Friday, December 22, 2017

The culture of an organization

It is often held that the behavior of a particular organization is affected by its culture. Two banks may have very similar organizational structures but show rather different patterns of behavior, and those differences are ascribed to differences in culture. What does this mean? Clifford Geertz is one of the most articulate theorists of culture -- especially in his earlier works. Here is a statement couched in terms of religion as a cultural system from The Interpretation Of Cultures. A religion is ...
(1) a system of symbols which act to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic. (90)
And again:
The concept of culture I espouse, and whose utility the essays below attempt to demonstrate, is essentially a semiotic one. Believing, with Max Weber, that man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning. (5)
On its face this idea seems fairly simple. We might stipulate that "culture" refers to a set of beliefs, values, and practices that are shared by a number of individuals within the group, including leaders, managers, and staff members. But, as we have seen repeatedly in other posts, we need to think of these statements in terms of a distribution across a population rather than as a uniform set of values.

Consider this hypothetical comparison of two organizations with respect to employees' attitudes towards working with colleagues of a different religion. (This example is fictitious.) Suppose that the employees of two organizations have been surveyed on the topic of their comfort level at working with other people of different religious beliefs, on a scale of 0-21. Low values indicate a lower level of comfort.

The blue organization shows a distribution of individuals who are on average more accepting of religious diversity than the gold organization. The weighted score for the blue population is about 10.4, in comparison to a weighted score of 9.9 for the gold population. This is a relatively small difference between the two populations; but it may be enough to generate meaningful differences in behavior and performance. If, for example, the attitude measured here leads to an increased likelihood for individuals to make disparaging comments about the co-worker's religion, then we might predict that the gold group will have a somewhat higher level of incidents of religious intolerance. And if we further hypothesize that a disparaging work environment has some effect on work productivity, then we might predict that the blue group will have somewhat higher productivity.

Current discussions of sexual harassment in the workplace are often couched in terms of organizational culture. It appears that sexual harassment is more frequent and flagrant in some organizations than others. Women are particularly likely to be harassed in a work culture in which men believe and act as though they are at liberty to impose sexual language and action on female co-workers and in which the formal processes of reporting of harassment are weak or disregarded. The first is a cultural fact and the second is a structural or institutional fact.

We can ask several causal questions about this interpretation of organizational culture. What are the factors that lead to the establishment and currency of a given profile of beliefs, values, and practices within an organization? And what factors exist that either reproduce those beliefs or undermine them? Finally we can ask what the consequences of a given culture profile are in the internal and external performance of the organization.

There seem to be two large causal mechanisms responsible for establishment and maintenance of a particular cultural constellation within an organization. First is recruitment. One organization may make a specific effort to screen candidates so as to select in favor of a particular set of values and attitudes -- acceptance, collaboration, trustworthiness, openness to others. And another may favor attitudes and values that are thought to be more directly related to profitability or employee malleability. These selection mechanisms can lead to significant differences in the overall culture of the organization. And the decision to orient recruitment in one way rather than another is itself an expression of values.

The second large mechanism is the internal socialization and leadership processes of the organization. We can hypothesize that an organization whose leaders and supervisors both articulate the values of equality and respect in the workplace and who demonstrate that commitment in their own actions will be one in which more people in the organization will adopt those values. And we can likewise hypothesize that the training and evaluation processes of an organization can be effective in cultivating the values of the organization. In other words, it seems evident that leadership and training are particularly relevant to the establishment of a particular organizational culture.

The other large causal question is how and to what extent cultural differences across organizations have effects on the performance and behavior of those organizations. We can hypothesize that differences in organizational values and culture lead to differences in behavior within the organization -- more or less collaboration, more or less harassment, more or less bad behavior of various kinds. These differences are themselves highly important. But we can also hypothesize that differences like these can lead to differences in organizational effectiveness. This is the central idea of the field of positive organizational studies. Scholars like Kim Cameron and others argue, on the basis of empirical studies across organizational settings, that organizations that embody the values of mutual acceptance, equality, and a positive orientation towards each others' contributions are in fact more productive organizations as well (Competing Values Leadership: Second Edition; link).

1 comment:

Bill Harshaw said...

I like your post. Based on my career in USDA I'd offer these observations:

My agency was created by the New Deal (originally Agricultural Adjustment Administration). I had exposure to the Soil Conservation Service and the Farmer's Home Administration, also created in the New Deal.

I think it's fair to say all three agencies recruited their program personnel from rural residents, and particularly from graduates of the land grant universities. All three hired their clerks in local county offices mostly from local women, mostly not college-educated, but promoted their DC managers from the mostly male heads of the county offices. This pattern held up to the mid 80's, when it started to change, under the impact of automation and the rising cost of living in DC.

The circumstances of creation did IMHO affect the culture of the agencies. On the one hand they started off as Democratic units, but on the other they drew from what become the more conservative areas of their states. Politics continue to affect the management of the agencies--top level managers change with each change of political party.

The mission of the agencies also affects the culture: my agency issued payments to farmers, responding to programs passed by Congress. Issuing payments is different than issuing loans as FmHA did, and the difference created differences in culture, differences which might not be obvious to the outsider, but IMO were real. Over time FmHA became more and more bank-like, as auditors and scandals took their toll, meaning they could not react as quickly to changes in law.

I always believed the prime value in my agency was speed of execution: We almost always had very little time to implement the various laws passed by Congress, so getting the checks in farmers hands was very difficult, but something we took pride in, and for which we'd get compliments from Congress.

SCS was created as an educational institution, and its culture was tested when Congress changed programs so it was forced to work in enforcing rules, rather simply encouraging conservation.(The fact that the district conservationist had a government truck to do his outreach, while my agency's clerks had to answer his phones, caused resentment, and increased the sense of "us" and "them".)

To some extent it's misleading to label these agencies as having a "culture". At least in my agency the differences were considerable when comparing the program areas, with the personnel recruited from the county offices across the country, and the administrative areas, with personnel with a more diverse and urban background.