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Culture is a shared (though sometimes unacknowledged) interpretation of experience within a nation, section of society, organisation or group of people. This “common understanding” may stem from previous shared experience (or from a pooling of interpretations of separate individual experiences) and may result in a common pattern of responses to internal and external stimuli.



Organisational culture has been defined as "the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization.”



Hill, C.W.L and Jones, G.R. (2001) Strategic Management: An Integrated Approach. Boston MA, Houghton Mifflin



Edgar Schein defines organisational culture as "A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way you perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems".



Schein, E.H. (2004) Organizational Culture and Leadership, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass



Putting it simply, Deal and Kennedy (1982) define organisational culture as “the way things get done around here.”


Deal T. E. and Kennedy, A. A. (1982) Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.



G. Johnson (1988) identified a number of elements that can be used to describe or influence organisational culture.


The Paradigm expresses what the organisation is about; what it does; its mission; its values. However, it should be recognised that formal “mission statements”, although designed to encapsulate the goals and values of an organisation, may not accurately reflect the real culture as practiced within the organisation.


Control Systems and the degree to which they seek to direct and monitor what is going on.


Organisational Structures such as management hierarchies, lines of reporting, and the way that work flows through the business.


Power Structures: Who makes the decisions, how widely spread is power, and on what is power based?


Symbols are a telling feature of organisational culture.  Formally adopted logos and designs can tell much about how the organisation would like to portray itself, but less obvious symbols (such as executive dining rooms and reserved parking spaces) are a more telling indicator of the true state of affairs.


Rituals and Routines, many of which are habitual rather than necessary, also give an indication of what people within an organisation consider to be important.


Stories and Myths (about “heroes” and “villains”; about the organisation’s triumphs, etc.) are a means whereby the values of an organisation are promulgated without the necessity to formally promote them.



Johnson, G. (1988) "Rethinking Incrementalism", Strategic Management Journal Vol 9 pp75-91





The culture of an organisation is determined by observation of what actually happens.  This may not match with what senior management would have you believe to be true – or with what an examination of the formal documentation (the "rules and regulations") would lead you to believe.


An organisation in which staff respond to stimulus in accordance with the desired corporate expectations is said to exhibit a “strong culture”.  Such organisations are likely to operate efficiently and achieve their corporate goals.


An organisation in which staff do not act in accordance with organisational expectations is said to have a “weak culture”.  Such organisations often resort to excessive regulatory procedures in an attempt to ensure staff compliance.


Strong-culture organisations are not invulnerable to problems.  In situations where staff form a cohesive like-minded group, there is a danger that “groupthink” comes to dominate.  This phenomenon (identified by Irving Janis) comes into play when desire for conformity becomes an overriding feature of decision-making, resulting in failure to critically appraise all options.  Failure to challenge organisational thinking leads to a reduced capacity for innovation – and can result in an organisation’s failure to adapt to challenging circumstances.


Various factors can lead to “groupthink” situations.

  • Over-dependance on a central charismatic figure.

  • Unquestioning adherence to established organisational procedures.

  • Unwillingness to disagree with management or colleagues for fear of being seen by the rest of the group as a negative influence.


    Janis, I.L. (1972) Victims of Groupthink. Boston. Houghton Mifflin Company  


In determining organisational culture, various models and classifications have been suggested.


Building on the work of Roger Harrison (1972), Charles Handy (1985) proposed four types of culture.


Power-based culture – in which power is concentrated in the hands of a few key players.


Role-based culture – in which a person’s power derives from their position within a highly defined (and often bureaucratic) structure.


Task-based culture – in which power derives from recognised expertise.  Such organisations often adopt a team-based, problem-solving approach.


Person-based culture – in which individuals consider themselves (their role and contribution) superior to the organisation.



Harrison, R. and Stokes, H. (1992), Diagnosing Organizational Culture, Pfeiffer, San Francisco.


Handy, C.B. (1985) Understanding Organizations, 3rd Edn, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books



Deal and Kennedy (1982) suggested 4 classifications of organisational culture, determined by a combination of two parameters: feedback (monetary, praise, reward) and risk (uncertainty).



In the Tough-Guy Macho culture, feedback is quick and the rewards are high.  This is typified in fast moving financial activities and in competitive team sports such as professional football.  It can be a very stressful culture in which to operate.


In the Work Hard/Play Hard culture, few risks are taken and feedback is rapid.  This is typified in large organizations which strive for high quality customer service. In the short term it can be an exciting culture in which to operate but the sense of excitement may be difficult to maintain.


In the Bet Your Company culture, big stakes decisions are taken but it may be years before the results are known. Typically, these might involve research and development projects which take years to come to fruition, such as oil prospecting.


In the Process culture, people become bogged down with how things are done and may lose focus on the bigger picture of what is to be achieved.  They may exhibit overly cautious bureaucratic tendencies but are nevertheless likely to produce consistent results, which is ideal in public services, etc.


    Deal T. E. and Kennedy, A. A. (1982) Corporate Cultures: The Rites and Rituals of Corporate Life, Harmondsworth, Penguin Books.  


Arthur F Carmazzi has suggested a spectrum of cultures.


The Blame culture is one in which individuals blame each other to avoid being reprimanded or put down.  It cultivates distrust and fear and results in no new ideas or personal initiative because people don’t want to risk being wrong.


A Multi-directional culture is one in which individuals demonstrate limited loyalty to their particular department or sub-group.  It is characterised by minimal interdepartmental communication and cooperation and results in each department becoming cliquey and critical of other departments.  The resultant lack of cooperation is manifested in the organisation's inefficiency.


Live and let live culture is characterised by complacency.  There is a reasonable amount of cooperation and communication such that things are “going ok”.  However, there is little growth or innovation because individuals have lost their passion and their vision.  A comfortable and entropic environment in which “things ain’t broke so why bother to mess with it?”


A Brand congruent culture is one in which individuals believe in the product or service the organisation provides and feel good about their role in achieving its declared aims.  Although they may not always agree with management decisions, individuals are cooperative because they see their own role as important.  People may even be passionate and prepared to “put themselves out” to resolve issues and solve problems.


In a Leadership enriched culture there is a high level of cooperation because individual goals are aligned with the goals of the organisation and people will do what it takes to make things happen.  The organisation may feel more like a family in which the members consistently appreciate each other and bring out the best in each other.  In this culture, leaders do not develop followers but develop other leaders.


Carmazzi suggests that “every individual in the organisation wants to do a good job" and that the behaviours that result in poor performance are the consequence of the group psychology created through poor leadership, inadequate policy and poor communication.


Cummings & Worley (2005) give the following guidelines for introducing cultural change.

  • Formulate a clear strategic vision

  • Display Top-management commitment

  • Model culture change at the highest level

  • Modify the organization to support organizational change

  • Select and socialize newcomers and terminate deviants

  • Develop ethical and legal sensitivity

Burman and Evans (2008) argue that it is leadership that affects culture rather than merely management.



Cummings, T.G., and Worley, C.G. (1997) Organization Development and Change, Cincinnati, Ohio: South-Western College Publishing.


Burman, R. & Evans, A.J. (2008) Target Zero: A Culture of safety, Defence Aviation Safety Centre Journal 2008, 22-27

  Changing the culture of an organisation (for the better) is not something that can be achieved overnight - even with the introduction of new leadership.  It is something that takes time because it depends on establishing trust.  It is a matter of developing individuals' belief in the organisation and its goals.  It is a matter of developing people's capacity and self-belief.  Introducing cultural change is not just about telling people to do things differently - it is about encouraging and inspiring them to think differently.  As such, it is about promoting vision, instilling belief, winning over hearts and minds.