Organizational Culture Reading List

Are you interested in healthy organizational culture, but unsure about how to make that happen? This reading list will give you a brief introduction to what organizational culture is, and some very practical tools on how to make it happen. There are three sections in this post. Work your way through at least one book per section, and you’ll have the tools you need to start changing your organization.

Core to understanding and activating culture change

Organizational Traps by Chris Argyris

“It’s not that people are incompetent in achieving the results they desire — in fact they are quite competent: but what they are competent at is avoiding threatening and embarrassing situations.”
Organizational Traps

Argyris is considered a guru in the world of organizational behavior. This is one of his more approachable works, and is probably the most useful in understanding why culture change efforts often fail.

The book details his major contribution: theory-in-use is often different than the theory we espouse. We avoid confronting this knowledge because we are human; we are uncomfortable with unpleasant truths.

Six Thinking Hats by Edward de Bono

“A discussion should be a genuine attempt to explore a subject rather than a battle between competing egos.”
Six Thinking Hats

De Bono details the different ways human minds approach problem solving. He points out that we are often unaware of how we are thinking, and when we pay attention, we can think in the right way at the right time.

This is a staple of innovation studies, and a must-read for anyone wanting to help teams become more self-aware and productive.

Fun, Inspiring, Worthwhile

The Heart Aroused by David Whyte

“The….difficulty at the heart of modern work life is its abstraction from many of the ancient cycles of life that allow the silence and time in which true appreciation and experience can take place. The hurried child becomes the pressured student, and finally the harassed manager.”
The Heart Aroused: Poetry and the Preservation of the Soul in Corporate America

A Seattle-area writer and consultant wrote this heartfelt defense of FEELING in the workplace. Emotions and human experience are so central to our existence, yet we give them little to no space in our workplaces.

Give and Take by Adam Grant

“The presence of a single giver was enough to establish a norm of giving…the givers raised the bar and expanded the pie for the whole group.”
Give and Take

Psychologist Adam Grant gives. All the time. Now he has assembled the empirical evidence that giving is both good for an individual’s career and for the organization as a whole. When people inside an organization give, the entire organization functions better.

Learned Optimism by Martin Seligman

“Practice disputing your automatic interpretations all the time from now on. Anytime you find yourself down or anxious or angry, ask what you are saying to yourself.”
Learned Optimism

You’ve heard of Learned Helplessness? Eminent psychologist Martin Seligman wanted people to forget about his concept of helplessness and begin to learn optimism. He summarizes his research on negativity in the 3 P’s: Pervasive (“Now everything’s ruined”); Personal (“I am a terrible person); and Permanent (“It’s never going to change.”). He argues that the brain is plastic and can learn to be optimistic.

For the academically inclined

Changing Organization Culture by Mats Alvesson and Stefan Sveningsson

“Organizational cultural characterizations are often used as slogans, wishful thinking and fantasies rather than as a way of gaining deeper understanding of organizational life.”
Changing Organizational Culture

A case study of a technology company grappling with defining its culture. The authors’ ethnographic study shows how and in what ways buzzwords and process diagrams get conflated with actual culture, and how, in the end, the effort fails.

Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn

“[Culture] represents ‘how things are done around here.’ It reflects the prevailing ideology that people carry inside their heads.”
Diagnosing and Changing Organizational Culture

A framework for understanding archetypes of organizations, and practical ways to measure your own organization. Quite academic and heavy on the method, but worth reading for the case studies.

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