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Management: perspective and practice
Management: perspective and practice

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3 Organisational culture

An understanding of organisational culture is indispensable for managers and organisations. Managers need to be sensitive to various cultural dispositions of members and customers, whether managing locally or abroad. Alvesson suggests that insights into and reflections on organisational culture:

… may be useful in [relation] … to getting people to do the ‘right’ things in terms of effectiveness, but also for promoting more autonomous standpoints in relationship to dominant ideologies, myths, fashions, etc. To encourage and facilitate the thinking through of various aspects of values, beliefs and assumptions in industry, occupations and organisations seem to me a worthwhile task.

(Source: Alvesson, 2002, p. 2)

Understanding an organisation means understanding its culture.

The culture or climate of an organisation is made up of traditions, habits, ways of organising and patterns of relationships at work. If you think of organisations such as a school, hotel, airport, a church or a variety of other work organisations, you will notice how the ‘atmosphere’ differs between them; the different ways in which things are done; differing levels of energy and individual freedom; and of course, different kinds of people (Molander, 1986, p. 14). For Clegg et al. (2005, p. 265) the concept of culture in organisations encompasses the following questions:

  • How are things done in particular organisations?
  • What is acceptable behaviour?
  • What norms are members expected to use to solve problems of external adaptation and internal integration, and which ones do they actually use?

The word ‘culture’, as a concept in organisation and management studies, has its main roots in social anthropology, where it was used to refer to a community’s shared way of life. It embraces the symbols, myths, stories and so on, that are the manifestations and transmitters of that culture. In this view a culture is very much homogenous – reflecting the extreme patterns that shape organisational realities. Anthropologists have stressed how beliefs and values influence attitudes and behaviour. Classic anthropological research studied rituals, symbols, myths and stories as the most obvious manifestations of beliefs and values of other societies in other parts of the world. The concept of culture in organisational behaviour has become widely accepted in contributing to the understanding of and in influencing behaviour in organisations. However, like many concepts, it has been widely contested, too, as you will see in this section. The study of culture proves to be more problematic when applied to complex things such as organisations, as it is not always easy to observe and understand culture, for it tends to permeate subtly most aspects of organisational life (Bloisi et al., 2006).

Here we focus mainly on ‘organisational culture’. This is a simple term describing a very complex concept. A simple starting definition was offered by Deal and Kennedy (1982) as ‘the way we do things around here’ – which is at once appealing and straightforward. But would it, if posed as a question about your own or any other organisation, be an easy one to answer? For one thing, an organisation’s culture has, for all its members except newcomers, a taken-for-granted quality that can make it hard to recognise, except by contrasting it with a different culture.

Different cultures exist in different countries, in different organisations or even within a single organisation. Managers increasingly work across different cultures –whether in multinational organisations, or where organisations have merged or are collaborating, or in interdisciplinary or interdepartmental teams. Over the last few decades in countries such as the UK, Germany, Spain and France, for example, there has been a significant influx of immigrants from all over the world, bringing with them imported values, beliefs and norms about what is important and their perspectives about how things should be done in organisational settings. In such cases it is crucial to understand the effects that cultures can have. Managers have to recognise and build on cultural particularities, adapting organisational products and policies to local cultures and managing employees in a manner appropriate to their culture (Gabriel, 1999, p. 168).

This understanding and managing of these cultural differences has over the years become a vital ingredient of organisational success. Working with people from different ethnic and cultural backgrounds is a challenge and a source of opportunity for managers and organisational cultures (Bloisi et al., 2006, p. 684). However, ‘organisational culture’ usually refers to the less tangible aspects of an organisation’s way of doing things and, in particular, to the shared cognitive, interpersonal and value orientations of its members. If we are using the term in this sense – referring to a shared ‘mental programming’ – then it is reasonable to distinguish between structure and culture. However, these two aspects of organisations are bound to be closely related: cultures are expressed in behaviour and artefacts, and different sorts of procedures and arrangements tend to generate or require different attitudes and outlooks. All of this demonstrates that, even if the terms seem simple, the ideas (not to mention the realities) are complex and subtle.

The aims of this section are to explore what is meant by organisational culture and to establish the importance of understanding your cultural context. This section will help you to develop this understanding by using some established frameworks for classifying cultures and by exploring the strengths and weaknesses of different types of cultures. These types tend to be referred to as: dominant culture, sub-culture, strong culture and weak culture. The distinctions of culture might seem subtle, but they matter to managers because, for example, managers are often charged with delivery of ‘culture change’(usually to improve performance). Concepts such as dominant culture, sub-culture and strong and weak cultures can help you to ‘read’situations and also help reflective managers to understand what impact they might have. These concepts also sometimes point directly to the managerial action you may have to take in certain circumstances.

