transition, during which what is familiar has to be destabilized and “let-go” before people can move on to integrate new learning. For people who like the comfort of the familiar, or who are rather risk averse, change can threaten their comfort-zones. Of course, change can bring many opportunities for individuals and organizations and there is much research evidence to suggest that people who have a positive approach to change usually manage to make opportunities for themselves during periods of ambiguity.
On the whole, though, organizational change can seem threatening to employees because when the change is imposed top-down, such as in the decision of merger or acquisition or sell-off, employees feel that they have no control over what is likely to happen. This is when the consequences of change can appear profoundly negative to employees. Transformation can threaten people’s mental models of how their organization should act, what work should be like and what their own prospects look like.
Ironically, while so many change projects are introduced in order to bring customer and business benefit, the effect of change on employees can actually lead to a down-turn in profits, at least in the short-term. One of the reasons for this is a loss of focus. Organizations can become introspective and cease paying attention to the external business environment. If political behaviour and “turf wars” break out during the period of uncertainty, the internal focus becomes stronger. Similarly, the rate of change can be so great that employees simply stop working and spend their time in speculation. There may also be a leadership vacuum at the top of the organization because members of the management team are actively involved in managing the business deals rather than the organization.