It is of both intellectual and practical interest to understand how organizations function and how the actors within them choose the actions that they pursue. A common answer to these questions is to refer to the rules and incentives of the organization, and then to attempt to understand the actor’s choices through the lens of rational preference theory. However, it is now increasingly clear that organizations embody distinctive “cultures” that significantly affect the actions of the individuals who operate within their scope. Edgar Schein is a leading expert on the topic of organizational culture. Here is how he defines the concept in Organizational Culture and Leadership. Organizational culture, according to Schein, consists of a set of “basic assumptions about the correct way to perceive, think, feel, and behave, driven by (implicit and explicit) values, norms, and ideals” (Schein, 1990).
Culture is both a dynamic phenomenon that surrounds us at all times, being constantly enacted and created by our interactions with others and shaped by leadership behavior, and a set of structures, routines, rules, and norms that guide and constrain behavior. When one brings culture to the level of the organization and even down to groups within the organization, one can see clearly how culture is created, embedded, evolved, and ultimately manipulated, and, at the same time, how culture constrains, stabilizes, and provides structure and meaning to the group members. These dynamic processes of culture creation and management are the essence of leadership and make one realize that leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. (3rd edition, p. 1)
According to Schein, there is a cognitive and affective component of action within an organization that has little to do with rational calculation of interests and more to do with how the actors frame their choices. The values and expectations of the organization help to shape the actions of the participants. And one crucial aspect of leaders, according to Schein, is the role they play in helping to shape the culture of the organizations they lead.
It is intriguing that several pressing organizational problems have been found to rotate around the culture of the organization within which behavior takes place. The prevalence of sexual and gender harassment appears to depend a great deal on the culture of respect and civility that an organization has embodied — or has failed to embody. The ways in which accidents occur in large industrial systems seems to depend in part on the culture of safety that has been established within the organization. And the incidence of corrupt and dishonest practices within businesses seems to be influenced by the culture of integrity that the organization has managed to create. In each instance experience seems to demonstrate that “good” culture leads to less socially harmful behavior, while “bad” culture leads to more such behavior.
Consider first the prominence that the idea of safety culture has come to play in the nuclear industry after Three Mile Island and Chernobyl. Here are a few passages from a review document authored by the Advisory Committee on Reactor Safeguards (link).
There also seems to be a general agreement in the nuclear community on the elements of safety culture. Elements commonly included at the organization level are senior management commitment to safety, organizational effectiveness, effective communications, organizational learning, and a working environment that rewards identifying safety issues. Elements commonly identified at the individual level include personal accountability, questioning attitude, and procedural adherence. Financial health of the organization and the impact of regulatory bodies are occasionally identified as external factors potentially affecting safety culture.
The working paper goes on to consider two issues: has research validated the causal relationship between safety culture and safe performance? And should the NRC create regulatory requirements aimed at observing and enhancing the safety culture in a nuclear plant? They note that current safety statistics do not permit measurement of the association between safety culture and safe performance, but that experience in the industry suggests that the answers to both questions are probably affirmative:
On the other hand, even at the current level of industry maturity, we are confronted with events such as the recent reactor vessel head corrosion identified so belatedly at the Davis-Besse Nuclear Power Plant. Problems subsequently identified in other programmatic areas suggest that these may not be isolated events, but the result of a generally degraded plant safety culture. The head degradation was so severe that a major accident could have resulted and was possibly imminent. If, indeed, the true cause of such an event proves to be degradation of the facility’s safety culture, is it acceptable that the reactor oversight program has to wait for an event of such significance to occur before its true root cause, degraded culture, is identified? This event seems to make the case for the need to better understand the issues driving the culture of nuclear power plants and to strive to identify effective performance indicators of resulting latent conditions that would provide leading, rather than lagging, indications of future plant problems. (7-8)
Researchers in the area of sexual harassment have devoted quite a bit of attention to the topic of workplace culture as well. This theme is emphasized in the National Academy study on sexual and gender harassment (link); the authors make the point that gender harassment is chiefly aimed at expressing disrespect towards the target rather than sexual exploitation. This has an important implication for institutional change. An institution that creates a strong core set of values emphasizing civility and respect is less conducive to gender harassment. They summarize this analysis in the statement of findings as well:
Organizational climate is, by far, the greatest predictor of the occurrence of sexual harassment, and ameliorating it can prevent people from sexually harassing others. A person more likely to engage in harassing behaviors is significantly less likely to do so in an environment that does not support harassing behaviors and/or has strong, clear, transparent consequences for these behaviors. (50)
Ben Walsh is representative of this approach. Here is the abstract of a research article by Walsh, Lee, Jensen, McGonagle, and Samnani on workplace incivility (link):
Scholars have called for research on the antecedents of mistreatment in organizations such as workplace incivility, as well as the theoretical mechanisms that explain their linkage. To address this call, the present study draws upon social information processing and social cognitive theories to investigate the relationship between positive leader behaviors—those associated with charismatic leadership and ethical leadership—and workers’ experiences of workplace incivility through their perceptions of norms for respect. Relationships were separately examined in two field studies using multi- source data (employees and coworkers in study 1, employees and supervisors in study 2). Results suggest that charismatic leadership (study 1) and ethical leadership (study 2) are negatively related to employee experiences of workplace incivility through employee perceptions of norms for respect. Norms for respect appear to operate as a mediating mechanism through which positive forms of leadership may negatively relate to workplace incivility. The paper concludes with a discussion of implications for organizations regarding leader behaviors that foster norms for respect and curb uncivil behaviors at work.
David Hess, an expert on corporate corruption, takes a similar approach to the problem of corruption and bribery by officials of multinational corporations (link). Hess argues that bribery often has to do with organizational culture and individual behavior, and that effective steps to reduce the incidence of bribery must proceed on the basis of an adequate analysis of both culture and behavior. And he links this issue to fundamental problems in the area of corporate social responsibility.
Corporations must combat corruption. By allowing their employees to pay bribes they are contributing to a system that prevents the realization of basic human rights in many countries. Ensuring that employees do not pay bribes is not accomplished by simply adopting a compliance and ethics program, however. This essay provided a brief overview of why otherwise good employees pay bribes in the wrong organizational environment, and what corporations must focus on to prevent those situations from arising. In short, preventing bribe payments must be treated as an ethical issue, not just a legal compliance issue, and the corporation must actively manage its corporate culture to ensure it supports the ethical behavior of employees.
As this passage emphasizes, Hess believes that controlling corrupt practices requires changing incentives within the corporation while equally changing the ethical culture of the corporation; he believes that the ethical culture of a company can have effects on the degree to which employees engage in bribery and other corrupt practices.
What is in common among each of these examples — and other examples are available as well — is that intangible features of the work environment are likely to influence behavior of the actors in that environment, and thereby affect the favorable and unfavorable outcomes of the organization’s functioning as well. Moreover, if we take the lead offered by Schein and work on the assumption that leaders can influence culture through their advocacy for the values that the organization embodies, then leadership has a core responsibility to facilitate a work culture that embodies these favorable outcomes. Work culture can be cultivated to encourage safety and to discourage bad outcomes like sexual harassment and corruption.