We Like Our Cultures to be Stable

I love to think and write about organizational culture, but every time I dig really deeply into it, I am reminded that the primary source for understanding organizational culture has to be Edgar Schein, His book, the Corporate Culture Survival Guide, should simply be ready by anyone who cares about organizations. It has most of what you need to know.

And here's one point I am adapting from him that I often forget: cultures are inherently stable. I don't just mean they are complex and hard to change (although they are). I mean cultures are stable because that's the way we like them.

Your organizational culture is a mix of behaviors, processes, and assumptions about the "way we do things here," and one of the important functions it serves is to reduce complexity. By having a culture, we now know how things are done here, so we don't have to figure it out all the time. So even when we don't like our culture, or parts of it, it is often more appealing to us to have a culture we don't like than to face the prospect of having a period of time with no culture while we change it.

Joe Gerstandt recently used the software metaphor to try to better understand culture (culture is the software of our organization), and I think it is helpful. So who doesn't get anxious when you have to upgrade to new system software or a new version of your main programs? What if data is lost? What if I can't use the new software as easily as the old one. What if things I've worked so hard on are incompatible with the new software. Maybe we should just stick with what we've got. We won't buy any new computers (that will require the new software). We'll just keep running our 486s for as long as we can.

We do that a lot with culture, too. And it holds us back just like trying to make do with insufficient computing power does.



  1. 25.01.2011 at 8:48 am

    Great reminder about culture, Jamie. And we unconsciously (or at least semi-consciously) do a lot of things to keep our cultures stable, too.
    The only point I would add is that the idea of a singular organizational culture isn’t quite accurate. There are often several cultures within an organization that comprise what we think of as organizational culture. The larger the organization, the more cultures that exist. The problem most organizations face is not really understanding these cultures. Sometimes they confuse corporate values for culture. Sometimes the C-Level merely thinks culture is a manifestation of *their* business objectives.
    In reality, what we actually *perceive* as culture is often just what appears on the surface. There is much more that transpires at deeper levels that often goes overlooked. It’s in asking and exploring these issues and questions that make my work in business anthropology so exciting.