- Define organizational culture.
- Understand why organizational culture is important.
- Understand the different levels of organizational culture.
What Is Organizational Culture?
Organizational culture refers to a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that show people what is appropriate and inappropriate behavior (Chatman & Eunyoung, 2003; Kerr & Slocum, 2005). These values have a strong influence on employee behavior as well as organizational performance. In fact, the term organizational culture was made popular in the 1980s when Peters and Waterman’s best-selling book In Search of Excellence made the argument that company success could be attributed to an organizational culture that was decisive, customer-oriented, empowering, and people-oriented. Since then, organizational culture has become the subject of numerous research studies, books, and articles. Organizational culture is still a relatively new concept. In contrast to a topic such as leadership, which has a history spanning several centuries, organizational culture is a young but fast-growing area within management.
Culture is largely invisible to individuals just as the sea is invisible to the fish swimming in it. Even though it affects all employee behaviors, thinking, and behavioral patterns, individuals tend to become more aware of their organization’s culture when they have the opportunity to compare it to other organizations. It is related to the second of the three facets that compose the P-O-L-C function of organizing. The organizing function involves creating and implementing organizational design decisions. The culture of the organization is closely linked to organizational design. For instance, a culture that empowers employees to make decisions could prove extremely resistant to a centralized organizational design, hampering the manager’s ability to enact such a design. However, a culture that supports the organizational structure (and vice versa) can be very powerful.
Why Does Organizational Culture Matter?
An organization’s culture may be one of its strongest assets or its biggest liability. In fact, it has been argued that organizations that have a rare and hard-to-imitate culture enjoy a competitive advantage (Barney, 1986). In a survey conducted by the management consulting firm Bain & Company in 2007, worldwide business leaders identified corporate culture to be as important as corporate strategy for business success. 1 This comes as no surprise to leaders of successful businesses, who are quick to attribute their company’s success to their organization’s culture.
Culture, or shared values within the organization, may be related to increased performance. Researchers found a relationship between organizational cultures and company performance, with respect to success indicators such as revenues, sales volume, market share, and stock prices (Kotter & Heskett, 1992; Marcoulides & heck, 1993). At the same time, it is important to have a culture that fits with the demands of the company’s environment. To the extent that shared values are proper for the company in question, company performance may benefit from culture (Arogyaswamy & Byles, 1987). For example, if a company is in the high-tech industry, having a culture that encourages innovativeness and adaptability will support its performance. However, if a company in the same industry has a culture characterized by stability, a high respect for tradition, and a strong preference for upholding rules and procedures, the company may suffer because of its culture. In other words, just as having the “right” culture may be a competitive advantage for an organization, having the “wrong” culture may lead to performance difficulties, may be responsible for organizational failure, and may act as a barrier preventing the company from changing and taking risks.
In addition to having implications for organizational performance, organizational culture is an effective control mechanism dictating employee behavior. Culture is a more powerful way of controlling and managing employee behaviors than organizational rules and regulations. For example, when a company is trying to improve the quality of its customer service, rules may not be helpful, particularly when the problems customers present are unique. Instead, creating a culture of customer service may achieve better results by encouraging employees to think like customers, knowing that the company priorities in this case are clear: Keeping the customer happy is preferable to other concerns, such as saving the cost of a refund. Therefore, the ability to understand and influence organizational culture is an important item for managers to have in their tool kit when they are carrying out their controlling P-O-L-C function as well as their organizing function.
Levels of Organizational Culture
Organizational culture consists of some aspects that are relatively more visible, as well as aspects that may lie below one’s conscious awareness. Organizational culture can be thought of as consisting of three interrelated levels (Schein, 1992).
At the deepest level, below our awareness, lie basic assumptions. These assumptions are taken for granted and reflect beliefs about human nature and reality. At the second level, values exist. Values are shared principles, standards, and goals. Finally, at the surface, we have artifacts, or visible, tangible aspects of organizational culture. For example, in an organization, a basic assumption employees and managers share might be that happy employees benefit their organizations. This might be translated into values such as egalitarianism, high-quality relationships, and having fun. The artifacts reflecting such values might be an executive “open door” policy, an office layout that includes open spaces and gathering areas equipped with pool tables, and frequent company picnics.
Understanding the organization’s culture may start from observing its artifacts: its physical environment, employee interactions, company policies, reward systems, and other observable characteristics. When you are interviewing for a position, observing the physical environment, how people dress, where they relax, and how they talk to others is definitely a good start to understanding the company’s culture. However, simply looking at these tangible aspects is unlikely to give a full picture of the organization, since an important chunk of what makes up culture exists below one’s degree of awareness. The values and, deeper, the assumptions that shape the organization’s culture can be uncovered by observing how employees interact and the choices they make, as well as by inquiring about their beliefs and perceptions regarding what is right and appropriate behavior.
Organizational culture is a system of shared assumptions, values, and beliefs that helps individuals understand which behaviors are and are not appropriate within an organization. Cultures can be a source of competitive advantage for organizations. Strong organizational cultures can be an organizing as well as a controlling mechanism for organizations. And finally, organizational culture consists of three levels: assumptions that are below the surface, values, and artifacts.
- Why do companies need culture?
- Give an example of a company culture being a strength and a weakness.
- In what ways does culture serve as a controlling mechanism?
- If assumptions are below the surface, why do they matter?
- Share examples of artifacts you have noticed at different organizations.
1Why culture can mean life or death for your organization. (September, 2007). HR Focus, 84, 9.
Arogyaswamy, B., & Byles, C. H. (1987). Organizational culture: Internal and external fits. Journal of Management, 13, 647–658.
Barney, J. B. (1986). Organizational culture: Can it be a source of sustained competitive advantage? Academy of Management Review, 11, 656–665.
Chatman, J. A., & Eunyoung Cha, S. (2003). Leading by leveraging culture. California Management Review, 45, 19–34.
Kotter, J. P., & Heskett, J. L. (1992). Corporate Culture and Performance. New York: Free Press.
Marcoulides, G. A., & Heck, R. H. (1993, May). Organizational culture and performance: Proposing and testing a model. Organizational Science, 4, 209–225.
Schein, E. H. (1992). Organizational culture and leadership. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Slocum, J. W. (2005). Managing corporate culture through reward systems. Academy of Management Executive, 19, 130–138.