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Shaping Organizational Culture

November 16, 2012 by Dr. Jon Warner in Climate and Culture

Shaping Organizational Culture

At the beginnings of the industrial age (probably up to and including the end of the first world war in 1918), although there were undoubtedly exceptions to the rule, there was generally little variation in the overall design and role of the medium to large-scale industrial organization. Every enterprise, in whatever industry and whatever size, was organized in a largely paternalistic fashion with traditional ways of getting work done (largely through conformance to pre-set rules). The role of the organization was therefore to produce outputs and thereby profits for the owners, and employees simply played their small highly-specified part in creating this outcome in return to a pre-established wage (and often a job for life as long as they performed adequately).

In times of high growth and massive migrations to cities, no-one much questioned this approach for many decades. However, from around the early 1920’s in particular (and for fifty to sixty years thereafter), many researchers and more forward thinking industrialists started to think about the different ways in which work could be organized and what kind of role the enterprise did (and perhaps could) perform in order to achieve its goals or objectives. This led to a number of theories or models of overall organizational roles or cultures such as:

  • Autocratic vs. Democratic
  • Task Centered vs. Relationship centered
  • Production Focused vs. Sales/Customer Focused
  • Paternalistic vs. Empowering
  • Centralized vs. Centralized

These largely “bi-polar” models had and still have their usefulness today but are often now regarded as over simplistic and only help the modern leader to a limited extent with the classification they offer, even if it is accurate in a very general way. A more sophisticated model is therefore needed.

Over the past twenty five years or so, a number of interesting models have been put forward. Many of the most fascinating of these suggest different analogies to describe the operational aspects or culture of an organization. For example, in his book “Images of organization”, Gareth Morgan summarizes eight of these. These include organizations as: (1) machines, (2) organisms, (3) brains, (4) cultures, (5) political systems, (6) psychic prisons, (7) flux and transformation, and (8) instruments of domination.

Despite the fact that we could take any one of Morgan’s analogies or many others that have been put forward over the last 50 years or so, one of the most compelling of these (intended to be holistic theory) was developed by the British management consultant and author Charles Handy.

Handy’s work on understanding organizations has evolved over 30 years or more. However, even though the world in general and the commercial or business world in particular has changed considerably over this period, his foundational model in terms of organizational cultures is as applicable today as it was in the mid 1970’s when it was first put forward.

Handy suggests that anyone who has spent time working in or with a number of different organizations (as opposed to working in only one or two over a life time) will have immediately noticed the very different atmospheres or climates that seem to exist in each and every one. Such differences typically reflect things like differing:

  • levels of energy
  • ways of doing things
  • attitudes to individual freedom
  • kinds of personality to be found
  • sets of values
  • structures and systems


In Handy’s view, these differences are not the result of chance or accidental design but actually reflect a very specific kind of culture that is deliberately adopted as a basis for approaching the kind of work that the enterprise in question is engaged in. In other words, organizations promote a set of strong (and often very deep-seated) and prevailing beliefs about the way that work should be organized, authority should be exercised, people controlled and rewarded, and so on. These beliefs may even extend to the level of obedience that is expected from employees, the working hours that are deemed appropriate in order to be successful (or to progress in career terms) and even to what people should wear at work (even when uniforms are not specified).

Whatever the particular culture may be, the idea is that it creates a cohesive set of views amongst employees (especially after they have been with an enterprise for any substantive length of time). This can create a highly “clannish” climate or even quite “tribal” behavior in which past values and traditions of the tribe are constantly reinforced (usually through the vehicle of the private or internal language that is used, common catch phrases, organizational acronyms, mini rituals and even the “heroic” stories about the enterprise). This may be useful and comfortable for those people who like this culture and can work productively within it (and therefore become part of the majority), but may be limiting for those people whose values and beliefs are very different or not open to adjustment in order to fit in (and therefore stay part of one or more minority sub-cultures). In either case, an awareness of these cultural “types” that Handy describes is important for all individuals to discern and learn about as it is often very useful foundational knowledge for all employees to have when making any personal career decisions.

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About Dr. Jon Warner

Dr. Jon Warner is a prolific author, management consultant and executive coach with over 25 years experience. He has an MBA and a PhD in Organizational Psychology. Jon can be reached at

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About the Editor and Primary Author

Jon Warner

Jon Warner is an executive coach and management consultant and in the past has been a CEO in three very different companies. Read more

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