The three words of this article’s title seem simple enough to understand and many organisations invest heavily in trying to achieve just this.  But I think in order for us to intelligently discuss this topic, we need to ask a couple of questions and bring further clarity to the topic.  The first question is, “What is organisational culture?”  The second question is, “Can organisational culture be managed?”  So allow me in a few words to answer these questions by examining different definitions and then to investigate any potential steps that could be taken to produce positive change.

Most people who deal with this topic will articulate organisational culture through summarising the individual elements that make up culture such as, collective – behaviours, values, myths, symbols, norms, rituals, beliefs and assumptions that “this is the way we do things around here.”  It would be difficult to find leaders who would disagree with these fundamental components as being the essence of what makes up organisational culture.  However, it is the expanded definition of culture that I am going to discuss shortly that starts to expose different opinions.  Furthermore, the preferred perspective chosen profoundly affects the strategic approach taken to deal with it.

Generally speaking there are two main paradigms of organisational culture that people choose between.  Some see it as a singular dominating influence that each individual operates within.  Others see it being made up of various sub-cultures within the one organisation with continual superficial adjustments being made by those in each sub-group to accomplish organisational outcomes.  Naturally, if the first paradigm is your perspective then you will take a more basic approach to managing culture through a top-down effort of aligning all staff with the articulated mission, vision, values and strategic plan.  If the second paradigm of culture is your perspective then a more intricate approach is needed considering a more individualistic implementation plan that addresses various sub-cultures with the necessary duration and intensity required for each group.

So, “What is the correct expanded definition of organisational culture?”  In the light of what has been discussed, “Think about your experiences within the organisation/s you have worked?”  I would like to suggest from research and my experience that both paradigms reflect different facets of reality.  It has become increasingly evident that the more multi-cultural our society becomes, the more diverse the values of personnel who are employed.  Additionally, the greater accumulation of various fundamentally different personal values within the workplace naturally creates sub-cultures in order to assist people to both retain what they believe and respond to the organisational challenges that arise.  Thus, the increase in globalisation is being reflected in the workplace making the management of organisational change more difficult over time.  Simultaneously, I have also noted and experienced a sense that each organisation has its own archetype culture, which can either, detract from, or contribute to the organisation’s effectiveness.  There is little doubt that organisational culture is a complex dynamic, and that it profoundly impacts upon organisational outcomes, which is why leaders are often desperate to attempt managing it.

This brings us to the second question that was posited in the first paragraph – “Can organisational culture be managed?”

Experience has shown that organisational culture is difficult to assess and resistant to change.  You might remember the words of Drucker here, “That which cannot be measured cannot be managed.”  This is why I have taken some time to this point in defining what it is, because if we cannot define what it is we cannot ever hope to manage positive cultural change.  I have personally been involved in managing successful cultural change in large organisations through organisational-wide interventions over a two year time-frame with ongoing support.  It involved an approach that strategically addressed both paradigms discussed above.  So to answer the question, “Can organisational culture be managed?”  Yes, but it needs a multidimensional approach.

Allow me now to share with you the elements necessary to practically manage organisational culture change by addressing different key elements:

  1. Top-down support:  Start with the archetype culture.  The culture shift attempt must have full passionate support from the top down, including leadership modelling of the required behaviours congruent with the regular articulated values, vision, mission, strategy, reward systems, structure, policies, procedures and allocation of resources.  Any conflict between these elements and it will be picked up quickly and, whether consciously or subconsciously, resisted.
  2. Organisation-wide participation:  Systematically address the sub-culture paradigm.  From the top-down, implement a coach training process by training the top leaders in how to utilise coaching techniques with their direct reports, mentoring them in the process over time.  The important aspect of this training is to make the shift into believing their direct reports are worthy of investment, are resourceful and capable of significantly contributing to the organisation.  The process also needs to cascade down through the organisation to front-line employees.  So all are coached and all in positions of leadership are trained in how to coach. The message is clear, they are valued participants.  The coaching techniques must incorporate more listening than talking.  Finally, over time, all who are in the company will receive this training, cascading the coaching culture throughout the organisation.  Moreover, the coach training must also eventually be left in the hands of the company, developing specific internal coaches, so they can keep delivering the training to new employees and monitor the needs of the organisation.  I have seen this work bringing a greater sense of belonging, interpersonal connectedness, empowerment, appreciation, trust, transformation and organisation-wide participation.
  3. Recruitment and induction:  There isn’t a better time to manage culture than at the point of entry with hiring people who are congruent with the organisational values.  This does mean that quality behaviour-based interviewing needs to be implemented, so the candidate’s values are accurately assessed and they are not misaligned with the company.  The more congruent the candidate is, the more they will enjoy their work and lower employee turnover will occur.  Once employed there is a need to undertake an induction process acculturating them through information and personal coaching by their manager who by now has been transformed through the organisation-wide coach training.

In conclusion, you will note that organisational culture change comes from a multifaceted approach, incorporating a significant amount of elements.  At the same time the approach I have shared above encompasses both of the extended cultural definitions that were presented in the article.  Yes, organisational culture can be managed but it is not to be done in a haphazard manner.  There needs to be an organisation-wide approach starting with buy-in from the top level leaders who are first willing to make the changes necessary in themselves, modelling the required behaviours.  There needs to be both organisation-wide supportive systems and harmonious empowered coaching relationships that create supportive environments for each employee.  If the coaching is implemented well, it will enable employees to safely discuss any cultural conflicts they are experiencing and develop action plans for organisational alignment, greater productivity and increased satisfaction.  Finally, there needs to be a positive reward system in place to promote effective coaching, and effectiveness needs to be measured by both the feedback of those receiving the coaching and improved organisational results.