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Organizational Culture: Can it be changed?

Organizational Culture can be denoted as a value set within an organization, which helps members to determine acceptable and unacceptable behavior and thus enable them to create a sense of the environment they work in and behave accordingly. Put more simply, whenever people interact or work together, they bring in their own set of values, belief systems, heritage, etc., which get molded with the belief systems and values of others and ultimately leads to a commonly shared and accepted the way of work, and systems. This includes how people dress, how they behave, how they interact in teams and approach work. It is dynamic due to the people dimension involved.

This shapes an informal process of work within an organization and that is why two similar organizations within the same industry may have wholly different cultures. Culture is a derivative of both how management deals with employees, defines ways of behavior, the personality of leaders, i.e., top executives & managers (Brown 2011, p.86)  and also how the organization is, i.e., structure (flat or tall), technological orientation, etc. Thus, it is the organization’s culture which affects how people handle tasks, problems and reacts to change initiatives, be it technological, structural (downsizing/ delayering) or behavioral (new HR practices).

Schein (1985) suggested that culture is comprised of three layers; (i) artefacts like visible behaviour, organizational structure, physical layout etc., or ‘the objective culture’ (Buono, Bowditch and Lewis 1985) and ‘the subjective culture’ (Buono, Bowditch and Lewis 1985)  like (ii) shared values, i.e. group norms, acceptable behavior norms, etc., and (iii) the assumptions, the most deepest layer which is not visible but requires very intimate interaction to uncover (Schein 1985 cited in Redman and Wilkinson 2009, p.246). A deeper understanding of each level is needed because subcultures exist (due to having unique work norms in a specific work area) and have strong influences on how employees view change programs and respond to them demonstrating the difference between the ideal way and the actual way affecting change initiatives.

The significant aspect of any change program is to understand culture as much as possible and determine how changes will be accepted. The shared values, the way of work and interactions develop over time, thus change initiatives, will take time, because employees may react in varied ways from down-right rejection to outright acceptance and in between. In today’s fast-changing business environment, unless change initiatives can achieve ‘buy-in’ from employees, by showing them the gains that can be had and motivate them, it can prevent adaptation and hinder the organization’s competitiveness.

While it is easy to install a new machine or IT system or delayer a certain level, crucial is the changes to people’s attitude and how much of ‘reinvention and reinterpretation’ (Harris and Ogbonna 1998 cited in Redman & Wilkinson 2009, p.262) takes place. People might superficially adhere to the changes proposed (reinvention- affecting objective culture), which may lead to failure of a program or they might reinterpret their values and modify their behavior accepting the change initiatives (affecting subjective layers) to be rewarding, a more desirable scenario for the success of any change initiative.

What every change program should do to motivate people towards subjective and objective change is provide a clear path of future roadmap available at all levels. Also, instead of jumping into an organization-wide approach, initial interventions, support (leadership, policies & HR) and resources provided should be in one unit or subculture (Brown 2011, p.86), because successes attained can be visible and consequently accepted it as good practice (affecting objective and subjective domain) and adapted. Finally, reward strategies can also motivate employees towards preferred cultural values, for example, rewarding teamwork initiatives through team-based pay, appropriate HR strategy to change strategy. Any change program success is thus dependent on leveraging organizational culture.

Brown, D.R. 2011, ‘An Experiential Approach to Organizational Development’, 8th ed., Pearson Education, New Jersey, 2011, Chapter 3, pp.82-104
Buono, A.F., Bowditch, J.L., and Lewis, J.W. III., 1985, ‘When Cultures Collide: The Anatomy of a Merger’, Human Relations, Volume 38, No. 5, 1985, pp.477-500
Redman, T. and Wilkinson, A., 2009, ‘Contemporary Human Resource Management, Text and Cases’, 3rd ed., Prentice Hall, Chapter 10, pp. 243-275

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 About The Author

Faisal Khair Chowdhury

Faisal Khair Chowdhury
Ph.D. Candidate – University of Southern Queensland, Australia

Founder – IdeaPreachers
Ex-Head of HR- Summit Group
Ex-Consultant HR- Citycell
Ex-DGM HR- Apollo Hospitals Dhaka
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