Week 7: Organizational Culture and Socialization

Chapter 5 introduces the cultural metaphor for studying organizations. It argues that competitive pressure, interpretive methodology, and social concerns led to the rise of this approach (pp. 125–131). Specifically, it introduces three approaches that fall under the “cultural” umbrella:

  • practical — views culture as a feature of an organization, something managers can leverage much like technology, to help an organization meet their goals
  • interpretive — views culture as a socially constructed process in which all organization members engage
  • critical/postmodern — focus especially on power relationships (we’ll cover these in more detail the next couple of weeks)

The practical approach is popular among management consultants and is attributed to books by McKinsey & Company. The book provides a few examples of companies that use their culture as a tool for leverage including Proctor & Gamble and Disney. If any of you are in sororities or fraternities, you may also have used or witnessed an organizational culture used as a tool. For instance, Kappa Alpha Thetas use the phrase “That’s not Theta” or “TNT” to describe behaviors they find incompatible with the organization’s culture. Sometimes it’s wielded to get someone to stop doing something dangerous (e.g., drinking too much) but it can also be invoked as a tool for behavior control more broadly (e.g., carrying the wrong brand of handbag, dating a guy/girl from the wrong house). I use these examples because I want us to remember that organization, here, includes groups that aren’t companies. Sure, Theta is still a formal organization, but I bet you can think of examples of informal organizations that use this approach too.

Remember structuration theory from a few weeks ago? The interpretive approach should remind you of it. In both cases, theory suggests that participants are co-created something through their interaction. In this case, the thing being created is organizational culture. Both theories also “focus on the subtle ways in which communication works to build, reproduce, and transform the taken-for-granted reality of organizational culture. How people dress, the stories that they tell, the layout of offices and parking areas, the design of security badges, and the length and tenor of staff meetings each communicate richly about an organization’s unique culture.” (p. 134)

The cultural approach highlights individual desires to see organizational life as a chance to do something meaningful. The text references Edgar Schein’s definition of organizational culture and uses an analogy to religion to explain what “culture” means: “An organizational culture is a pattern of shared basic assumptions that have been invented, discovered, and/or developed by a group as it learns to cope with problems of external adaptation and internal integration” (Schein, 1992, p. 247). The religion analogy is especially useful, I find, because it reminds us that members of a culture may not practice their membership in the same way, but they share understandings about how and why things are a certain way. Similarly, subcultures, much like religious sects or denominations, may have strong disagreements about what those understandings mean for action and practice.

The religion analogy also helps us figure out how cultures are enacted and how people learn to become members. The text asks us to examine an organization’s environment and use of symbols in order to understand its culture. It then introduces the concept of cultural element to explain what exactly we should look for:

  • metaphors
  • rituals
  • storis
  • artifacts
  • heroes and heroines
  • performances
  • values

Socialization is the process through which newcomers learn an organization’s culture(s). Anticipatory socialization, which is a theme in the watching for this week, refers to the things newcomers learn even before their role actually begins. Vocational socialization starts when we’re kids and its how we learn about work from our families, the media, our friends, and our teachers. By “media” here I mean all media — not just news media but books, movies, TV, the Internet, etc..

Separate Vocations

Here’s a free career aptitude test for you to try. This episode of The Simpsons in which Bart and Lisa take an aptitude test is useful for starting discussions about anticipatory socialization. What effects might tests like these have on people are various stages of life? How did you react to your own results?

Ideas for your Blog Posts

These ideas work for next week too as we continue culture and introduce critical theory.

  • Go on a photo scavenger hunt and report back! For instance, if you’re on campus, take pictures of the organizational rituals, heroines, and metaphors outlined in Chapter 5. What do the visual elements of culture on campus say about Illinois Tech? If you’re not on campus, you can do the same with an organization where ever you are. Introduce us to the organization through its elements of culture.
  • Read the “Shooting” Employees with Motivation “What Would You Do?” on pp. 135–136 and respond to the questions posed at the end. I’m especially interested in your answers to #3: In the context of a general economic downturn and in the absence of real material rewards, how can leaders inspire and motivate a positive work environment? What tools and resources might be productively deployed toward that end? Or a parallel for instructors: How can instructors motivate a positive learning environment? How can students and instructors construct a class culture that encourages engaged and effective learning?
  • How does the book define “culture” in this sense? How does that definition compare to how you understand “culture?”