Culture is often presented as “the deep, basic assumption and beliefs that are shared by organizational members” (Schein, 1997). Hard-to-define concept, theorists of organizational culture have interpreted it as “a set of norms and values that are widely shared and strongly held throughout the organization” (O’Reilly and Chatman, 1996: 166l). Nowadays, organizational culture is frequently characterized “as an instrument for competitive advantage” (Willmott, 1993), following by organizational performance, which is of paramount importance to organizational success in any company. The arguments put forward in this essay stem from different theories and concepts that are relevant to the understanding and analysis of organizational culture and organizational performance.
This essay argues that, arising from its competitive advantage, culture appears to play a major role in organizational performance, but to a certain extent, as the organizational culture concept still has some weaknesses.
The objective of the first part of this essay is to give a culture’s overview through an analysis of the mainstream vision and the root metaphor. This essay will illustrate it with a few examples drawn from. The second part of the essay tackles some key concepts in order to clearly explain the strengths of organizational culture in resulting in organizational success. In the third part, the weaknesses of culture will be discussed.
1 Culture’s overview
Emerged in the 1980s, organizational culture’s concept development has created a considerable debate regarding what is the essence of culture. (Martin and Frost, 1996). Two main approaches emerged: culture as a critical variable, something that the organization has, versus culture as a root metaphor, something an organization is.
The ‘has’ perspective, also called the mainstream perspective, considers culture as a variable that managers can shape and modify (Smircich in Knights, D. and Willmott, H. – 2017). Created at the top, decided by top management, the culture, via a set of established norms, beliefs and values (NBV), is spread in the organization to its employees. According to this mainstream view, if you give the right value to your employees and you manage them the right way, those values will guide your employee’s behaviour, avoiding a lack of motivation and costly direct supervision (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017).
To put it in a nutshell, by providing meanings for employees, stimulating them and making everyone behave the same way via set NBV, culture, if properly managed, leads to organizational performance (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017).
On the other hand, the ‘is’ theory argue that culture is a more organic process, not always observable and continuously negotiated (Smircich, 1983). Conversely, ‘is’ theorists discuss the fact that culture is not a variable but an organization element, from the number of employees to the NBV employed in that environment (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017). As everyone is involved at a different scale in the construction of an organisation culture, it makes the culture sometimes very difficult to manage.
One main difference between the 2 perspectives is that ‘is’ theorists consider there are various cultures in one workplace: employees, by coming from different background, bring to work many subcultures (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017). ‘Is’ perspective defends that multiple NBV can coexist in an organization.
‘Is’ and ‘has’ theorists disagree on how the culture is created and imposed by managers: “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” (Meek, 1988, p.459).
Ackroyd and Crowdy’s (1990) study of abattoir workers example may be convenient to illustrate as it delineates the organic creation of a culture in a ‘dirty job’, defined by Knights and Willmott as a ‘job that carries with it some form of social stigma and so may require its incumbents to reconcile this with their sense of themselves as ‘decent’ human beings’ (Ashforth and Kreiner in Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017 – p.397). To deal with their morally difficult job, involving killing and making living beings suffer willingly, slaughter men develop a culture where they are proud of their job, of their toughness and of their resilience. Workers support a culture apart from wider society’s morality. As stated in Knights and Willmott, culture is understood to be an outgoing outcome ‘involving collective (re)production of organization reality, allowing workers to integrate what they do for a living, however demanding and restrictive it might be’ (2017, p.397). This approach helps to understand how organic is culture under the ‘is’ perspective.
Following on from the work of ‘is’ and ‘has’ theorists, this essay’s concern has focused on strengths and weaknesses of culture in creating performance.
2 Culture linked with performance
When developing an organizational culture, managers seek to increase their firm performance through it.
As stated in Peters and Waterman (1982), an effective culture should be “unambiguous, unitary, harmonious and managerially integrative » (Peters and Waterman in Knight and Willmott, p.275).
In order to do so, theorists have determined different levels of culture to better understand how managers can impact on a corporate culture and make it a ‘strong culture’.
To reach this goal, Schein determined three levels of culture: the main artefacts and creations, that are easy to change and outwardly visible, the value and beliefs, which are plainly expressed and uttered and the basics assumptions, that profoundly influence action and are hardly difficult to change. (Schein, 2002; Knights and Willmott, 2017; WBS, 2017). Through those levels, managers can deal with their employee’s and adapt the type of culture they will use to breed business success.
On the other hand, Deal and Kennedy think that culture is linked to the amount of risk their business is facing and to the speed of feedback, implying that culture is a product of the business environment. From this point of view, there is no ‘best culture’ fitting every organization but several cultures that can lead to performance, by matching culture to the circumstances, via cultural management (Deal and Kennedy, 1988; Knights and Willmott, 2017).
Consequently, a strong established culture should “make values clear, transmit them widely, reinforce them in practice, and backing them up” (T. Peters, R. Waterman in Knights and Willmott, p.275, 2017) to result in performance.
As stated by Denison, one of the strong aspects of culture is its direct link with the level of profits made by an organization (Denison, 1984).
In fact, a strong culture is often seen as producing performance since it creates committed, hard-working and loyal members (Peters and Waterman,1982 in Deal and Kennedy,1982). By bringing people together, making them think, feel and act similarly and creating social integration, culture is a ‘source of organised common sense’ (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017). Furthermore, it is clearly obvious that when employee and managers work hand in hand in the same direction, shaping their understanding and willingness the same way (Kotter and Heskett, 1992), workers will be regulated, management will be satisfied and it would enhance performance. It also implies that employee’s needs, emotions and thoughts are attended by the management team (Albrow, 1997).
