Can managers influence the culture of their organisations

It is only since the 1970s that the emphasis has shifted from a management-by-numbers to a more people-focused way of managing, in response to various problems that could not be overcome using the prior method (e.g. limitations to the Theory X way of managing, new production methods etc.). Pop-management theorists have since made direct links between an organisation’s culture and its performance, though this is not the entire story. As Kilmann et al (1985) put it: ‘a culture has a positive impact on an organisation when it points behaviour in the right direction… alternatively, a culture has a negative impact when it points behaviour in the wrong direction’. This essay will serve to explain to what extent management are able to alter, maintain or build the culture of their organisation, whether these effects span throughout the company and whether they will extend past the short-term.

Culture is a vague and ambiguous concept and its components are as difficult to define as itself. However it is effectively, as Parker (2000) puts it, the anthropology of the organisation. The word culture, in essence, sums up the phrase ‘that’s the way things are done here’ (McNeal, 2007). For this essay, I will assume organisational culture to be the collective values, beliefs and norms of an organisation (Brewis, 2007, p.344), which are demonstrated by such aspects of a business as missions and goals of the organisation, authority and power relations within it, communication/interaction patterns, the psychological contracts that exist and so on. It is said to be to an organisation what personality is to an individual (Kilmann et al, 1985).

Though influence over culture can be any of changing, maintaining or building it (Brewis, 2007), in this essay I will focus mainly on the changing of an organisation’s culture.

First, I will outline the case that managers can indeed influence their organisation’s culture, i.e. the mainstream perspective. This theory revolves around the assumption that culture is an asset of the company; it is something that it ‘has’ (Smircich, 1983). Like anything else an organisation owns, culture is deemed a variable and essentially created at the top (Brewis, 2007, p.348) – the latter being the crux of this argument. Brewis (2007, p.354) goes on to say that this ‘creation at the top’ occurs through cultural transmission mechanisms (CTMs), taking two main categories: those that are the responsibility of the human resources department (sourcing the ‘right’ employees, training them in the ‘right’ ways and demonstrating ‘correct’ forms of communication); and supposed ‘symbolic leadership’ devices (how the corporate culture is communicated by senior management themselves) (Brewis, 2007, p.354). Examples of the latter include mission statements, management-by-example, rituals, language and so on. It is only through these devices that management define the actions and values they desire, subtly showing the culture that they see fit (Shook, 2010).

This theory is backed up by the thoughts of Jacques (1951), who says that organisational culture ‘is learned, it is shared, and it is transmitted’; all three of which can arguably be influenced by management. This view is also shared by Van den Steen (2010), who comes to the conclusion that, as workers have common a learning source (i.e. the organisation itself), the culture of individuals and sub-groups naturally converges to that which the learning source encourages. Again, this is something that managers have control over, as they are able to alter aspects like training, and thus follows the argument that culture can indeed be influenced by them.

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HSBC Argentina is an example of successful ‘cultural engineering’ (Jackson and Carter, 2000). The CEO Antonio Losada saw that, although the the branch was not performing poorly, there was potential to perform a lot better through enhancing its culture. This started with ‘Leadership Development Program’, which was offered to all 6,000 employees, most of which attended. Leadership here was defined as ‘the ability to create change and add value’, which was seen to serve very well in communicating the corporate culture to employees. A web-enabled platform was introduced, which was integrated with group-work, whereby the specially-trained ‘coach’ of the group could relay feedback and advice to participants. Bajer, the specialist who came in to aid the process, noted that after 100 days new behaviours and new ways of doing things had formed, with new language coming with this. Employee engagement, measured each year, was at an all-time high. The message from this was ‘it is possible to change the culture of an organisation… no matter how challenging it might seem at the start’ (Losada and Bajer, 2010).

Similar success can be seen with NUMMI, a joint venture between General Motors and Toyota, outlined by John Shook (2010). What was seen here mainly affected the chronically under-performing Fremont plant of GM, but did have significant effects across the company. Previously there had been a culture upon which management had no control over. Quality had been known to be sabotaged and absenteeism often reached 20%; more than anything the culture was ‘anti-General Motors’. However, after the majority of workers were sent to Japan for training and then the adoption of not only Toyota’s stop-the-line production system¹, as well as some of their key principles, a mutual trust was formed and the culture was reformed. Toyota’s ‘Respect for People’ tenet (Shook, 2010) summarised the vast change that had occurred in the plant. The culture, as Shook puts it, now gave the employees the means to do their job successfully; quality, support and ownership were now ingrained into the culture.

In both cases, it seems, the change of culture extended throughout the culture, cutting across all subcultures; at the bare minimum there was an extremely dominant hegemony² (Parker, 2000, p.75) established of the corporate culture. It is not this, therefore, that could be the main critique of these cases, but instead the lasting value of management’s influence. This worry was touched upon by Bajer (2010), who said that the enthusiasm and skills, which were core to HSBC Argentina’s new culture, may ‘erode’, and the effects of the training carried out may become ‘diluted’. This issue is reflected in the work of D.Awal et al (2006), who mention about how, though in the short-term workers may bow to the corporate culture, it does lead them to doubt the values which they have relied upon for a sustained period of time. This uncertainty may eventually lead them to revert back to what was before. It begs the question whether employees’ basic assumptions, values and thus cultural artefacts have changed (Schein, 1992), or whether it is only the latter.

This could be seen in Kunda’s (1992) study of High Technologies Corporation which Brewis (2007) outlines. Management at HighTech continuously used CTMs, which were seemingly working; workers were putting in long hours and enjoying what they were doing. Despite this, they would often distance themselves from the corporate culture, calling it ‘bullshit that comes from above’, indicating that their underlying values and basic assumptions had not changed.

