Culture change within an organization

It is often said that culture change within an organization or workplace is difficult — perhaps the most difficult part of trying to reform an organization. What do we mean by this? And why is this so difficult?

The daily workings of an organization depend on the activities and behavior of the people who make it up (and those with whom it interacts). People have habits, expectations, ways of perceiving social situations, and behavioral dispositions in a range of stylized circumstances. Their habitual modes of behavior may conform better or worse to the official rules and expectations of behavior in the performance of their roles. If there is a practice of stretching the lunch hour, for example, absenteeism at 2:00 may be a significant drag on efficient work processes. As Crozier and Friedberg note in Actors and Systems: The Politics of Collective Action, individuals within organizations are not robots programmed by the rules of the organization; they are willful and strategic actors who interact with each other and with the rules of the organization in complex and sometimes non-conformist ways (link). Or in other words, the culture of the workforce — the habits, practices, and ways of thinking of the participants — can significantly interfere with the intended workings of the organization.

Moreover, these habits and expectations are often mutually reinforcing. The fact that A, B, and C have certain ways of conducting their work often reinforces the similar behaviors of D. For example, the Baltimore police detectives in The Wire have fairly specific habits and expectations when it comes to encounters with the corner boys in the drug trade — a lot of use of force, a harsh tone of voice, a ready display of disrespect. These habits of behavior are infectious; new recruits model the behavior of their elders, and soon they are just as violent and disrespectful as the previous generation. So a police commander who wants to reform the style of policing in his district is faced with a difficult problem: changing policing means changing behavior of individual police on the street, but the tools available to the commander to bring about these changes are very limited. So the habits persist in spite of orders, regulations, briefings, and seminars.

Within a Fordist understanding of organizations, these conflicts between habits of behavior and the official expectations of the organization can be resolved through supervision: non-conformist behavior can be identified and penalized. Violent detectives can be punished or dismissed; line workers who break the rules can be fined; call center workers can be disciplined when they deviate from their scripts. But there are at least two problems with this approach. One is the cost of close supervision. It isn’t realistic to imagine having enough supervisors to detect a high percentage of bad behavior by workers. And the second is the nature of much of the work within modern organizations, which depend on creating a space of autonomy and independence for the worker.  An architect, surgeon, or professor doesn’t do his or her best work within a regime of time clocks, keystroke loggers, and penalties.

So the problem of culture change within a modern organization comes down to something like this. Organizations involving the productive activities of well educated specialists need to rely on a high level of self-motivation and self-direction on the part of its workers. Therefore modern organizations need to encourage high level contributions to the organization’s goals through means other than close supervision and a code of penalties and rewards. This means finding ways of aligning the personal values of the worker with the goals and processes of the organization. The organization needs to create an environment of development and work in which the individual worker wants to achieve the key goals of the organization — rather than disregarding those goals to pursue his/her own agenda in the workplace. In turn this means persuading the worker of some basic realities about the organization: that it is fair towards all workers, that the goals of the organization are worth achieving, and that the managers of the organization are talented and capable.

All is well if these assumptions about the organization are widely shared by workers and managers. If, on the other hand, there is a high level of cynicism and disaffection among workers or a high level of self-serving among managers, it is likely that the performance of both workers and managers will deviate from the organization’s expectations of how they will behave. A culture of shirking, self serving, and “easy riding” will undermine the effectiveness of the organization. The problem of culture change is the problem of changing those assumptions and habits on the part of workers and managers.

There seem to be a few fairly obvious ways of trying to improve the culture of a given organization. One is to insist on a high degree of transparency in the organization so that workers and managers can come to have confidence in the basic fairness of the workplace. A second is to find ways of communicating the value of the work being done by the organization in a way that is clear and motivating for workers and managers. A third is to be effective at expressing the respect and appreciation that the organization has for the workers. And a final means is to recruit well when filling open positions, mindful of the intangible characteristics of behavior that the organization needs to proliferate. Will this candidate adapt willingly to expectations about cooperation and respect within the workplace? Will that candidate be able to embrace the values and purposes of the organization? Does that candidate have prior experience that permits us to judge that he/she will contribute strongly and willingly to the tasks of the organization?

Making PCR: A Story of Biotechnology is Paul Rabinow’s ethnography of Cerbus, the laboratory where the genetic research tool PCR was invented. The study provides a good example of how studies of professional workplaces can shed light on the outcomes of innovation and effectiveness that we want to achieve.

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