Given the above, culture could be seen as ‘bringing organization to life’ (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017).
By denying that culture is a soft concept, theorists argue that culture and its effects on profit can be measured (Gordon and DiTomaso, 1992; Heskett, 1993). One of Heskett’s major research on culture affecting result showed that nearly a half of the difference in profit between firms is attributable to strong cultures (Heskett, 1993).
When the new corporate NBV are clearly defined and inculcated by management, employees participate widely in enhancing firm performance and on creating competitive advantage, emphasizing the importance of people in organizational success (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017). In organizational culture, ‘strategy must be the servant rather than the master’ (HBR, 2017), highlighting the fact that nowadays, humans are more important than strategy when thinking about organizational success. Consequently, a performant work system is linked to an organization performance by a strong organizational culture (Den Hartog and Verburg, 2004). Hence, strong corporate cultures, by highly valuing employees, customers and management, are resulting in strong financial results (Heskett and Kotter, 1992).
Yet, we have become increasingly aware that organizational culture can be closely linked to performance from mainstream and alternative view. Nevertheless, both perspectives have their limitations put forward by critical organizational studies, showing negative impact of culture.
3 Organizational culture weaknesses
Analysis of ‘has’ and ‘is’ perspectives shows that culture have some limitations, sometimes leading to failure.
For the ‘is’ defenders, ‘has’ theorists have a naive view regarding how culture can be managed. ‘Has’ defenders disagree on whether ‘one best culture’ fits for all firms and on how to manage and change the culture (Peters and Waterman, 1982): how can one single culture match in every organization where different people with different goals, creating different subcultures, interact with each other. Moreover, advocates of ‘has’ mostly disagree on how manager can construct, change and manage culture. Managers, as culture is coming from the top, often fail when they do not prepare, present and maintain a culture the right way (i.e. when people are not enabled to speak out and participate, or when they feel forced), and the task is hard to handle since the ‘good way’ change in every organization, and every time staff leave/join the organization (Knights, D. and Willmott, H – 2017). ‘Has’ perspective has shown culture as a factor leading to success, forgetting that in any organization, results are coming from the firm’s employees.
One of the most significant points that ‘is’ perspective makes is that it sees culture as a daily social product that evolves every day, created and maintained by everyone. Thus, when new recruits bring their own culture with them, they add it to the culture of the firm, making culture always changing following the ‘organizational circumstances’ (Alvesson, 2002, pp. 191-192). ‘Is’ theorists defend a multicultural nature of organizations, and disagree with ‘has’ theorists on the ‘one best culture’ point of view: is culture really something management can create and control? A good example for this is the Ackroyd and Crowdy’s slaughter men mentioned above, where culture is directed and controlled by employees, to deal with this dirty job.
‘Is’ theorists are also much more skeptical regarding how culture will be accepted in the firm, identifying 3 possible reactions to corporate culture: unequivocal adherence, secret non-adherence or open non-adherence (Golden, cited in Brown 1998, p.93).
Furthermore, when speaking about a strong culture, some theorists argue that organization with strong cultures do not systematically perform better than an organization with weak cultures (Kotter and Heskett, 1992). Indeed, strong cultures sometimes create “paths of deadly momentum… so productive attention to details… turns into an obsession with minutia; rewarding innovation turns into gratuitous invention, and measured growth becomes unbridled expansion” (Miller, cited in Trice and Beyer, 1993, cited in Knights and Willmott, 2017), identifying problems caused by strong cultures.
In the same way, when people feel aside from firm’s core values or impugned from the firm itself, consequences arise with factors such as stress, depression or severe anxiety (Schwartz, 1987, 1987a), emphasizing the fact that management of culture can be immoral. Moreover, culture can be criticised from various moral aspects. Typically, culture can be used by leaders to manipulate employees to increase the organizational performance (Schein, 1992). Such culture can result in greedy institution, an organization requiring an ‘unstinting effort and an immense dedication from their employees’ (Coser in Knights and Willmott 2017), demanding an important presence and devotion, and possibly leading to an unconsciously prioritization of their job above their personal life (Whyte, in Knights and Willmott, 2017), maybe without realizing what they are doing. Some objector argues that culture can be compared to drugs and alcohol towards the addictive power of culture, and nearly the same results (Kanter in Knights and Willmott, 2017).
When talking specifically about strong culture, it is argued that even if it creates stability, decision-making, coordination or team spirit, it also participates in setting up a lack of creativity, inflexibility or no more personal doubt, resulting in an inhibition of fresh thinking and improvement, which would lead to a decrease in performance.
Finally, some kinds of cultures are sometimes argued as excluding woman, in particular the Work Hard, Play Hard ones, with hard working times and huge non-work activities, like social events, which can put women apart, as they are supposed to have domestic commitment (Dryburgh, 1999), which is a bit sexist but that is a subject for another day.
To sum up, despite the limitations mentioned above, organizational culture appears to be closely linked with performance and success. Regardless of whether organizational culture strategies are accepted or rejected, it seems undeniable that culture holds a position in creating a sense of belonging, increasing decision-making, motivation and the organization’s competitiveness, while facilitating the management, resulting in a competitive advantage for the firm. But, as it has been argued, organizational culture suffers from moral and ethical critics, along with limitations and opposition in both perspectives of culture. Moreover, there is a need for new research to link more effectively culture with organizational performance and success.
This approach will probably provide a more precise background to help manager developing an effective and fulfilling culture for its employees without tumbling in the dark side of culture, strongly bound to failure.
Finally, this essay would agree that organizational culture can be acknowledged as a determining factor for competitive advantage, performance and long-term organizational success.