Building on their own research and case studies, as well as the research of others, three experts in organization studies build a framework for organizational culture as a lever for change. At the heart of the framework is the concept of organizational culture as a ‘toolkit’ of resources.
Significant developments such as new strategies, new competitive pressures, or new leadership often require changes to a company’s organizational culture. This undertaking, however, is complicated by the amorphous nature of organizational culture as an invisible but pervasive force guiding how people think and behave, rather than a tangible and clearly defined facet of the company that can be manipulated and improved.
Recognizing the fluid nature of organizational culture, organizational researchers are replacing the traditional concept of culture as an entrenched ‘code’ established by leaders with a new concept of culture as a ‘toolkit’ of resources.
Writing in the Stanford Social Innovation Review, Jennifer Howard-Grenville of Cambridge University, Brooke Lahneman of Simon Fraser University (now at Montana State University) and Simon Pek of the University of Victoria argue that to best use an organization’s cultural toolkit as a lever for change, leaders must overcome three common myths of organizational culture.
- Leadership exclusively defines and controls culture. Founders and early leaders may establish an organization’s culture and new leaders may change certain aspects, but a culture persists only if employees internalize its tenets and use them to guide their actions. Sociologist Ann Swidler points to the habits of employees and managers as the manifestation of organizational culture. What skills and habits are people using to achieve their tasks and responsibilities? How many ways do people tackle problems, start initiatives, seek feedback? The answers to these types of questions define the tools in the ‘cultural toolkit’, a phrase developed by Swidler.
- Organizational insiders create culture. This myth ignores the impact of outside stakeholders and influences. Sustainability and diversity are examples of externally driven or at least inspired organizational cultural elements in most companies. From the toolkit perspective, employees draw on toolkits that exist beyond their work—toolkits related to their personal interests and activities, for example—that will influence their work habits and goals.
- Culture operates through consensus. Phrases such as ‘shared values’ can give the impression that uniformity and unity are characteristics of effective organizational cultures. The reality is more complex and nuanced as employees know when, where and how to apply aspects of the culture depending on specific situations. Also, elements of the toolkit can be somewhat contradictory and still work effectively.
Based on the insights above, Howard-Grenville, Lahneman and Pek present three steps for managers and employees seeking to improve their culture or leverage their organizations’ cultural toolkits to effect change.
- Take inventory. What is your organizational culture? Answering this question may be more difficult than expected. First, forget the pithy words and phrases, such as ‘integrity’ or ‘celebrating difference’, when defining your organization’s culture. Pinpoint instead the actual habits and behaviours of your employees and managers when they’re getting work done. How do they react to setbacks, how do they resolve problems, or how do they take initiative, for example? Look for more widespread habits, not habits that can be attributed to an individual’s characteristics. Also, because perceiving a culture from the inside is not always evident, you may want to ask newcomers in the organization what they have learned about how things get done in the organization. They bring a fresh, unbiased perspective to the question.
- Repurpose elements. Changing your company’s cultural toolkit to accommodate the changing priorities and needs of an organization does not require completely replacing every aspect of the toolkit. Instead of starting from scratch, you can repurpose your toolkit. For example, only use certain elements of the toolkit when introducing change, perhaps combining and sequencing these elements in different ways. When a new environment, health and safety routine was introduced at an oil company Howard-Grenville, Lahneman and Pek studied, a senior leader emphasized the ‘follow the leader’ element of the company’s culture to push employees to accept the new routine presented by their line leaders. At the same time, the ‘get it done’ aspect of the company’s culture was de-emphasized in light of the new requirements. In addition, senior leaders are not the only drivers of change in an organization. Employees at any level can repurpose cultural toolkit elements by gradually grafting a new goal or issue onto existing elements of the culture.
- Guide the adoption and use of new tools. The concept of organizational culture as a toolkit rather than an entrenched set of values and beliefs emphasizes the openness of a culture. That is, new cultural elements or ways of doing things—new ‘tools’—can be introduced or added to your company. These new tools may not always be welcomed, of course. Habits are hard to break. However, a company’s employees are more likely to understand and accept an argument for carefully introduced, specific new habits than for changing the company’s past values and beliefs. Taking inventory as described above lays the groundwork for change leaders to identify explicitly which aspects of the company’s culture will be changing.
FURTHER READING Jennifer Howard-Grenvilles profile at Cambridge Judge Business School Brooke Lahnemans profile at Montana State University Simon Peks profile at Gustavson School of Business Cambridge Judge Business School Executive Education profile at IEDP
Organizational Culture as a Tool for Change. Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Brooke Lahneman & Simon Pek. Stanford Social Innovation Review (Summer 2020).