Asian Identity | Human Resource Coounsulting Firm

Asian Leadership vol.5 ~ What do we need to do to nurture positive organizational culture?

April 2, 2017Blog

posted by Jack Nakamura

“How can we create and maintain positive organizational culture?” – This is one of the most common topics which a manager, including the manager of the HR department, is almost always concerned about. In today’s article, I’ll try to introduce theories and some practical tips for managers who have this concern.

When we talk about organizational culture, what kind of culture comes to your mind? A vibrant workplace where you hear one another greeting each other and having proactive dialogue, or a silent office where people’s voices are rarely heard… The types of communication found in the office can be examples of organizational culture.

Another angle when understanding organizational culture is the employee mindsets. For example, employees are only focusing on their own tasks and hence, no teamwork, or, employees don’t seek challenges due to having low ambitions. These are also descriptions of organizational culture.

Organizational culture is infectious. If a new employee joins a team with a negative culture, the behavior of the new employee could be impacted accordingly. To the contrary, if we succeed in creating a positive culture in the team, employees proactively take positive action even though the manager has not made any direct request to do so. So managing organizational culture is one of the key jobs of managers, especially in high-context Asian organizations, where people tend to have similar mindsets and behavioral patterns.


Organizational Culture model

Edgar Schein, a distinguished scholar in the field of organizational culture and organizational development, has identified three levels in organizational culture.

The first level is “basic assumptions”, which are the deeply held assumptions that influence our behavior, and is a notion which employees often hold unconsciously. For example, if all the employees have the same idea about keeping their office clean and follows up on that idea in their actual behaviors, keeping the office clean is a “basic assumption” of that organization.

The next level is “values”, a declared state of the ideal situation and rules of behavior. It develops in many ways, for example, when a leader of the organization declares the ideal situation and rules of behavior which, in turn, creates the mindset of the employees. For example, if a leader proposes a direction of keeping the office clean, a certain “value” is presented to the organization.

The last level is “artifacts”, a visible shape or system that represents the culture. For instance, a written policy statement, office layout, event like an office clean-up campaign, etc. Furthermore, evaluation criteria related to “values” is one shape of “artifact”. For example, if policies of keeping the office clean are put in place of a employee evaluation criteria, these are “artifacts” of organizational culture for keeping the office clean.

Creating and maintaining the organizational culture is bridging these three different levels of elements and keeping an eye on whether they are properly implemented in the company or not.

Fix a broken window

As an endorsement of the necessity of appreciating organizational culture, one famous social psychology theory can be useful, which is the “Broken Window Theory” by James Q. Wilson and George Kelling. This theory is a social experiment about crime and proves that if a minor crime is left unmanaged, people tend to commit more serious crimes. This concept can be related in business also, that our behavioral pattern is influenced easily by inappropriate actions taken in our environments.

When Apple Inc. was faced with a serious financial situation, Steve Jobs implemented this concept to his management. Apple’s organizational culture at that time was very loose, for example, many employees came to office late and even more, some employees were playing with their pets in the office. What Jobs did was to remind employees of the values of discipline. By incorporating discipline into the organizational culture, it also reignited the innovative mindset in the employees, which led to their great success in later days.

Maintaining such discipline requires a lot of effort from the leader. It is sometimes inevitable to have someone who doesn’t follow the discipline expected by the organization. However, leaders always need to fix the broken window and not to neglect the minor problems. If a leader gives up in maintaining the desired organizational culture, it will start to deteriorate.


Keep a fish by keeping the water clean

It is said that there is a job-hopping culture in South East Asian societies, where I’m managing my team. People don’t hesitate to change their jobs, so many employees comes in and out every year at many companies. But, even though people rotate, organizational culture can be passed over to each newcomer, if a leader manages the culture properly.

At the end of this article, please allow me to introduce a quote, “keep a fish by keeping the water clean”. If you bring new fish to your aquarium, and the water is dirty, the fish will die. If the water is kept clean, then the fish will also thrive. The important thing is to pay attention to the water itself, not only the fish. I think this metaphor explains well the importance of organizational culture.

Are we keeping the water clean for employees to thrive?

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