The Why Of Culture

Organizational culture is important. While we know that, most people (and to be clear, most organizations, executives and managers) struggle with just what culture is, how it is developed and what constitutes effective and positive cultural practices and dimensions. As I discussed in my most recent post, it is possible to have a culture appear to be toxic and volatile to some while being tolerated (or even embraced) by others, and where executives may not even recognize their role and influence.

Building on the Amazon example, a pair of researchers have offered some extremely interesting perspectives on culture. For starters, they argue that we mistakenly focus on practices and strategies that are symptoms of culture, but are not culture itself. Secondly, what really matters in influencing organizational performance is not what we do, but why we do it.

What I really liked about the analysis is that the results synthesize into six meaningful and relevant categories, three of which (play, purpose and potential) are positive, while the other three (emotional pressure, economic pressure and inertia) are negative. This starts to explain why some were quick to defend Amazon’s culture, and even value it; today, in their current positions and roles, they feel engaged because they perceive working there as fun, meaningful or offering them significant potential for growth and advancement. The same culture, where people feel the force of performance pressure brought to bear in a negative fashion (emotionally or economically), or work expectations being driven by the relentless pressure of inertia, an be intolerable to others.

These findings align strongly with the results that emerged from my most recent book, Exercising Agency. While that may sound like a shameless plug, it’s not. What my research found is that while decision making effectiveness can be in part influenced by the political or process influences of organizations, the greatest influence is the agency of individual players who care enough about initiating a project to be willing to invest time, effort, reputation and political capital in moving it forward. The key question is why some people develop and embrace their agency, while others do not.

The observations of McGregor and Doshi resonate in helping to understand how some organizational actors develop agency: they enjoy having an impact, they find purpose in their actions or they see personal potential as a result of doing so. Where there is economic or emotional pressure, or the inertia of “how things are always done here” is an influencing factor, agency will not emerge.

The article provides some great insights, as well as some useful reminders. I look forward to exploring their book in more detail when it is released.

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