The Dark Side of Strong Organisational Cultures

There is much written on how good it is for a company to have a strong, well-defined culture that differentiates the organisation from its competitors. There is also much talk about how important it is to hire candidates who fit well (i.e., who are «aligned») with that organisational culture. We have evidence that this «sense of fit» affects the person’s emotional bond with the organisation and, subsequently, her performance. However, an overly strong organisational culture also hides some risks.

In the past decades the world has become more complex and uncertain. Today the competitiveness of a company depends on its ability to adapt or, better still, anticipate the changes that happen beyond its perimeter. In that context, many organisations decide to convert their collaborators into sensors and interpreters of those changes. In that moment, many of those companies realize how valuable it is that these «sensors» are able to observe the reality that surrounds them from different optics.

Besides, people working on a project no longer have to belong to the same company. Thus, they can be subject to different «cultural artefacts» such as organisational structures, norms, processes and rituals. Many of these people may not even be employees of the organisations they work for, but freelancers. In addition, as a result of various phenomena such as the internationalisation of companies, remote work, or migratory movements, it is increasingly common for members of a team not to share a common cultural heritage.

Work contexts, therefore, have become more complex and diverse. But still, the organisational cultures of a significant number of companies do not reflect, and sometimes even drown, that diversity. For instance, in many companies, and more specifically in the behaviour of their leaders, it is easy to recognise cultural features of their countries of origin. And this represents a problem because those cultural traits can hinder the integration in the company of professionals with different cultural backgrounds.

This is precisely the thesis Amit S. Mukherjee poses in an article published a couple of months ago in the MIT Sloan Management Review. According to Mukherjee, to foster the integration of employees with diverse cultural backgrounds, companies should promote among their executives the adoption of leadership standards that can be understood anywhere in the world. Among other solutions, Murkherjee says it is advisable to emphasise the results sought (e.g. “making decisions”) rather than prescribing behaviours (e.g. “being decisive”) that may clash with the behavioural patterns of certain national cultures.

However, the potential problems stemming from a strong organisational culture go a good deal further. Beyond hindering the integration of people from different cultural heritages into a common project, an overly strong corporate culture can also negatively impact the cognitive diversity of their members, a factor the effectiveness of organisations largely depends on in complex, uncertain, and ambiguous business scenarios.

An overly strong corporate culture can reduce the cognitive diversity of the members of an organisation.

Alyson Reynolds and David Lewis write about this topic in an article recently published in the Harvard Business Review. Using a tool called AEM Cube, developed by Peter Robertson to assess differences in the way people approach change, Reynolds and Lewis have measured the cognitive diversity of more than 100 groups of people, with an average group size of 16, who underwent an exercise consisting in defining and executing a strategy to achieve a specific goal in a given time.

On the one hand, they analysed whether in the face of a new, complex, uncertain situation team members preferred to consolidate and deploy already existing knowledge, or if they tended to generate new knowledge. On the other hand, they examined whether those people preferred to apply their own expertise or, on the contrary, to orchestrate the ideas and know-how of others.

Their discovery: teams with a greater cognitive diversity completed the challenge more quickly than more cognitively homogenous teams.

That finding should not surprise us much. It makes sense that in front of a new challenge the teams that have advantage are those capable of a) finding a balance between what their members know and the exploration of the unknown, and b) combining the application of specialised skills and an ability to step back and look at the bigger picture.

The idea has a sound business logic. At the end of the day, we are talking about agility and efficiency. Two powerful arguments for companies to be more attentive to a dimension of diversity much less visible than others such as gender or age, and to monitor to what extent their organisational culture, and particularly their management practices and leadership style, foster or hinder that attribute.

Versión en español.

Image Steve Jurvetson under a Creative Commons license

Un artículo de
Santi Garcia