Before you proceed, it is probably worth breaking the concept down a little. Consider a list of definitions of culture found in the academic literature.

Definitions of organisational culture

  1. Culture is the set of important understandings (often unstated) that members of a community share in common’ (Sathe, 1985, p. 6).
  2. [Culture is] a set of understandings or meanings shared by a group of people. The meanings are largely tacit among the members, are clearly relevant to a particular group, and are distinctive to the group’ (Louis, 1985, p. 74).
  3. ‘A standard definition of culture would include the system of values, symbols, and shared meanings of a group including the embodiment of these values, symbols, and meanings into material objects and ritualized practices. … The “stuff” of culture includes customs and traditions, historical accounts be they mythical or actual, tacit understandings, habits, norms and expectations, common meanings associated with fixed objects and established rites, shared assumptions, and intersubjective meanings’ (Sergiovanni and Corbally, 1984, p. vii).
  4. ‘[Culture is] the pattern of shared beliefs and values that give members of an institution meaning, and provide them with the rules for behaviour in their organisation’ (Davis, 1984, p. 1).
  5. ‘To analyze why members behave the way they do, we often look for the values that govern behaviour… But as the values are hard to observe directly, it is often necessary to infer them by interviewing key members of the organisation or to content analyze artefacts such as documents and charters. However, in identifying such values, we usually note that they represent accurately only the manifest or espoused values of a culture. That is, they focus on what people say is the reason for their behaviour, what they ideally would like those reasons to be, and what are often their rationalizations for their behaviour. Yet, the underlying reasons for their behaviour remain concealed or unconscious. To really understand a culture and to ascertain more completely the group’s values and overt behaviour, it is imperative to delve into the underlying assumptions, which are typically unconscious but which actually determine how group members perceive, think, and feel’ (Schein, 1985, p. 3).
  6. ‘In a particular situation the set of meanings that evolves gives a group its own ethos, or distinctive character, which is expressed in patterns of belief (ideology), activity (norms and rituals), language and other symbolic forms through which organisation members both create and sustain their view of the world and image of themselves in the world. The development of a worldview with its shared understanding of group identity, purpose, and direction are products of the unique history, personal interactions, and environmental circumstances of the group’ (Smircich, 1983a, p. 56).
  7. ‘Culture does not necessarily imply a uniformity of values. Indeed quite different values may be displayed by people of the same culture. In such an instance, what is it that holds together the members of the organisation? I suggest that we look to the existence of a common frame of reference or a shared recognition. There may not be agreement about whether these issues should be relevant or about whether they are positively or negatively valued … They may array themselves differently with respect to that issue, but whether positively or negatively, they are all oriented to it’ (Feldman, 1991, p. 154).
  8. ‘When organisations are examined from a cultural viewpoint, attention is drawn to aspects of organisational life that historically have often been ignored or understudied, such as the stories people tell to newcomers to explain “how things are done around here”,the ways in which offices are arranged and personal items are or are not displayed, jokes people tell, the working atmosphere (hushed and luxurious or dirty and noisy), the relations among people (affectionate in some areas of an office and obviously angry and perhaps competitive in another place), and so on. Cultural observers also often attend to aspects of working life that other researchers study, such as the organisation’sofficial policies, the amounts of money different employees earn, reporting relationships, and so on. A cultural observer is interested in the surfaces of these cultural manifestations because details can be informative, but he or she also seeks an in-depth understanding of the patterns of meanings that link these manifestations together, sometimes in harmony, sometimes in bitter conflicts between groups, and sometimes in webs of ambiguity, paradox, and contradiction’ (Martin, 2002, p. 3).

These quotations reflect some of the ways that ‘culture’ has been used by academics and practitioners. The most common feature throughout the various definitions is ‘the use of the word “shared” and the reference to culture as that which is distinctive or unique to a particular context’ (Martin, 2002, p. 58). Still, not all academics and practitioners agree on this representation of culture as shared and unique, and this will become more evident as the concept is explored in this section. The critical element is for these collections of fundamental assumptions to be shared and accepted by organisational members.

Now consider the following extract from a fictional story by Daniel Orozco (1995) called ‘Orientation’.

Extract from ‘Orientation’ by Daniel Orozco

Those are the offices and these are the cubicles. That’s my cubicle there, and this is your cubicle. This is your phone. Never answer your phone. Let the Voicemail System answer it. This is your Voicemail System Manual. There are no personal phone calls allowed. We do, however, allow for emergencies. If you must make an emergency phone call, ask your supervisor first. If you can’t find your supervisor, ask Phillip Spiers, who sits over there. He’ll check with Clarissa Nicks, who sits over there. If you make an emergency phone call without asking, you may be let go.

