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  • Writer's pictureDr. Asma Abdullah

Building Organisational Cultures: The Role Of Values In Organisational Settings

Written by Dr. Asma Abdullah, Interculturalist

The culture of an organisation is often best described by those who are considered as its "permanent residents". These are employees who are familiar with both spoken and unspoken ways of the organisation and are likely to understand its internal logic on how and why things are done in a certain manner because of their years of service and experience. 

James O'Toole in Vanguard Management (1985) describes corporate cultures as "that complex interrelated whole of standardised, institutionalised and habitual behaviours that characterises that firm and that firm only". It includes both written and unwritten laws on the shared patterns of behaviour related to strategic, operational, managerial, supervisory and leadership behaviours of members in the organisation.

In addition, the culture of an organisation can also be examined by what employees say and do and what others say about them. They refer to the unique ways employees perform their jobs, spend their time, relate to people, approach problems and respond to success and failures. 

Most successful and effective business organisations articulate their own unique corporate cultures through the use of powerful symbols, rites and rituals, ceremonies, legends, myths and stories to their employees and members of the

public. They represent the values and assumptions of how a group of managers and leaders think, feel, act and evaluate the world and events around them.

Within organisations, managers are expected to convey the culture of the organisation to their employees through work systems and processes, procedures, techniques and ways of developing human resources. Sometimes, the words core, roots, ethos, ideology, manner, spirit, vision and the "way" are used to describe the culture of an organisation. To most managers these mean much the same thing.

In most cases, a corporate entity is not only established to achieve a specific task and make business profits. It has to also demonstrate a sense of social responsibility for the advancement of the community and the nation in which it continues to do business. Hence the culture of an organisation or a corporate entity is often an expression of a set of values and deep-seated assumptions of the thinking and beliefs of its founders, managers, leaders and shareholders. Their managerial actions tend to reflect the values that they revere based on their process of growing up and education. These values are carried into the workplace to shape the culture of the organisation they help to build and maintain.

Culture of an organisation

Like the culture of a society, an organisational culture has its own set of underlying assumptions and values. These are often unconscious - hidden and implicit in the "hearts and minds" of members in the organisation. Using the analogy of the iceberg, these values and assumptions form the basis of its shared practices which are expressed through symbols that evoke meanings in people, rituals that form the bonds of communication and what role models (who are the heroes/heroines) do in their day-to-day behaviour. These practices are often based on the values which are carefully identified and selected by the managers to drive business actions.

Simply stated, it is the "way we do things around here" and is the key to growth, success and excellence achieved by a corporation in the competitive business environment.

In looking at the underlying assumptions of a corporation, Peter Drucker (1994) talks about three sets of assumptions, namely: 

  1. About the environment of the organisation

The first aspect relates to the task in hand which includes the way the organisation responds to its major external challenges. This means understanding the society and its structure, the market, the customer and technology in which the organisation has to operate. It defines what the organisation is paid to do.

  1. About the specific mission of the organisation

This takes into account what an organisation considers to be important for its survival: the focus on results which are meaningful for its existence and what it needs to do in order to make a difference in the economy and in the society at large, methods used to solve external and internal problems, strategy used to conduct business activities, develop financial goals, raise money, manufacture and distribute its products, choose the means for reaching these goals, decide on the ways to measure its progress, control its output and remedies used to solve situations that are out of line with its business goals and objectives. It defines what an organisation considers to be important for its continuous functioning, growth and development.

  1. About the core competencies of its workforce

This addresses the abilities and skills of its workforce and what employees must do to excel. The focus is on people or the human systems of interrelating within the organisation - how it develops a common language, common concepts of time and space, a view of human nature and personal communication, authority, and roles and tasks that create the bonds of human interaction. It defines what the organisation must do in order to maintain leadership and develop its own human resources.

In studying organisational cultures, these key assumptions and values must be clearly communicated by managers to employees in the organisation. They dominate managerial thinking and actions and influence the way internal strategies, structure and systems are developed and organised to respond to the external business environment. Strong organisations make a point to reiterate and review the values internalised by employees at all levels in the organisation so that they remain congruent with its business purposes and actions.

What culture does to an organisation is to provide members, especially their new hires, with a clear roadmap on how to analyse complex business situations, make decisions, solve problems and respond to work challenges.

Within organisations, values serve as guides and standards and form the basis of shared practices. They indicate desirable or preferred collective goals which employees have to learn to accept and express through job performance. These values have to be communicated by members and acted out and made visible through shared practices so that employees know what they are.

In addition, these values too must be congruent with the underlying assumptions of what management considers to be critical for its business success. These assumptions shape the philosophy, mission statements, strategic plans and contribute to results-oriented behaviour of employees. They determine the way managers perceive their business environment, think of ways to organise their activities and evaluate performance of their employees on a day-to-day basis.

