Organisational Cultures – Beyond The Individual

 

Reviewing his own research, the management guru Fons Trompenaars once concluded:

“However objective and uniform we try to make organisations, they do not have the same meaning for individuals from different cultures…Likewise the meaning that people give to the organisation, their concept of its structure, practices and policies, is culturally defined.”

Too often we concentrate on the individual when talking about culture, and within this, it is usually the national or ethnic that appears the most salient. But as we all know, organisations have their own very distinct and striking cultures. Identifying and learning to navigate that culture can be the biggest challenge to a new arrival or the tipping point between success and failure in an M&A action… It’s also often cited as the biggest determinant of organisational performance. What kind of a culture does your organisation have?

But first, what is this culture thing we’re always going on about? Hofstede called culture mental software, ‘the collective programming of the mind that distinguishes the members of one group or category of people from others’. For this, we can argue, like Steers et al, that culture is best thought of as addressing three questions, namely ‘Who are we?’, ‘How do we live?’, and ‘How do we approach work?’ In turn, Trompenaars takes this slightly further by terming culture as the way in which a group of people solves problems and reconciles dilemmas. As such, culture is like an onion:

If we focus on organisations, Schein describes artefacts as the visible organisational structure and processes such as forms of address, dress codes, office layout and furniture, symbols such as flags and logos, related stories and rituals, and so on. Espoused beliefs are the strategies, goals, and philosophies that guide actions such as making money or displaying wealth. And at the core, the underlying assumptions are a culture’s unconscious, taken for granted beliefs, perceptions and thoughts, such as how to manage relationships with others and how to regard time and space.

These cultures are formed and perpetuated by the beliefs, values and assumptions of founders of organisations; the learning experiences of group members as their organisation evolves; and finally, the new beliefs, values and assumptions brought in by new members and leaders. Contributing factors include the organisation’s environment, sector, use of technology, ownership, and, of course, size. Let’s not forget then that though a culture might present itself as an indivisible whole to the outsider, it is ultimately an aggregate of individuals.

Whichever underlying model of cultural dimensions we use – Hofstede or Trompenaars or the GLOBE project or any of the others – culture affects every aspect of an organisation, from how it scans the environment and sets strategy to how it is structured and designs its roles. Flat vs hierarchical organograms, individual vs team performance bonuses, employee policies, feedback, meetings, talent development processes, dress codes, strategy horizons, etc, etc…all of these are driven by culture.

In looking to understand an organisation’s culture, how can we get a more concrete view? Unsurprisingly, there are a range of models in use, most of which focus along the same primary lines – the level of control and the level of collaboration.  We’ve mentioned Trompenaars a lot, so let’s continue with his model as a simple example. This schema ties into Charles Handy’s work and also Trompenaars’ own Seven Dimensions of Culture framework:

(Note – The horizontal axis runs from People Oriented on the left to Task Oriented on the right. The vertical axis runs from Egalitarian at the top to Hierarchical on the bottom).

As with other models, Trompenaars notes that organisations do not fit tidily into one area – they usually overlap, with one culture type dominating. Very briefly, the major characteristics of each sector are:

  • Family:  a power-oriented culture in which the leader operates like a caring father or mother who knows better than their subordinates what is right for them. The environment is typically high-context, diffuse, and hierarchical.
  • Eiffel Tower:  again hierarchical, but bureaucratically impersonal. Relationships are very specific with status ascribed rather than achieved. Policies and procedures abound, and change is slow.
  • Guided Missile: driven by the end purpose, where the Eiffel Tower is driven by the means. Closer to equals, neutral in relationships, with more intrinsic motivation, members are often more loyal to their projects than to the company.
  • Incubator: organisations exist for self-expression and fulfilment of individuals. Creative and entrepreneurial , while also highly individual and emotional. Status is achieved.

 

If we marry the above into a typical organisational life cycle model, we can also see that the balance of companies’ weighting in the different types can shift.  If we consider the following path:

It is not hard to imagine an organisation starting out as an Incubator and then mutating into an Eiffel Tower with maturity…Indeed, many organisations (and departments and even teams) will go along a loop through the various quadrants in their life cycle.

Another popular way of understanding an organisation’s culture is to explore its relationship with change through metaphors. Is your organisation like a machine with strongly defined structures, roles and procedures? A political system such as a democracy or autocracy directing its concept of power and relationships? Is it a living, adaptive organism at one with its environment? Or is it in a state of constant flux and transformation in our chaotic and complex world?

The above paradigms are just a starter for thought – and indeed many would say these are dated now – but the benefits of identifying and understanding an organisation’s culture are clearly numerous. Will there be the right fit between two organisations in an M&A event? Unsurprisingly, research shows the closer the match, the better the chance of success. Similarly, if you know your counterpart’s culture, the more successfully you can frame your approach, for example, to negotiations or to sales. On a developmental level, how can we build a team into a coherent entity or coach a leader without appreciating their world fully? How can we resolve inter-team / department / branch conflict if we don’t know their respective group cultures? How can we select the right fit and onboard new recruits as effectively as possible if we are not aware of our own culture? Too often, as the Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu lamented, water is the last thing a fish notices…

REFERENCES AND FURTHER READING

  • Hofstede, G., Hofstede, G.J., and Minkov, M. (2010). Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind.
  • Schein, E.H. (2010). Organizational Culture and Leadership (4th edition)
  • Steers, R., Sanchez-Runde, C.J., and Nardon, L. (2010). Management Across Cultures: Challenges and Strategies
  • Trompenaars, F. and Hampden-Turner, C. (2012). Riding the Waves of Culture (3rd edition)
  • Trompenaars, F. and Hampden-Turner, C. (2000). Building Cross-Cultural Competence

 


About Julian King

Julian King is an international HR consultant and certified executive coach with a keen interest in intercultural matters.