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Change Management

Structure shapes culture’s breakfast

  • Sarah Schmid
  • Bennet van Well
  • Monday, 27. December 2021
Structure shapes culture
© plainpicture/Mia Takahara

It is taken for granted that people shape the culture of a company. Their views, values and norms combine to create the experienced working world. That’s why they say culture eats structure for breakfast. But in fact, it’s the other way around: The shape of an organizational structure decides what kind of culture is possible.

It usually starts with a sense of urgency: a transformation fails, a strategy is rolled out, but no one follows it. You want to initiate a discussion about the big picture, but those involved get hung up on the little things. The search for the problem quickly leads to the prevailing mindset in the company, or rather: to its culture. The solution seems simple: change mindset and culture, so they fit the new circumstances and needs of the organization.

Two common options to jump on

The first option is to work with values, preferably presented in a workshop. Members are asked to discuss the meaning of these values for their teams e.g., the merits of a “culture of cooperation” or of an “agile mindset”. If the importance and the positive effects are understood by all, employees will adjust their behavior.

The common second option is to declare a purpose – used as a “north star” of orientation. It is rolled out across the entire organization, making sure that employees at all levels understand the “why” behind their tasks. If the higher purpose is understood by all, employees will be able to resolve conflicts and to improve co-operation.

The flaws you get with them

Both options have their own problems. Values have only a short-term positive effect on collaboration. Members are energized at first, often stimulated by teambuilding and cooperation games – but when they must deal with their usual all-day problems again, it takes only a week or two for the euphoria to subside. After all, a workshop on “collaborative culture” doesn’t change the tasks that need to be performed nor does it reduce the friction that occurs at interfaces with other units or teams in the process.

The same is true for a purpose campaign. Just like the “north star”, it can only provide a general direction, but cannot offer decision guidelines, how concrete structural conflicts can be resolved. In fact, not only can it be ineffective, but depending on how it is implemented, it can even damage the climate in the organization. Organizational members know very well what their problems are, what they contribute to the organization, and what they get in return. Asserting that everything will be better if everyone believes in a common higher cause can lead to cynicism, because employees feel not being taken seriously in their actual roles and challenges.

Culture is the informal side of the organization

The first thing you need to avoid these effects, is a precise concept of culture. Many concepts view culture as general phenomenon that concerns all levels and aspects of the organization. Why this might be helpful to describe many aspects of culture, it does not provide you with any grip on how to effectively shape culture, nor where to start – if culture is everything and everywhere.

Luckily, organizational science offers exactly that: a precise concept of what culture is and how it can be influenced: Here, culture is narrowed down and described as the informal side of the organization: e.g., the unofficial shortcuts, the well-trodden paths around guidelines, the secret hierarchies, the smart work arounds, the hidden alliances etc. They are not written down anywhere, but everyone knows, nevertheless.

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Breaking its rules can be functional for the organization

If culture is defined as the informal side of the organization, then where does it come? The informal side consists of the actual practice, which can divert from the formal side. Culture – or more precise – informal structures arise as a reaction to formal structures. E.g., employees skip “unnecessary” formal process steps to get the job done in the given time. If they do this regularly, that informal shortcut becomes part of the informal structures as it forms a relative stable expectation towards the employees how to proceed in daily business.

The cause for this deviation lies in the “unfitting” formal structures, that inhibits employees to do their work efficiently and achieve their goals. In other words, employees have good reasons to deviate regularly from formal structures, but neither the reasons nor the deviation are written down somewhere – the must first be detected, then understood in the interplay with formal structures.

To get a grip on culture, go beyond the manual

If you want to get to know the “secret life” of the organization, you need a cleverly designed discourse strategy that engages employees in a way that reveals the hidden rules. To make visible what is obscured by organizational charts, process manuals, you need patience, observation skills and genuine interest in the work of employees.

Those who ask about formal processes and rules that must be followed, will, of course, receive formal answers in accordance with the manual. Thus, your questions must go beyond the obvious. You want to know what is considered a good job by the team, not by the supervisors. You want to explore what makes the job difficult, e.g., at interfaces. You need to find out which rules are considered not worth the paper they are written on. And why.

The only access to culture lies in the formal structures

With the help of sociological observation tools and questions that scrutinize the formal structures, informal “patterns” in the organization can be identified, resulting in e a highly differentiated picture of the prevailing cultures. Understanding why employees follow these patterns, will also reveal clues about their effects on the business. They can be highly functional or dysfunctional. The functional analysis of these patterns will provide relevant insights, as to how they are obstructive or helpful for the desired cultural change.

The last step is: You must know the levers to exert influence on cultural patterns. As shown, these do not lie in the culture itself. Since culture arises as a reaction to formal structures, it cannot be directly altered or prescribed, nor can it be replaced by “desirable” values or instructed by campaigns.

On the contrary, one must take the strenuous, but rewarding detour via designing better formal structures. Fixing flaws in the org chart, clarifying responsibilities, adapting strategies to realities, empowering employees with the right tools, trainings, communication lines, are just a few examples of how better structures can contribute to reduce dysfunctional and strengthen productive cultural patterns.

Sarah Schmid

Sarah Schmid

is fascinated by the culture of start-ups and how expectations are shaped in an environment where “no rules!” seems to be the only rule.

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Bennet van Well

Dr. Bennet van Well

has a favorite question to approach conflict in organizations: “Who gets what, when and how?”

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