Solution 8: Changing the organisational culture
Some problems of organisations have to do with the organisational culture:
the way in which the organisation, including its stakeholders, use to act and
This organisational mental make-up is -more than structure or
strategy- the decisive factor in obtaining success.
If the organisational culture is blocking success, the change of culture has
to be considered.
When is the organisation's culture a problem?
Organisational culture is a problem when the way in which the organisation
usually operates puts obstacles in the way towards achievement.
- the goals of the organisation demand an external orientation of the
members, but the organisational culture is characterised by internal
- transparency is needed to be accountable and to function democratically,
but the tradition to involve family members and to favour them, may makes
- being value driven as a main characteristic of a NGO stands not well with
the businesslike attitude of our professionals.
- productivity, being directed towards goals, may be hindered by the grown
habit to intervene in each other's work, directing most of the energy to each
other instead of to the product.
- the not-outspoken rule not to intervene in each other's work (the
non-intervention principle) may hinder the ideal working method of sharing
ideas, innovations, solutions and problems.
- because of the one-sided fixation on ideology, satisfaction of personal
needs may be considered as forbidden.
- a grown emphasis on output may have led to the situation in which
reflection (base for learning) is considered a waist of time.
Organisational culture is not the result of just a decision, but the outcome
of a lasting process, in which the attitude, beliefs and behaviour of people
are gradually shaped. Organisational culture, even if not objectively
effective, is always a logical adaptation to a changed environment.
Organisational culture may be compared to coping mechanisms: once effective in
one specific situation, but internalised, unconscious familiar, and hardly
noticeable for the owner.
That is why change of organisational culture is not easy.
For the 'change agent' (the one who manages the process of change: the
leader or manager or an outsider consultant) this entails:
- modest aims combined with ambition
- understanding the culture of an organization
- flexibility in strategy
1) Modest aims and ambition
Modesty is needed because changing the 'personality', i.e. 'the soul' of an
organization is very difficult. Nevertheless, the organisation (as its own
change agent), or the leader of an organisation as its change agent, or a
consultant helping the organisation in its change, each of them has to be
ambitious, because if they do not believe in this process of change, who else
The change agent has to be modest and ambitious at the same time, and that
means stimulating and rewarding activities and persons heading in the desired
direction. Punishing people because they do not move quickly enough is not very
helpful. Motivating them in a positive way is better. This is done by finding
en stimulating the healthy nucleus that exists in every organization.
2) Understanding the culture of the organization
Organizational culture refers to what we call the personality of an
organization: if the structure of the organisation is the body: the bone
structure, the feeding structure of blood vessels and the communication
channels of nervous system, then the personality or soul is the way people deal
with one another, the values and beliefs that exist within the organization.
Restructuring an organization, in order to achieve a certain goal, often fails
or gets stuck because the personality does not change. That is why we focus on
the culture of the organization when dealing with change.
Culture is defined as the collective mind-set or 'the software of the mind'.
Because it is often difficult to describe what the personality is, the
following method can be used to understand the deeper cultural aspects of an
The organisation's culture can be described in terms of Hofstede's 'onion':
- the exterior layers consist of symbols (the building, the way employees
are dressed, the 'language' they speak, the cars they drive, collective
- one layer deeper one can notice the 'heroes' or the 'anti-heroes' in the
organization (the leader or founder who is 'worshipped' or who is being used as
an example, thereby telling a lot about how to behave here in order to be
- one layer deeper one can find the rituals (eating together or not,
greeting each other, how meetings are organized, celebrations of birthdays,
Through all these 'layers' one can see glimpses of the hart of the onion:
the real values of the organization:
- the inner nucleus of the onion, the values of the organization: what is
really valued or devalued. Be aware of the distinction between espoused and
integrated values*. Espoused values are the values people say are important to
the organization. But most of he times such espoused values delineate the
future perspective of the organisation, not the actual moving values.
Integrated values are the values that actually appear to be important; the
heart of the culture. Sometimes there is a gap between the espoused and the
integrated values. This can be a real problem, especially when dealing with
gender: lip service and no real intention to integrate gender policies.
* how does an organizational culture develop?
To understand the culture of an organization and its development, it is
important to analyse its 'birth' and history. For example: if an organization
is born out of protest against the existing system, the fighting mood can be
very strong. However useful that may have been in the beginning, such a
fighting mood can become a hindrance, if the organisation sticks to it, without
an actual reason. This requires an attempt to understand the organization
within its history and contexts, the traumas that influence the way they deal
with external influences or change. Understanding is more useful than getting
So the change agent has to include the following elements in the analysis:
- its products: 'what business are we in?' Every branch has its specific
'smells', sounds, characteristics.
