AMES, Iowa – It doesn’t matter whether you work on an assembly line or in a maze of cubicles – every organization has a culture defined by its rhythm and harmony, much like music. In the day-to-day grind at work, we don’t give much thought to our office culture, but David King, an associate professor of management at Iowa State University’s College of Business, says we should.
Think about your own office. Is it more like a jazz jam session or a finely tuned orchestra? Or is it just the opposite and similar to an open mic night, or a place where everyone wants to play the jazz flute? King says culture influences every aspect of an organization.
“The culture is what makes it attractive for people to come to work, and it acts as a safety mechanism of what’s acceptable and what’s unacceptable behavior to avoid problems,” King said. “The culture must be managed and that is something most managers aren’t taught to think about. People at the very top must set an example and demonstrate that culture.”
It’s an example General Motors CEO Mary Barra is trying to set as she works to change the company’s culture following its failed safety recall. King says adjusting a firm’s culture is difficult, comparing it to fixing an airplane in flight. This is because you want people within an organization to continue to do their jobs as management adjusts the processes and values embodied by that work.
The clear need to avoid the problems related to the ignition switch quality issues, which resulted in multiple people being fired, now needs to be followed up. General Motors previously developed a corporate university, a tool that can facilitate this process, King said. Clear top-down support reinforced by training that provides a common experience can begin to adjust company culture.
In a paper published in Graziadio Business Review, King and Samuel DeMarie, an associate professor of management, compare the structure of an organization to the structure of music. For example, they explain how melody sets the theme of a composition, similar to the routines developed over time that create value in an organization.
Of all the aspects of music or characteristics of an organization, finding balance is most important, they said. The different instruments or units working individually may develop their own subculture, but still need to function as a team to make music. While everyone is working toward a common goal, you can’t have everyone playing the same instrument. DeMarie says diversity avoids a culture of groupthink similar to what happened to Sears.
“For years Sears was highly successful and became the largest retailer in the world. Much of this growth was driven by their catalog business, which featured their signature Christmas Wishbook edition,” DeMarie said. “Unfortunately, Sears built an organization of like-minded people who understood the catalog business, but were not open to new ideas. As technology evolved, Sears stuck to their tried and true formula for success, mailing out a large, high quality and very expensive catalog. Eventually Sears could no longer compete and has continued on a downward spiral for decades.”
That is why it’s OK for different subcultures to exist within an organization. In business there are people who need to take risks and employees who must adhere to a more rigid environment, much like the military, said King, a retired Air Force officer.
“For example, you want your special forces to take risks and there’s a specific subculture for that group. However, you don’t want employees who are handling money or nuclear weapon certification to get creative. It’s the same with organizations. You want people in an R&D lab to take more risks and be innovative. However, in finance and accounting it’s more regimented, and you don’t want people to get creative,” King said.
Culture a factor in hiring decisions
The founder of a company establishes the culture, but it is up to management to maintain and foster that environment. It’s something that should be considered in promotions and hiring decisions as well as separation, King said. Too often though, it’s the exception and not the rule. King points to Southwest Airlines and Amazon as good examples of managing to make sure employees fit the culture.
Southwest created an environment in which employees want to come to work, have fun and care about their job, therefore making it a better experience for the customer. King says the airline was also one of the first to let employees fire themselves. Amazon has since followed suit and provides incentives for employees who don’t fit their corporate culture to quit, he said.
“If the manager hasn’t noticed that someone is not fitting in, that person has probably noticed that they’re not fitting in,” King said. “So giving employees an out and paying them to quit helps maintain the culture a company wants.”
Focusing on company values can help weed out employees who may be potential problems. King says managers often promote people who have a good performance record, even though their values don’t match. One bad apple can influence other employees and create a toxic environment. King says the situation can also escalate to a point that is detrimental to the company. Managers need to think about that culture when hiring and promoting people.
“As a leader you should promote those people who display that and set an example for others,” King said. “An organization’s culture is not something that’s in our conscious thought. That’s why managers, who are responsible for creating this experience, have to start thinking about it more consciously to manage it and not leave it to chance.”