The Culture Conundrum

The Organization Culture Conundrum
Summary: The culture conundrum refers to the question of how to develop and maintain an organization culture that will facilitate the delivery of sustainable stellar performance. Indeed, given dramatic changes in the nature of organizations, is the concept of culture still relevant? If not, then what?

The Culture Conundrum: Worthy Quest Or An Endless Pursuit?

The use of the concept of culture in the organizational context is generally first attributed to Dr. Elliot Jaques in his book The Changing Culture of a Factory, published in 1951.

Organization Culture: The Status Quo

It is widely accepted that organization culture is a system of shared assumptions, values and beliefs that govern how people behave in a particular organization. Organization culture, by definition, then implies exclusiveness, and it takes time to develop.

The definition, understanding, and application of the concept of organization culture do not seem to have changed much over the past seven decades, whilst the nature of organizations and their operating environments have changed significantly. Some of the reasons for these changes are: advances in technology affecting “ways of working,” the declining average tenure of employees in any specific organization, the requirement for organizations to be more nimble and evolve quickly in order to survive and prosper in times of rapid change and turbulence, globalization, and of course, hugely increased diversity in workforces.

Most of us, who have worked in a corporate environment, have participated in lengthy, frustrating debates on organization culture. And often, the outcome seemed to have resulted in little, if any, constructive action being taken. These debates are part of our ongoing quest to make our organizations happier, healthier, more functional, more productive and more satisfying places to work. Surely, this not an idealistic panacea, but simply an outcome of involving all concerned in "doing the right things right" and "keeping them right?" But, can the concept of organization culture still play a meaningful role in achieving this? Or, is it too static and "closed" for today's dynamic, open-ended and inclusive requirements, leading to a sense that the kind of work environment most of us desire, is an endless pursuit? If so, is there a more dynamic, open-ended approach that is more suited to the conditions in which organizations find themselves, in the 21st century?

The answers to the questions that follow are based on my experience and represent my opinion. The intention is to stimulate the evaluation of current thinking. Hopefully, this will lead the reader to have rich discussion and debate with colleagues that will achieve meaningful new insights.

How Would You Describe An Ideal Working Environment?

During countless interviews over the past 40 years (with captains of industry, executives, managers and general employees), I have endeavoured to gain an understanding of peoples' perception of an ideal working environment.

What certainly stands out is that "one size does not fit all".

Of course, a person's perception is just perception unless they have had experience of a work environment, or aspects thereof, that they valued. Also, a person's perception is only a reality if they can describe what they liked (as well as what they did not like) in factual terms. This includes a clear description and examples of the collective behaviors of colleagues and leaders that made the work environment positive (or negative). I have found it useful to clarify my understanding by asking respondents to create behavioral anchors (positive and negative).

Some people describe the ideal working environment in terms of performance systems that work well to help employees deliver on their objectives. Others describe the ideal working environment in terms of human systems that engage employees so that they are committed and work harmoniously together towards common Purpose. Some, who have had exceptional experiences, describe the ideal work environment in terms of both performance and human systems that work in synch to deliver sustainable stellar performance.

Has The Nature Of Organizations Changed Over The Years?

In the last century, organizations were relatively closed systems in which the average tenure of employees was relatively long term. Five-year and longer strategic plans and succession plans were the norm. Employees readily conformed (even to dress codes!!!). Leaders and managers had a clear view of "what constituted organization fit" to describe the kind of person that would fit in and do well in a particular organization. Failures were often described in terms of people who "did not fit."

However, things have changed and I would like to propose a more contemporary, 21st century, the definition of an organization as being:

an open-ended community of people, formally assembled, to work together (face to face and remotely) towards a Common Purpose.

In contrast with the norms of the last century, the nature of the current workforce is diverse and the tenure of employees is relatively much shorter. The same applies to managers and leaders. Change is now an ongoing reality that organizations need to continuously adapt to.

Do The Changes That Have Occurred To The Nature Of Organizations Mean That We Need To Re-Evaluate The Use And Application Of The Concept Of "Organization Culture?"

If we accept that an organization is an open-ended, constantly changing community of people from diverse backgrounds, different cultures, and belief systems, there are two major challenges to be considered:

  • Firstly, the blend of people (including leadership) is constantly changing and a specific culture takes time to develop. Also, a new leadership group may not necessarily agree with the Organization Values (developed by a previous leadership group to ostensibly guide the behaviors that they saw as desirable). But, constantly changing these Values can be problematic. So, what often happens in practice is that the Values remain unchanged, while leadership groups change and new ways of working are introduced. If these new ways of working seem incongruent with the existing Values (or if these values are simply ignored or no longer referred to), it can create unhealthy disruption and a conflicted work environment.
  • Secondly, by the time one gets to describe the collective behaviors of employees in an organization (that constitutes its culture?), the causes (good and bad) are history. In addition, as the organization is an open-ended community of people, the causes of behavior within the organization can also be ascribed to factors outside the organization. One statistic suggests that employees connect with the "outside world" via their smartphones as much as nine times per hour. This means that their thoughts and feelings, which lead to behavior, are probably being driven as much by factors outside the workplace as from internal happenings.

These are significant challenges for the insights provided by the concept of organization culture, and it is, therefore, worthwhile considering alternative approaches.

In doing so, it makes sense to start with what we ultimately want to achieve. In simple terms, this is to develop and maintain organizations that are "happy, healthy, functional, productive and satisfying places to work." To be credible, any approach developed to explain how to achieve this needs to be holistic and inclusive of all recognized best practice. Also, if the model proposed does not include the concept of culture, it should ensure that it is adequately and logically substituted. Finally, any solution needs to accommodate the more contemporary definition of an organization and the challenges this poses.

