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Madness as Usual

Culture – Why the promotion of a new culture often conceals the actual organizational culture.

  • Stefan Kühl
  • Thursday, 5. January 2023

There is a general agreement in the literature on organizational cultures that the culture of an organization can be actively shaped.[1] ‘Measures conveying a sense of purpose’ are often used to explain the organization’s ‘mission’ to the employees. The aim is to involve members in the development of a model of culture in order to reflect together on how the internal culture might be changed. The ‘system of incentives’ should be designed so that it promotes values such as ‘customer orientation’, ‘collegiality’, ‘willingness to innovate’, ‘quality awareness’, ‘conflict resolution’, and a ‘sense of community’. ‘Rotation of the representatives of subcultures’ is meant to lead to ‘growing internal knowledge and acceptance of subcultural structures’. The ‘interdisciplinary composition of learning groups’, as a ‘measure of personnel development’, is meant to embed the propagated values in the organizational culture. When it comes to proposals for ways to shape organizational culture, the sky is apparently the limit.

Management has a central role in this process. Managers, so the idea goes, act as role models who credibly represent and live an organization’s values and so help to form the culture of the organization. This can be done in several ways: by asking employees the right questions, by asking employees about the problems they consider important and addressing them, or by discussing particular topics with the employees. All these options (and, no doubt, many others) are seen as ways of directly influencing organizational culture. In pursuing this aim, the management literature claims, it is helpful if managers rotate between the different organizational areas so that a homogeneous culture is established across the board. Organizations may even appoint a ‘manager without portfolio’ – a so-called ‘Culture Evangelist’ – whose job it is to raise questions, critically examine attitudes, and suggest new ideas.

Shaping the informal networks sounds great

All these approaches to the shaping of organizational culture are ultimately ways of reviving an old fantasy of control – the management’s dream of shaping informal networks, hidden incentives, and implicit thought patterns in such a way that the organization as a whole is made more successful. The concept of an organizational culture thus allows managers to shed the traditional ideas about control while nevertheless maintaining the fiction of control over the organizational order, even if that control is now more difficult to exert.[2]

Because organizational culture makes possible a ‘collective programming of the mind’, managers believe that organizations can be given a uniform direction even in the presence of centrifugal forces.[3] Because ‘hearts, minds, and souls’ can be managed through the organization’s culture, managers no longer need to secure the cohesion of the organization by way of hierarchical instructions and precise programming.[4] The idea is that, ultimately, there is no method of controlling an organization that is more efficient than that of creating a strong and consistent organizational culture.

In the way an organization presents itself to the outside world, projects aimed at fostering organizational culture are usually celebrated as great successes. Organizations pretend that the impressive catalogue of values established by these projects have now trickled down into the organization’s internal structure. Those who are in charge of these processes, in particular, affect a confidence that the articulation of a new and attractive culture will lead, or has already led, to an actual change in the way the organization acts. Off the record, however, people often lament the ineffectiveness of these projects.
In the end, top-down culture initiatives and their harmonious and humanist language predominantly affect the public relations side of an organization.

Culture programs are bad marketing tools

The fact that organizations manage their public relations does not itself create problems. Employees usually understand their organization’s existential need to engage in some hypocritical window dressing in both their internal and external relations. Members at all levels of the hierarchy know very well that the organization as a whole, as well as individual sections, needs a bit of ‘cosmetics’ in order to look good in the eyes of the public, attract well-qualified personnel on the labour market, and be perceived as a respectable business partner by other organizations. But culture projects are exactly the wrong tool to create this kind of window dressing, because they direct themselves chiefly towards the inside and not the outside of the organization.

The main problem with using culture projects to exert control over an organization is, however, a different one – namely the fact that they conceal the actually existing culture of an organization behind a culture programme, decreed from above, that sets out a ‘target culture’. According to the ideas discussed at the beginning of this entry, the culture of the organization consists of positive values such as ‘customer orientation’, ‘employee satisfaction’, ‘quality awareness’, ‘taking responsibility for outcomes’, ‘willingness to innovate’, ‘collegial working’, the ‘capacity to resolve conflicts’, and a ‘sense of community’.[5] But the quick and easy agreement on these comforting formulas for an organizational ‘target culture’ makes it impossible to understand the actually existing inner life of an organization.

The concealed culture at a car manufacturer

There is a story that circulates in consultancy circles about a large, globally operating car manufacturer which, following a particularly serious violation of the law, issued a mea culpa and made a commitment to change its culture. In order to implement this culture change, individuals responsible for the corporate culture were identified and sent on so-called ‘culture journeys’ to corporations that were considered outstanding examples of best practice. While the accompanying changes to the formal structures were mainly implemented by male employees – simply because the relevant positions in production, assembly, and research and development were almost exclusively occupied by men – the management handed responsibility for ‘culture’ almost exclusively to women.

This promotion of women in a narrowly defined area says a lot about the culture of the car manufacturer, but the assignment of ‘hard topics’ to men and ‘soft’ topics to women also indicates that the senior leadership did not really take its culture initiative very seriously. The ‘blind spot’ thus created made it impossible to recognize this moment of contempt, never mind to articulate it. As part of the culture project, meanwhile, the same impressive catalogue of values was regurgitated: authentic communication, trust, honesty, reliable cooperation, impartiality in dealing with conflict. Those charged with responsibility for the corporation’s culture, however, were not even allowed near the actually existing culture, that is, the daily practices of production, assembly, and research and development.[6]

Shaping cultures through changing formal structures

The fundamental problem when working on organizational culture is that one cannot be sure that employees will respond to the programmes. The cultures of organizations emerge as informal behavioural norms through repetition and imitation among its members, and the norms thus established cannot simply be modified by introducing a mission statement based on general values. But how then can the management influence organizational culture? The answer may seem paradoxical at first: the only lever available to management to change the organization’s culture is its formal structure. This is not as simple as a control-hungry management might wish, as if a new formal structure is announced and – click – the organization’s structure changes immediately. Rather, it works because every change in official reporting, every announcement of a new official goal, every hiring, relocation, or firing has an effect on the way the work is informally coordinated in the various sections, departments, and teams.

[1] This entry is based on the detailed discussion in Stefan Kühl, Organisationskulturen beeinflussen: Eine sehr kurze Einführung, Wiesbaden: Springer VS, 2018.
[2] See Niklas Luhmann, Organization and Decision, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018, pp. 193f.
[3] Geert Hofstede, Culture’s Consequences: International Differences in Work Related Values, Beverly Hills and London: Sage, 1980, p. 13.
[4] Stanley A. Deetz, Sarah J. Tracey and Jennifer Lyn Simpson, Leading Organizations Through Transition: Communication and Cultural Change, Thousand Oaks, London and New Delhi: Sage, p. 1.
[5] Mat Alvesson, Understanding Organizational Culture, London: Sage, 2013, p. 202.
[6] See Stefan Kühl, Organisationskulturen beeinflussen: Eine sehr kurze Einführung, Wiesbaden: Springer VS, pp. 40f. ***


Prof. Stefan Kühl

links in his observations the latest results from research with the current challenges of the corporate world.

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