Culture is a characteristic of all human groups, and hence of all organisations; culture creates behavioural norms, but at the same time it is through culture that our individuality and uniqueness is expressed. The culture of an organisation refers to the unique configuration of norms, values, beliefs, ways of behaving, and so on, that characterise the ways in which things get done within the organisation.
An organisation’s distinctiveness is intimately bound up with its history and the character-moulding effects of past decisions and past leaders. It is manifested in the ideology to which members defer, as well as in the strategic choices made by the organisation as a whole.
The individuality or cultural distinctiveness of an organisation is attained through the more or less constant exercise of choice, in all sections and at all levels. As a result, the character of organisational choices is one of the major manifestations of organisational culture.
Culture – an international effect
Another factor in cultural studies is the international nature of organisations, which leads to a more complex situation compared to company or even national cultures. The proliferation of internationalisation of company operations has brought with it a number of cultural factors. There is a need to understand the cultural aspects of the country involved.
Corporate culture can be envisaged as a subtle, but pervasive force. Economic, political, religious and ethnic forces tend to shape national culture. Similarly, a range of environmental and historical forces influence corporate culture.
Organisational culture can be strong or weak depending on the cohesiveness, size and value consensus in the organisation, but it has to be stressed that a strong culture is not necessarily a good culture and it may be very resistant to change. That situation will not be beneficial in fast changing environments.
Corporate culture permits and encourages the sharing of meanings in every organisation. It can be seen in the rites, rituals, myths, legends, symbols, language and artefacts of that culture. Further, it functions to give members an organisational identity, it facilitates collective commitment, it promotes social system stability, and it partly shapes the behaviour of all employees by helping them make sense of their surroundings. For many business people, an adaptable, healthy organisational culture can provide a specific culture by developing a sense of history, creating a sense of oneness and membership, and increasing exchange among members.
The definition of corporate culture can be difficult. However, the impact of corporate culture can be even more difficult to assess on such things as productivity, procedures, morale and safety. Despite this, there are some fairly sophisticated and widely used models of corporate culture which place shared values as a central point affected by a number of variable and inter-linked inputs.
A line manager or a safety professional, to operate effectively, has to have the ability to assess what determines the behaviour and responses of individuals within their organisation. This should, on the face of it, not be a difficult task, but the individual is probably ‘ingrained’ in the company culture. This is why many organisations turn to external consultants as it is often wrongly believed only they have the ability to ‘see the wood for the trees’. What the safety manager will get out of this will be company norms that have evolved from the culture of the company.
Other Cultural Features
One example is the general tendency in the UK to assume that an incident, such as an accident, stems from a single cause. In reality this is seldom the case, but there is a culturally in-bred need to simplify cause and effect relationships.
This is why it is essential to adopt a holistic approach in order to get a number of views in the expectation that there will be a variety of views expressed and that potential causes of accidents will be uncovered. Management consultants use a technique where almost every point raised in a meeting is written down on flip charts – these are then reviewed and reduced to mutually agreed factors. This is a change in culture–– the group view is sought – not the view of the expert (the safety manager), which may be biased or limited in some way. It is more than likely that the safety manager will lead the group.
There is another concept called ‘the wide-angle lens problem’ which is associated with a complex problem, where it is often difficult to isolate the key features. This is made more arduous because in real life many of the key features are interrelated, making it difficult to understand how each aspect of the problem is related to any of the others.
To some extent this is adopting a systems approach. Is the organisational culture suited to that? If it is very autocratic the answer is probably No. The following section serves to confirm that view.
Cultural Blocks in Organisations
Cultural blocks can best be described as a series of propositions, which serve to inhibit certain kinds of thinking and behaviour. They are easily recognised once they have been stated. Examples might include:
- Fantasy is escapism – it is a waste of time and perhaps suggests laziness
- Playfulness is for children only – adults do not play, and if they do, they do so seriously, with rules, with the right equipment, and to win
- Problem Solving is a serious business – a serious problem is no place to fool around and humour is definitely out of place
- Reason, Logic, Numbers, Utility, Practicality are ‘worthwhile’ – they are good; feeling, intuition, qualitative judgements, pleasure are ‘indulgences’ and are bad.
Perhaps the most important environment for people is that of other people, and, in terms of blocks to behaviour, other people are probably the most powerful of all blocks, which may take the form of:
- Lack of co-operation and trust among colleagues
- Autocratic management which values only its own ideas
- Non-rewarding managerial culture, which punishes mistakes and ignores successes – and which does not give permission to occasionally fail – this is more commonly referred to as a ‘blame culture’
- Lack of support for bringing ideas / views into action