Corporate or organizational culture is a set of learned and accepted behaviors specific to a particular organization. Elliott Jaques describes it as a “customary and traditional way of thinking and doing things, which is shared … by all its members” (1951:251). Ed Shein furthers the definition by tightly linking it with leadership, whose role he explains as “leaders… create and manage culture” (2004:11). He emphasizes that leadership is separate from management, participating in the creation of culture rather than acting within it. Shein also notes that culture changes through a natural, evolutionary process where values conducive to achieving the group’s goals survive, and others fade away; leaders play an important but partial role in guiding this process.
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The term “corporate culture” is common in many organizations, but how it is usually understood differs significantly from Shein’s and Jacques’ definitions. For instance, management and leadership are often conflated, attempting to impose culture from the top down. Furthermore, such cultural interventions come from the assumption that cultures have absolute value and that “the ‘right kind of culture will influence how effective the organization is” (Shein, 2004:7). Thus, managers attempt to force elements of culture without first understanding the underlying situation. Shein’s own experience as a consultant demonstrates that such an approach is flawed and ultimately ineffective. Only when he made an effort to understand the cultural causes of behaviors deemed undesirable was he able to change these behaviors.
Jacques, Elliott. The Changing Culture of a Factory. Dryden Press, 1951.
Shein, Ed. Organizational Culture and Leadership. 3rd ed., Jossey-Bass, 2004.