Working ‘on’ or ‘in’ your organisational culture

Organisational Culture – Part 1

When we read about an association’s or charity’s culture in the media, all too often it is not a ‘good news’ story.

They don’t generally give out Walkley or Pulitzer awards to journalists for stories about innovative, caring, or ethical cultures. The news focus, therefore, skews towards corrupt, risky, toxic, or greedy cultures, and the directors and managers on whose watch that culture was created or allowed.

‘Organisational culture’ is an ephemeral concept. It means different things to different people, but also different things to any one of us depending on the circumstances.

We will have a different view about it as a ‘new hire’ than we have after years of service. We will also hold different perspectives within the same organisation depending on our role or ‘position’ within the organisation.

Working ‘on’ your culture

For some, culture is like the weather. It exists independently of anything we say or do, and we operate as best we can within it, whether it is ‘stormy’ or ‘fine’. Directors and managers however are held accountable for the effects of culture, especially if something goes wrong or someone gets hurt. It is therefore preferable that they work together to deliberately nurture their best possible organisational culture.

Both internal and external stakeholders know that what we pay attention to is what we care about. That is the true expression of our values – not what we say in glossy publications or online. Paying the right kind of attention to the right things is the key.

When reflecting on how to work on your ‘organisational culture’ (not just in it), it will be helpful first to ‘map the territory’ by coming to a shared view on your present culture compared with your desired one, and how this analysis relates to your organisation’s effectiveness. Understanding the elements, characteristics, and dimensions of your NFP culture is merely a first step in the process of exerting a positive influence.

Defining organisational culture

‘Organisational culture’ is commonly defined as the set of underlying values, beliefs, assumptions, and ways of acting and interacting which create the unique social and psychological environment of an organisation (Source: GothamCulture).

Daniel Coyle, the author of The Culture Code, offers another version:

“Culture is a set of living relationships working towards a shared goal. it is not something you are, it’s something you do.”

Elements of Culture

Johnson and Scholes devised the cultural web model (included in the header image above) to outline the complex interaction of the major dimensions through which culture is expressed. In their model, those cultural elements which interact to create a paradigm, or prevailing climate, are:

  • Stories
  • Symbols
  • Power structures
  • Organisational structures
  • Control systems, and
  • Rituals and routines

The values, beliefs, and assumptions of the individuals and groups within the organisation, and their behaviour, are not highlighted in this model, but rather implied.

Cultural orientations

The cultural ‘climate’ can also be modified by shifting the emphasis placed on certain attitudes, or orientations, as suggested in the work of O’Reilly et al, and Hofstede et al. These shifts will be designed to promote certain behaviours and sanction others.

The key domains in which the attitudes of the board and management can affect the culture of an organisation (set the tone) have been identified as follows:

  • Innovation (Risk Orientation).
  • Attention to Detail (Precision Orientation).
  • Emphasis on Outcome (Achievement Orientation).
  • Emphasis on People (Fairness Orientation).
  • Teamwork (Collaboration Orientation).
  • Aggressiveness (Competitive Orientation).
  • Stability (Rule Orientation).

These orientations are based on factors explored in:

O’Reilly, C., & Chatman, J., & Caldwell, D. (1991). People and Organizational Culture: A Profile Comparison Approach to Assessing Person-Organization Fit. Academy of Management Journal. 34. 487-516, and

Chatman, J., & Jehn, K., Assessing the Relationship between Industry Characteristics and Organizational Culture: How Different Can You Be? The Academy of Management Journal, Vol. 37, No. 3 (Jun., 1994), pp. 522-553

Hofstede’s Cultural Dimensions, offer an alternative set of focal areas in which directors and managers can set the orgaisational ‘tone’. In their model, calibration can be achieved within a spectrum of possibilities for each of the featured domains.

  • Power distance
  • Collectivism Vs Individualism
  • Uncertainty Avoidance
  • Femininity Vs Masculinity
  • Short-term Vs Long-term
  • Restraint Vs Indulgence

These two sets of orientations provide the other two faces of the Organisational Culture Cube in the header image above.

Model mashups

The header image juxtaposes three organisational culture models related to the elements and dimensions of culture, each of which refers to somewhat different cultural factors or orientations.

Traditional cube charts seek to suggest specific relationships ‘inside the cube’ between each of the factors or variables identified on the three outer faces. In the case of the cube in the header image, and the two below, the implied relationships between factors and variables are not so much a matter of locating points of intersection between three specific criteria or factors (one from each set). Instead, the ‘mashups‘ offer potential catalysts for reflection on how quite different perspectives might need to be accommodated when seeking to improve culture via governance and management measures.

The three model mashups selected here involve just nine of the many cultural models and frameworks that have been devised over the years to help practitioners and academics better understand organisational culture, and to engage with it more constructively. As a thought experiment that seeks further insights for your organisation, you could try juxtaposing these nine models in different combinations, or in combination with other models you are familiar with.

The organisational culture series

This introductory post is the first in a series on organisational culture (and behaviour), which is a vast and complex field. Future posts will include reflections on:

  • the various lenses through which culture may be viewed
  • some of the metaphors (in addition to ‘the weather’) we use to characterise organisational cultures, and
  • some insights offered by ‘anthropo-morphising’ the organisation.

See also:

Hofstede, G., Hofstede, GJ., and Minkov, M., Cultures and Organisations: Software of the Mind, McGraw Hill, 2010

Coyle, D., The Culture Code: The secrets of highly successful groups, Cornerstone Digital, 2018