Dark side of organizational culture

Organizational culture can help build a shared sense of values and support a consensus among organizational members. Indeed, much of the research explores the positive aspects of culture. Yet, as I discussed in my post on the sorority recruitment videos at the University of Alabama, culture can prove damaging and destructive as well. In today’s post, I want to share an excerpt from my article Witch-hunting at Crucible University:  The power and peril of competing organizational ideologies that appeared in the Journal of Higher Education in 2011.

Photo credit: Flickr Josh

Competing perspectives of organizational culture highlight the role of subcultures which can have quite divergent values and interests (Martin, 2002; Sackmann, 1992).

Subcultures may form around hierarchical rank or occupational position. In universities, the disparate histories and epistemological assumptions of various academic disciplines cause them to operate as independent “tribes” (Becher, 1989).

Each institution is therefore comprised of many communities of practice, each of whom attribute their own meaning and purpose to organizational mission and activity. Such divisions are often tellingly revealed during times of crisis (Meyer, 1982).

Of course, diverse perspectives not only enrich institutional life, they have been shown to contribute to better decision-making, ensuring that ideas are vetted and contested (Hammond, Keeney, & Raiffa, 2001) but differences may also contribute to conflict.

Sometimes the source of that conflict appears obvious as when groups compete for scarce resources. However, conflict also arises over divergent opinions about what meaning to make about events.

The process of sensemaking during times of crisis (Weick, 1988) presents special challenges and may lead individuals (and groups) to construct entirely dissimilar views, ones that may place the groups sharply at odds with one another. Thus, the interplay between subcultures can serve as a powerful influence within the institution (Martin, 1992; Van Maanen & Barley, 1985) either bringing groups together or driving them apart.

When an organization’s culture (its shared norms and values) evolves into a complex belief system about “how and why we do things around here,” it can be said to constitute an ideology.

Ideologies are “relatively coherent sets of beliefs that bind people together and explain their worlds” (Beyer, 1981, p. 161). They “legitimize certain actions, render other actions heretical, evoke historical reinterpretations, and create meanings for events that have yet to occur” (Meyer, 1982, p. 47).

Strong ideologies can circumvent formal institutional structures (such as established policies) and dictate an institution’s response, particularly during a crisis (Meyer, 1982). The ability of ideology to provide cultural identity and rationalize individual commitment to a larger purpose provides “a powerful means of unity” (Clark, 1972, p. 183).

However, the dark side of an ideology is the potential of becoming pathological.

The study of organizational pathology examines how beliefs and values of individuals play a role in destabilizing organizations and adversely impacting their performance (Harrison, 1972; Kets de Vries & Miller, 1984). Individuals that make up an organization bring with them a host of strengths and weaknesses, assets and dysfunctional traits.

When a guiding coalition embraces positive and productive values, organizations flourish (Kotter, 1996). When the characteristics of such a group are dysfunctional, the very future of the institution may be imperiled (as events at Arthur Anderson, WorldCom and Enron have underscored in recent years.)

Kersten (2001) calls for organizational pathology studies that can “be helpful by providing systematic examinations of these phenomena … [including] the structural and ideological factors considered by critical theorists” (p. 464).

Few such studies exist in describing such dynamics in the higher education governance and management literature.