- its history: like a personality, what are the traumas, life events,
happenings, etc. How did the organization react and how does that still
influence the way this organization deals with matters?
- internal/external interaction (stakeholder's context): threats formed
outside will have reactions on the inside.
* how does the culture within an organization sustain itself?
The answer is: by self selection, by selection and by socialisation.
- Self selection: People who are potential candidates to apply for a job in
an organisation will, unconsciously and immediately, compare the organisational
culture of that organisation with their own 'lifestyle'. A good deal of them
will drop out, others will feel attracted.
- Selection: the people that are responsible for new personnel act like
gatekeepers. They will not only investigate the way candidates meet the formal
requirements, but they unconsciously compare the candidates with the dominant
organisational culture, and again some potential candidates will be dropped.
This begins with the letters of application.
- Socialisation. To explain how socialisation works we watch an experiment.
A caged group of monkeys is confronted with a bunch of bananas on bungling from
the ceiling. There is a ladder placed invitingly just under the bananas.
Immediately some monkeys rush to the ladder. As soon as they start to climb it
they are all hosed down, not just the monkeys on the ladder but all the monkeys
in the cage. As they don’t like water they leave the bananas. One hussy
monkey tries again but the same thing happens, all of the monkeys are hosed.
Now they watch each other to make sure no one comes near the ladder. Then one
monkey is replaced by a new one unaware of ladder-water misery. He sees the
bananas and rushes to the ladder, but to his surprise is beaten up by the other
monkeys. Now a second monkey is replaced by a new one. He approaches the ladder
and is beaten up. The first new monkey who himself had been beaten up
participates in the mugging because he wont permit another monkey to do
something he himself was not allowed. This continues until all the monkeys are
replaced by new monkeys none of them having the experience of being hosed down
or even having a faint idea about it. The reason why they wont permit each
other to reach for the bananas has become of a metaphysical nature, it is
simply not done.
Culture sustains itself through socialization, i.e. 'that is the way we do
things around here'. Here we wear ties. With us we make funny remarks all the
time. Here we work like dogs, often 10 hours a day. With us the client is
really the king.
* Changing the organisational culture.
- concentrate on positive aspects. It is easier to enlarge the positive
aspects than to get rid of the negative ones.
- enlist the commitment of the top of the organization (being a model in
their behaviour). There should be a clear mission with concrete goals. The top
management should be involved. Change may be proposed from within, quite often
as the result of interaction with the outside world, but top management should
be involved too.
- organize bottom-up participation of people when defining the problem, in
the analysis and solution-formation phase.
- define only the outlines, let people participate in formulating what these
outlines signify for their work.
- external necessity . Look for an external necessity to change. New
questions asked by target groups or donors can stimulate the organization to
make the necessary change.
3) Flexibility in strategy
Each and every organisation needs a well adapted strategy to be able to
change its organisational culture. Tailor-made approaches are necessary: what
is effective in this situation with these persons may differ from other
situations with other persons.
There are other general key factors for success to identify:
- whichever variant is chosen for a successful strategy, it is important to
make use of the existing energy.
- a second element of a successful strategy is to keep in mind that support
will be created by involving people and giving them the opportunity to analyse
themselves, examining what the problem is and what would be the best solution.
- a third element: always take into consideration the interests and needs of
the persons which have to be motivated for the objectives of change.
Try to explore the meaning behind a view someone is taking. Try to translate
someone's stand in terms of interests, needs, values, ideas, thoughts and
emotions. Try to brainstorm about solutions that cover as many similar and
different interests as possible.
It will be clear that change agents need a broad arsenal of strategies to
achieve the change objectives, and that they have to be willing to continuously
adjust their strategies to respond to ever-changing relations and
Espoused values express the genuinely embraced core normative
standards of an organisation. An example: on the question: "what is
the core value of your organisation?" members of a primary school
could answer: "the prime value of our organisation is the
intellectual, social and emotional development of the individual
child." Such espoused values may come under pressure when external
conditions provoke the integrated, less outspoken values. When the
school for instance is confronted with a demographic change which
could lead to the need to merge with other schools in order to
guarantee the best possible education, integrated values show up.
Continuity of the own job or being attached to the own team will
concur the espoused values. It is difficult to predict which values
will come out as the winner.
Beware: espoused valued are no hypocritical values. An
organisation needs espoused values as a focal point for future