Successful companies are known to place a great deal of emphasis on transmitting these values which are considered vital for organisational growth and profitability.

In summary, values serve to enable employees to conform to the business ideals of the organisation and align them with its mission and vision. They are not often written down, but employees know of their existence by the way things are done and the manner in which performance is assessed.

Common organisational values of business corporations include profit orientation, innovativeness, quality, excellence, flawless execution, teamwork, honesty, customer service orientation, pride in one’s work, commitment to organisation, timeliness and adaptability to the environment. These are embedded in the corporate brochures and documents, advertising campaigns, electronic media and training programs. Employees are expected to internalise them if they want to be identified as key players within the organisation.

The values of an organisation are often articulated through rituals performed by employees. They refer to established ways, standards of decorum or interpersonal behaviour and modes of presentations which all employees need to know because they affect their performance. They provide visible and realistic examples on the accepted mode of getting things done and enable employees to better understand the process of conducting activities considered critical by the organisation to its success.

In addition, rituals also provide members with a shared experience of belonging to a group and express and reinforce what is valued. It enables employees to deliver superior performance, pass their knowledge and skills to newcomers and help unify behind a common purpose in a distinct manner. The crucial feature of rituals in creating organisational culture is the message they contain in order to make the culture distinctive and exclusive for its members.

To succeed in the organisational setting, employees need to understand the significance of these rituals as they are used to make them feel a part of something bigger and more powerful than themselves. Strong rituals which promote values of efficiency, effectiveness, task completion, time specificity, productivity and quality are important to the well-being of an organisation. It is through rituals observed by all employees, especially when championed by key managers that the values of the organisation are expressed more succinctly to newcomers.

Some examples of corporate rituals include the anniversary get-togethers, celebrations, annual events, writing and speaking styles, which members have to learn to include in their repertoire of behavioural skills.

Role models, on the other hand, refer to leaders and managers and even supervisors who personify the values of the organisation. Their behaviours and actions provide employees with concrete examples of what to adopt and what to avoid in their daily routines. They epitomise the strength of the organisation based on their achievements and performance in work activities. Their behaviours are often emulated by others as shown in the saying "you have to walk your talk" - signifying the importance of having key role models demonstrate appropriate behaviours which are in line with the values and assumptions of the organisation. If they do not express these values through their words and actions, there may not be a basis for a strong organisational culture.

Some companies create their own role models in the form of super salesperson, "best employee of the month" and best team award. The people who contribute to cost savings are considered situational heroes as are teams who can inspire employees with their exemplary behaviours.

Equally important in describing the culture of an organisation are the symbols used to refer to visible objects and clearly identifiable artefacts such as the design of the building, type of equipment used, furniture, logo, language and vocabulary used, type of furniture, ways of dressing, the beliefs about the use and distribution of power and privileges, corporate jingles, gifts and tokens to enhance commitment and compliance among insiders and give outsiders a mental image of what the company stands for.

Transmitting organisational culture

Managers and key role players are expected to display exemplary work-related behaviours in their managerial practices. What they say and do would normally communicate to employees the values of the organisation which should be internalised and assimilated into their work habits. Some of the direct and indirect ways used by managers to transmit the culture of the organisation to employees are as follows: 

  • Role modelling - what and how leaders and seniors conduct their day to day activities, energise, excite and coach employees

  • Performance Appraisal system - the standards and quality of work accomplishments used to promote star employees. 

  • Making presentations - the content and methods used by managers and employees to present information and make proposals

  • Selection criteria - the job dimensions and traits used to recruit employees

  • Education and Training - the content of its education and training programs, internal meetings, pep talks, employee briefings to promote new beliefs and attitudes of the preferred culture

  • Managing crisis - the way managers manage and handle crisis and introduce new work practices

  • Print/electronic media - the content and messages communicated by management to employees

  • Work routines - the daily work activities performed by employees at all levels

  • Mission and Values - the guiding principles of the organisation which are found in print media on corporate brochures and written speeches of key managers.

Through various shared practices, the organisation becomes a tool to operationalise, reinforce and perpetuate values which are critical to its success. Managers and key role players demonstrate these values in the way they treat, handle and utilise their human resources.

Building organisational cultures requires constant attention, commitment, competence and consistency on the part of managers and leaders who are the role models in an organisation. They need to consciously select key values and demonstrate them through distinct symbols, meaningful rituals and exemplary behaviours to enable employees to internalise their work-related behaviours. Strong organisational cultures are definitely created and invented by key influential and powerful insiders "who are familiar with the way things are done around here over the years".

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