These are your IN and OUT boxes. All the forms in your IN box must be logged in by the date shown in the upper left-hand corner, initialed by you in the upper right-hand corner, and distributed to the Processing Analyst whose name is numerically coded in the lower left-hand corner. The lower right-hand corner is left blank. Here’s your Processing Analyst Numerical Code Index. And here’s your Forms Processing Procedures Manual.

You must pace your work. What do I mean? I’m glad you asked that. We pace our work according to the eight-hour workday. If you have twelve hours of work in your IN box, for example, you must compress that work into the eight-hour day. If you have one hour of work in your IN box, you must expand that work to fill the eight-hour day. That was a good question. Feel free to ask questions. Ask too many questions, however, and you may be let go.

(Source: The best American short stories, 1995, p. 1)

The definitions of culture above probably alerted you to some underpinnings of what culture is, even though they emphasise and focus on different things. Keeping those definitions in mind, what does Orozco’s fictional story begin to reveal about the culture of this organisation? Through the orientation of a person entering a new job you learn about ‘the way things are done round here’–the unwritten rules, beliefs, norms, rituals, myths and language. The new person learns about what is acceptable behaviour in the office. The newcomer must quickly learn the rules of the game in order to become an accepted member. Orozco’s ‘Orientation’ illustrates how organisations develop patterns of cultural assumptions that get passed onto new members.

Stop and reflect

How does your organisation (or one that you know well) relate to its environment? How do you communicate? What do you expect of people and relationships within the organisation? What constitutes successful results?

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Orozco’s story conveys some of the shared and accepted assumptions in the office. A picture of how things are done in this organisation begins to emerge. But how can you recognise and characterise an organisation’s culture? Cultural models can provide you with interesting insights of organisations and can be used to illuminate and organise the information and impressions about organisations, helping you to understand some of the many complexities of managing in organisations. One such model is the use of metaphors, as suggested by Morgan, which provides an alternative approach to the concept of organisational culture and is illustrated below.

Metaphors of organisational culture

One of the easiest ways to grasp and ‘see’ the nature of an organization’s culture is to try to view it as if you are a visitor from a foreign land. As one tries to look at the organization with fresh eyes, one can see the intangible ‘social glue’ that holds everything together: how the language, norms, values, rituals, myths, stories and daily routines form part of a coherent ‘reality’ that lends shape to how and what people do as they go about their work.

In understanding this ‘social glue’ (which like all glue sometimes does not stick as well as it might, producing a fragmented or divided ‘culture’) other ways of thinking about culture may be appropriate.

For example, try thinking about the corporate culture as an iceberg. Recognize that what you see on the surface is based on a much deeper reality. Recognize that the visible elements of the culture may be sustained by all kinds of hidden values, beliefs, ideologies and assumptions – questioned and unquestioned, conscious and unconscious. As a manager, recognize that it may not be possible to change the surface without changing what lies below.

Or try thinking about the corporate culture as an onion. Recognize that it has different layers. Recognize that one can penetrate beneath the rituals, ceremonies and symbolic routines to discover inner layers of mythology, folklore, hopes and dreams that eventually lead to the innermost values and assumptions that lend meaning to the outward aspects of the culture. Recognize that to impact or change the culture in any significant way it is necessary to address and perhaps change the values that lie at the core.

Or try thinking about the corporate culture as an umbrella. Look for the overarching values and visions that unite, or are capable of uniting, the individuals and groups working under the umbrella. Recognize that one’s ability to mobilize or change any organization may depend on finding the umbrella that can unite potentially divergent individuals, groups and subcultures in pursuit of a shared vision of reality.

(Source: Morgan, 1989, pp. 157–8)

Whether working from the ideas outlined above or your preferred metaphor, you can see the difficulty here in studying culture –but the benefits of getting to grips with culture are that it can play a powerful role in supporting missions and strategies. There are several threads running through the concept. One concerns integration –‘social glue’, ‘overarching values and visions that unite’ people in an organisation to work together in coordinated ways. Another thread, exemplified by the ‘iceberg’, is more about the hidden nature of culture (see Figure 1.4). Like an iceberg, some values and assumptions are ‘invisible’ and can only be deduced from more tangible aspects or manifestations of culture.

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Figure 10 Schein’s iceberg model of culture

Schein’s iceberg model is useful in that it illustrates that there are visible cultural aspects of an organisation but that there are also elements of culture that are hidden and difficult to interpret. What is visible, for example, are things such as written documents – strategic plans, job descriptions and disciplinary procedures. But if organisational culture, as we have indicated so far, consists of values, beliefs and norms, Schein argues that these exist in people’s heads, which raises the challenge of how actually to identify and interpret them. The key to Schein’s idea is that these three levels of analysis can create a better understanding of the different components of culture in organisations.