Diagnosing Your Organizational Culture

This coming year, consider assessing your organizational culture so you can adapt and evolve towards sustainable change.
Business and Workplace Author, Speaker, and Consultant, AlexandraLevit.com
December 29, 2011

If you ask a lot of employees about their organization’s culture, chances are you will get various answers that aren’t exactly precise. One friend described his office environment as insular and isolationist. Another said his company’s culture was “grateful, like Thanksgiving.”

Fortunately, there is a way of formally diagnosing corporate culture so that we can map our organization’s key characteristics to its mission and goals, and ensure that our improvement efforts make sense in our environment. In 1999, University of Michigan management professors Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn wrote a research-based volume called "Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture," which outlines different cultures found in modern organizations.  In a subsequent white paper, called "Four Organizational Culture Types," University of Illinois-Chicago professor Bruce Tharp, Ph.D., summarized the following four culture types.

"Collaborate (Clan)" culture: The Collaborate culture is an open and friendly place to work where people share a lot of themselves. It is like an extended family. Leaders are considered to be mentors or even parental figures. Group loyalty and sense of tradition are strong. The organization places a premium on teamwork, participation and consensus.

"Create (Adhocracy)" culture: The Create culture is a dynamic, entrepreneurial and creative place to work.  Innovation and risk-taking are embraced by employees and leaders. A commitment to experimentation and thinking differently are what unify the organization. Leaders strive to be on the cutting edge. Individual initiative and freedom are encouraged.

"Control (Hierarchy)" culture: The Control culture is a highly-structured and formal place to work.  Rules and procedures govern behavior. Maintaining a smooth-running organization is most critical. Stability, performance and efficient operations are the long-term goals.  Success means dependable delivery, smooth scheduling and low cost. Manage­ment wants security and predictablity.

"Compete (Market)" culture: The Compete culture is a results-driven organization focused on job completion. People are competitive and goal-oriented. Leaders are demanding, hard-driving and productive. The emphasis on winning unifies the organization.  Success means market share and penetration. Competitive pricing and market leadership are important.

Despite the fact that a lot has changed in the business world since 1999, it is easy to see how every organization I’ve worked with fits into one of these buckets. The Fortune 500 company I mentioned in my first column clearly had a Control culture, whereas most of the startup and small-business clients I have today are Create cultures.

Subcultures may differ

I’ve also observed that many organizations with which I’ve worked have groups or departments with subcultures that are different from the “home office” culture, especially if they are located in a separate geographic area or are focused on a particular product or service.  For instance, in my global interactions with Microsoft, I’ve noted that subsidiary culture depends on country norms as well as on the function of most of that subsidary’s employees (e.g. software development, customer service, marketing).

Having a handle on your larger organizational culture and its subcultures is necessary if you want to put change initiatives into place. If an approach is a mismatch for your people and environment, it doesn’t matter how good it worked for someone else. In fact, this disparity is a major reason that 70 percent of change initiatives fail.

Diagnose yourself today

Here’s a challenge for the New Year. In addition to taking the pulse of your culture by talking openly with your colleagues, consider engaging the Organizational Culture Assessment. This instrument is based on the work of Cameron and Quinn and supplies a blueprint of your preferred culture and helps you mobilize your organization toward sustainable change. I like it because it sheds light not just on who we are, but on what we should do to evolve so that our organizations are great places to work and do business.

Alexandra Levit is a former nationally-syndicated business and workplace columnist for The Wall Street Journal and the author of Blind Spots: The 10 Business Myths You Can’t Afford to Believe on Your New Path to Success.  Money magazine’s Online Career Expert of the Year, she regularly speaks at organizations and conferences on issues facing modern employees.

Illustration by Russell Christian