Sunday, December 14, 2008

Organizational Culture

Organizational culture is created by little things. I experienced this some time ago when we renewed some office furniture.

I realized one day that I was sitting on a nice chair (which I had inherited)
while all the other chairs in the office were literally falling apart.

We started changing the chairs from our service team as they were getting new desks at the same time. This caused some discussion. Some teams felt they are more important than service team, and should have at least as good chairs before the service team. We were soon changing all the chairs, so this did not become an issue.

But of course not all the chairs are similar. It was rather important that some chairs have armrests and others don't. And as you can guess, this has nothing to do with some people needing to rest their arms more than others.

Now I am still sitting on my old chair, while everybody else in the office has nice new chairs.

Years ago I studied organizational culture and I could not have believed it is really built with such little things. But it is. Edgar Schein has a three level model for organizational culture.

1st level

Organizational attributes that can be seen, felt and heard by the uninitiated observer. Included are the facilities, offices, furnishings, visible awards and recognition, the way that its members dress, and how each person visibly interacts with each other and with organizational outsiders.

2nd level

The next level deals with the professed culture of an organization's members. At this level, company slogans, mission statements and other operational creeds are often expressed, and local and personal values are widely expressed within the organization.

3rd level

At the third and deepest level, the organization's tacit assumptions are found. These are the elements of culture that are unseen and not cognitively identified in everyday interactions between organizational members. Additionally, these are the elements of culture which are often taboo to discuss inside the organization. Many of these 'unspoken rules' exist without the conscious knowledge of the membership.

I blogged earlier about how organizational culture is more powerful than organizations strategy. If you want to change one, you need to change both.

The following story of monkeys and bananas illustrates well how organizational culture is formed. And this culture and the original strategy really need some changing...

Start with a cage containing five monkeys. Inside the cage, hang a banana on a string and place a set of stairs under it. Before long, a monkey will go to the stairs and start to climb towards the banana. As soon as he touches the stairs, spray all of the other monkeys with cold water. After a while, another monkey makes an attempt with the same result - all the other monkeys are sprayed with cold water. Pretty soon, when another monkey tries to climb the stairs, the other monkeys will try to prevent it.

Now, put away the cold water. Remove one monkey from the cage and replace it with a new one. The new monkey sees the banana and wants to climb the stairs. To his surprise and horror, all of the other monkeys attack him. After another attempt and attack, he knows that if he tries to climb the stairs, he will be assaulted.

Next, remove another of the original five monkeys and replace it with a new one. The newcomer goes to the stairs and is attacked. The previous newcomer takes part in the punishment with enthusiasm! Likewise, replace a third original monkey with a new one, then a fourth, then the fifth.

Every time the newest monkey takes to the stairs, he is attacked. Most of the monkeys that are beating him have no idea why they were not permitted to climb the stairs or why they are participating in the beating of the newest monkey.

After replacing all the original monkeys, none of the remaining monkeys have ever been sprayed with cold water. Nevertheless, no monkey ever again approaches the stairs to try for the banana. Why not? Because as far as they know that's the way it's always been done around here.

And that, is how company culture begins.


Mike Kavis said...

I have been in the shoes of that new monkey before and it is unbelievable what smart people will let happen to their belief system. That is why after 23 years I left the corporate world, one which provided a very successful and profitable career. I am now in a very small startup that is risky, but at least nobody is complaining about whose chair is better. I will never again work for a company whose culture replaces critical thinking!

Thanks for the post.

Shaun Killian said...

I loved the Monkey story. It is a great example of how culture is sustained through 'social learning', which is also a key to evolving culture.

Daddy said...

… and the sad story continues. There are 5 big monkeys sitting in a tree eating big bananas and all other small and medium size monkeys are running on the ground. The biggest monkey sits on the top branch, the next biggest below him etc. There are no stairs available. The big monkeys are changing their places every now and then. That’s what they call rotation. Sometimes a jump from a branch to another fails and a big monkey falls down on the ground. The consequences can be catastrofic for the small and medium size monkeys. They are too weak and uncertain to defend themselves or act as a team to support each other. When things start to go too mad, the other big monkeys give a long hand for to help the one who felt down to climb back on a branch. It is how all monkeys have always behaved and it is how they will always behave. The cage becomes gradually a habitat for a culture of cynical neutrality.

Samuli said...

Thanks for your comments. They are all very true - even the last cynical one by Daddy.

Waugust said...

Looking back, I wonder how many other "monkeys" I knowingly or otherwise kept from climbing "stairs" so I wouldn't get sprayed?

Anonymous said...

I think this is very true and its bitter. I am at university studying management and heard of the same story.
Its a crazy world, people get 'brainwashed' into believing artificial facts. Especially politicians and world leaders.
There has to be rebels everywhere. Its always time for a change and not just being traditional.
Has anyone got any quotes that prove this theory wrong?