What is organisational culture?

This is part of a series of posts which explores in more depth topics covered in the presentation on organisational culture that I gave to a local Care Association meeting in July 2019.  This post looks at Slide 3: Definition(s) of culture

In my presentation, and in other posts on this topic, I have described culture in terms of shared values, meanings and assumptions, and also as the ‘psyche’ or ‘personality’ of the organisation.  So in order to gain a better understanding of the nature of organisational culture it might be a good idea to unpack these ‘preliminary definitions’ in more detail.

If we start with the question of shared values, meanings and assumptions, this is really about what is taken for granted in the organisation; or, as it is sometimes described, ‘the way we do things around here’.  The word ‘shared’ is of particular importance here, because in many ways an organisation can only exist as such if all its members think of it in the same way.

For example, a new manager may soon discover that her staff team is behaving as if she didn’t exist; ignoring reasonable requests regarding changes to working practices and staff rotas, not attending staff meetings, skipping supervisions, etc.  Eventually she is able to find a long-standing member of staff who explains to her that over the last ten years the service has had ten managers come and go, and the team are assuming that she will soon make it eleven.  Bearing in mind this rather importance piece of information was never shared with her during her interview, the manager decides to probe a bit deeper, and discovers that twelve years ago the manager who had been in post for fifteen years, and was deeply respected by all the staff team, suddenly left for no apparent reason.  It subsequently turned out that the manager had been downloading child pornography on his work computer. This had shaken the team to the core, and to make matters even worse, for two nearly years afterwards no permanent manager was in place.  This meant that to all intents and purposes the team were left to their own devices and were effectively ‘self-managing’.  Once a dedicated manager had been recruited it was too late, because the team had got used to ‘getting by’ on their own, so they proceeded to make the new manager’s life unbearable, and continued to do so with all subsequent managers.

I give this example, many aspects of which are based on a true story from my consultancy experience, to illustrate two points.  Firstly, the fact that in this case the ‘organisation’ was defined in terms of ‘self-management’ by the staff team, which meant that there was no place for an actual manager.  Essentially, the team had come to believe that managers could not be trusted but that they could trust themselves. Furthermore, for nearly two years they had managed to function without a full-time manager so had ‘proved’ to themselves that they didn’t need a manager.

Secondly, it shows the importance of everyone ‘singing from the same hymn sheet’, so to speak.  In other words, in this particular case the new manager probably assumed that her staff team would recognise her as the legitimate manager, and as long as she didn’t behave inappropriately or make unreasonable demands, she could expect her team to work with her.  This is one of the basic (and normally unspoken) assumptions in most organisations: that managers manage and staff agree to be managed.   Clearly in this particular example this assumption was not shared!

These kind of ‘basic assumptions’, to use the technical term, along with shared values and meanings, form the bedrock of any organisational culture, and, I would argue, the organisation itself.  In other words, culture is not some ‘add-on’ which can be ignored.  It is the essence of the organisation.  Unfortunately, and as I indicate in the latter part of my presentation, this is not a view that is always shared by senior managers.  Often they behave precisely as if culture were an ‘after-thought’, which might help explain why so many change management projects end in failure.

But what about the idea of culture as the organisation’s ‘psyche’ or ‘personality’?  Clearly, an organisation is not a person, even though it is made up of individual persons.  However, I think the metaphor is useful because quite often organisations do appear to exhibit many of the characteristics of individual human beings.  Different organisations have different ‘personalities’, and, like human beings, have their own ‘life-cycles’.  Furthermore, in smaller organisations in particular, the owner’s or founder’s personality is stamped all over them. In other words, the values of the owner or founder become the values of the organisation as a whole.  And even in larger organisations, the values of senior management are often reflected right across the organisation.

Within the care sector there are also a number of very specific values, assumptions and meanings which help define the organisation and its ‘personality’.  Perhaps the most basic one of all (hopefully) is that the organisation exists in order to promote the safety and well-being of its service users.  Linked closely to this is the idea of person-centred care, and respect for all service users regardless of their age, gender, sexual orientation, faith, disability, ethnicity, and so on.  I would think it extremely unlikely if any of these values and assumptions were ever questioned in a care setting!

However, it is also the case that most residential and home care services are private businesses which need to make a profit in order to survive.  This can often lead to tensions between the provider on the one hand, whose values and ethos are those of business and finance,  and the manager and staff team on the other, whose values and ethos are more aligned to those of public sector providers.  Once again, this shows the importance – and problems associated with – of having assumptions and values shared across the whole organisation.

So, in conclusion, it is essential, in my view, to recognise that culture is the bedrock of any organisation, and that each culture is largely determined by the extent to which the values, meanings and basic assumptions of the organisation are shared by all its members.  In the context of CQC inspections it is also important to remember that culture is looked at as part of the Well-led domain, and the CQC expects services to have a culture that is open, inclusive and promotes person-centred care.