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Add to this the story of British Airways, who had seemingly successfully engineered its culture. However, the company, as Brewis (2007) portrays, seemed to see the consequences of not persisting to communicate the clear ‘customer first’ culture that it did initially through such actions as under-hand tactics against competitor Virgin and cutting costs across the company. This led to industrial action, job losses, failed new attempts to engineer the culture and general poor performance from the organisation.

This leads to Ryder’s (2006) study of Whitefriars Housing Group that saw, in order to successfully influence an organisation’s culture with changes that will last, certain steps needed to be taken. The steps of note are 4, 5 and 6: supporting, leading and embedding the culture. Special emphasis, in response to the BA case, goes on embedding the culture, which is more than likely to require a permanent and ongoing structure (including training sessions and the like put in place by management), to avoid any reverting back to the former, undesired culture.

Next to consider is the alternative, critical perspective which, whilst it maintains that culture is everything outlined at the beginning, sees culture as something that an organisation ‘is’; it organically develops and embodies the organisation. From the view that culture is ‘organic’, one can understand Meek’s (1988, p.459) view that ‘Most anthropologists would find the idea that leaders create culture preposterous: leaders (according to anthropology) do not create culture, it emerges from the collective social interaction of groups and communities’ (Brewis, 2007, p.362).

To further enter this perspective, a culture of an organisation is said to be a constant process of ‘learning the truce’ (Mills and Murgatroyd, 1991, p.62); a collective compromise between members’ own aspirations and own values and the limitations and demands that their respective roles put on the members, which is similar to Bourdieu’s (1990) sociological concept of culture – ‘habitus’³. This culminates in the view that culture is not something that can be controlled merely by management.

Examples of this come in the form of the work of Collinson (1988) and Ackroyd and Crowdy (1990). Ackroyd and Crowdy take the example of abattoir workers who amongst them, in the face of a degrading, insecure occupation, create a macho, tough and masculine culture that revolves around them being proud of what they do. This is seen through actions like deliberately spraying oneself in blood, bringing sons in to their work and so on (Brewis, 2007, p.363). Collinson (1988) sees a similar situation occurring in a components division of a lorry-making firm, where work conditions were poor. Both of these scenarios show instances where arguably any attempted influence on the culture would simply go nowhere, as the current values, beliefs and norms are so ingrained, so supportive, that the members would not be able to function without them.

Furthermore to the critical perspective, is the emphasis that subcultures whilst not only exist, are inevitable (Brewis, 2007, p.365). This contrasts to the apparently simplistic view of mainstream theorists that, though subcultures may exist, they can be easily eradicated through cultural engineering. Instead, this perspective takes the view that it is near-impossible to expect to harmonise every subculture to the desired corporate culture, when each of them will react differently to any measures taken; this is referred to in the work of Adkins and Caldwell (2004). In this work, employees’ loyalty to subcultures is highlighted, often taking precedence over that of the organisation as a whole. Golden (1998) follows this up with his theory of varying levels of adherence, which would occur across the subcultures; according to him, not all subcultures would necessarily ‘adhere’ to the corporate culture. Together this again undermines what possible influence management can have over an entire organisation’s culture.

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Despite this, branches of the critical perspective, though seeing culture change programmes as generally immoral, admit that it is possible. Wilmott (1993) likens cultural management to the concept of ‘doublethink’ in Orwell’s novel 1984. Employees often do ‘buy into’ the corporate culture under the premise that they will achieve independence and autonomy; when, in fact, by buying in to it, they are unable to obtain such a result. In essence then, Brewis (2007, p.367) sees this as a deceiving tool that management use to manipulate their employees. However, although it highlights an immoral nature, it does advocate the fact that managers are able to influence culture.

In terms of the Mills and Murgatroyd (1991) and Bourdieu (1990) theories of culture, where culture is the accommodation between employees’ values and the limitations set on them, one must think that if management were to change such limitations, surely the prevailing culture would also change. Take as an example the empirical study carried out by Ackroyd and Crowdy (1990) concerning abattoir workers; the limitations here were the working conditions and certain parts of the psychological contract (i.e. the job security). With more cleaning occuring, more hygiene regulations and reassurance that they have a long-term role in the organisation, it is very likely that new behavioural ways and norms would arise; i.e. a change of culture.

Moreover, it is impossible to rebuff such concrete evidence that influence can, and does, exist such as the real company stories that have been touched upon earlier.

In conclusion, it is clear to see that management are able to influence their organisation’s culture, though this is dependent on circumstances. As Bevington et al (2004) outlines, it is a difficult process as ‘cultures are notoriously stubborn’. However, they go on to say that once management are realistic in their goals and have understood how and from where the core values, beliefs and norms have arisen, success becomes more than likely. Related to this, management must acknowledge what Schall (1983) calls the ‘congruence’, or Sathe (1983) the ‘thickness’, of the culture (both of which refer to its strength), when determining how and how much to try and influence the culture of their organisation. That is to say, as long as management’s motives are right (see Jones’ (1995) continuum of approach), company-employee relations are good (Shook, 2010) and management have assessed the organisation correctly, then they will be able to influence the culture.

For the most part, when attempts to influence have failed and non-adherence (Golden, 1998) occurs, it is due to poorly executed cultural engineering programmes; these often lack consistency (i.e. give off mixed messages to employees), do not acknowledge the need for an ongoing structure to ’embed’ the culture (Ryder, 2006), ignore the origins of the organisational culture or generally are not realistic. Often other theories, such as Garven and Roberto’s (2005) ‘persuasion campaign’, may be necessary to allow any change to be implemented by management.

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