So, What Is The Alternative?

Before proposing an alternative, it is necessary to propose an explanation of how organizations function and the role of organization culture in this.

There are two bilateral systems (the human systems and the performance systems) that need to align and integrate to build and maintain high performance in a productive, healthy work environment.

Most experts agree that it is a fundamental requirement of organizations to have clear Purpose (this includes clarity around exactly who the beneficiaries are and the behavior sets that will deliver success). This Clarity is then the organizational compass that serves to align and integrate the performance and human systems. There is general agreement around the performance systems being a function of the constructs of the organizational Capacity and Capability required to deliver a specific organization's strategy. Currently, the concept of organization culture informs understanding of how to construct the human systems that engage employees to work collaboratively and cooperatively towards common Purpose.

There is an alternative to the concept of culture to inform understanding of how to construct these human systems, in the light of the more contemporary definition of organizations, repeated below:

an organization is an open-ended community of people, formally assembled, to work together (face to face and remotely) towards a Common Purpose.

My quest to examine alternatives can be summarized in relation to the proposed definition of organizations, as follows:

  • An open-ended community of people
    This aspect of the definition leads to my thorough research of the concept of "sense of community." This is a powerful, concrete concept that is backed up by equally powerful research. I have simply taken this research and adapted it to be relevant in the context of organization development.
  • Formally assembled to work together
    This implies that there can be conditionality around entry to and tenure with the specific organization. "Work together" implies that there must be a contribution and suggests cooperation and collaboration.
  • Common Purpose
    This requires alignment of effort and clarity around exactly what the organization Purpose is. The Purpose is best contextualized in terms of clarity around exactly who the beneficiaries are. Importantly, leadership needs to be clear on the behavior sets that will deliver success. Given the fact that the organization is "a diverse, constantly changing community of people from diverse backgrounds, different cultures, and belief systems," it makes sense to agree on universally good ethics and principles (common to all cultures and belief systems) to guide general standards of behavior and ways of working. This makes it easier to integrate new employees.

I would like to propose that the human systems that engage employees to work together constructively and collaboratively consist of two complimentary constructs, namely, "sense of community" and "commitment." These two constructs, in turn, each consist of 3 facets. A brief description of these follows:

Sense Of Community

There are 3 facets that work together from an organizational perspective, in building a healthy sense of community:

  • Emotional connection
    This is about employees feeling good about the organization they work for and the people they work with. A strong positive emotional connection is then an outcome of the following 2 facets as well as their commitment to make themselves good people to work with, by caring for the organization and about each other.
  • Belonging and influence
    The fact that organizations are “formally assembled” implies membership. Membership is bi-directional. On the one hand, people choose to join an organization and on the other hand, they are selected to join. Membership is conditional on being perceived as being able to and committing to making a valuable personal investment and being a good person to work with. In becoming members of an organization, employees are committing their time, effort and talent and therefore can justifiably feel a right to belong. The fact that employees are selected to join an organization engenders the feeling that they have earned membership and this presents an opportunity to reinforce that their personal investment is meaningful and valuable (this is the reason they were selected). Research indicates that for a person to be attracted to a group (organization in this case), he or she must feel that they have some influence in the group. However, influence is importantly also a bi-directional concept in that a group’s cohesiveness is dependent on the group’s ability to influence its members. The concepts of belonging and influence are complementary and represent significant opportunity to make organizations more cohesive, more inclusive, healthier places to work. The degree to which employees are made to feel that they genuinely belong reinforces their decision to join the organization and the degree to which they have influence and feel that their needs, values and opinions matter, will influence the degree to which they commit to the organization.
  • Worthy and worthwhile work
    Worthy work is work that contributes to an organization Purpose that helps people (solves a problem or fulfils a need for them) and/or makes the world a better place. Worthy work is about creating a sense that each employee’s role is important and worthy of their time, effort and talent to make a contribution to the success of the organization. Work is worthwhile to employees if there is a sense that it is rewarded by way of fair remuneration and recognition for a good job done. It is a worthwhile job that reinforces effort and the value of belonging to and making a contribution to the success of the organization. Remember, reinforcement is a powerful motivator of human behaviour.


Commitment has 3 facets, namely:

  • Conditionality
    Organizations which contract (employ or grant membership to) are different from other communities in that membership is Conditional. It serves no purpose to avoid this critical discussion. To believe that commitment is implied in the acceptance of a job offer (together with a job title, job description and a position in the organization structure) would be naive. This simply grants membership. Commitment is fundamental to any relationship working (and being sustainable). Therefore, commitment to contribute fully to the organization Purpose and to be a good team player in the organization must be non-negotiable conditions of employment and it must be an explicit discussion and agreement.
  • Accountability
    In committing to the organization, employees/members must understand that they will be held accountable for their actions, contribution and their behaviour towards each other in support of the organization’s objectives.
  • Trust
    Trust is the basis of any sound relationship. As much as managers have the right to hold employees/members accountable, they also have an obligation to foster an environment of Trust, supported by open discussion and resolution of conflict around issues that may dilute employee commitment.

In Summary

"Sense of Community" and "Commitment" are concrete constructs that are easy to understand. These constructs can be measured and concrete action can be taken to deliver the required improvement. It is my sense that these two constructs are logical replacements to the concept of "organization culture" to inform how to build human systems that will meet the challenges of 21st-century organizations. However, human systems will only deliver optimally if they are aligned and integrated with organization performance systems, but that is the subject of another article.