Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What can management do to create a more ethical culture?

Another piece of hard-worked for research. Sometimes, I feel it is easier to sit at a desk and think about a subject than to go out there and actually do it! Good that I have so many good friends around me that help me in my daily duties!
Organizational culture could be defined as a system of shared actions, values, and beliefs that develops within an organization and guides the behavior of its members (Schermerhorn, et al.:2002). As such, organizational culture is an intangible, a staff oriented and perceived strategy that, when applied correctly, can be used by any organization’s management as a strong tool to increase the organization’s identity, to foster the organization’s stability and to display the organization’s external strategy. At the same time, the organization’s culture can be misused, either on purpose or accidentally, to resist internal and external change and diversity of the organization. The good-ole-boy’s networks come to mind where often admission to potential personal prosperity, power, and influence will only be granted in return for a high degree of historical and present conformance, such as family background, education, gender and race.

However weak the organization’s culture may be, it is nevertheless inherent in any organization. I would argue that it is very difficult to find two identical organizational cultures in the vast array of worldwide available cultural pools. A laissez-faire culture usually leads to a strict, high level bureaucracy within the organization, effectively reducing its adaptability to changing internal and external demands, with the organization lacking internal predictability and consistency (Robbins:1996). Yet, a strong culture also prevents the organization from being effective when facing challenges, such as mergers with and acquisitions of other organizations (Robbins:1996). Leaders in both the potential partner organizations need to come to consensus and implement a mutually acceptable culture without favoring one of the existing individual ones. This possibly is one of the greatest challenges in the corporate world. Everybody has heard of the big merger failures in corporate history, more often than not the result from the inability to streamline both organizations into one with a common vision with an underlying single culture.

An organizational culture is important for the good or the bad of an organization in the sense that it addresses two important concepts, namely the one of how the day-to-day operations need to be handled, and how the associated human resources resolve their interactional conflicts (Schermerhorn, et al.:2002). This paper argues that leaders of an organization set and influence the organizational culture to a great extent. As such, leaders must be aware of their behavior and actions and their subsequent implications. It is important to realize that any existing organization knows a historical grown culture and possesses therefore a strong momentum. Turning the existing culture completely around is a mammoth task not to be taken lightly since it is in the character of humans to resist change. Any new manager trying to bring-in his or her own counterculture that rejects the philosophy of the dominant culture will at best succeed only in creating various subcultures.

Although the organizational culture is in its basis defined, lived and communicated by the founders of the organization, the established culture will be heavily influenced by the organization’s leaders at its evolving stages. By frequent interaction with their line managers, subordinates will be continuously reflecting on their own behavior and will potentially align their actions with the ones of the organization’s management. However, a forced top-down approach by aggressively communicating the culture from a management position will only be effective to a certain extent. Forcing the culture through the ranks will inevitably be met by resistance, a strong human attribute, leading to subcultures that in extreme cases can oppose the dominant culture of the organization, effectively hampering organizational development. Therefore, proper input and initiatives from all employees at all levels must be sought before attempting to change an existing culture.

The organization’s selection process plays another important role in maintaining the perceived culture. Tangible attributes of the potential employee, such as knowledge and skills, need to be complemented by intangible ones, such as the ability of the employee to blend-in with the organization’s culture. Selecting a candidate that has been tested to be a loner might not be the best choice when the organization is proud of its team-player culture. The organization therefore must assure taking adequate steps to align its selection process with its espoused values. The Human Resources department plays a vital role in this process since generally its members deal with the employees on an administrative level.

However well selected the new employee may be, chances prevail that he or she needs some level of adaption to fit into the actual organization. Robbins (1996) divides this process into three consecutive stages, namely the pre-arrival stage, the encounter stage, and the metamorphosis stage. Any new employee holds a set of beliefs and expectations when commencing his or her career at the new organization. This phase in the employee’s career is called the pre-arrival stage. The subsequent encounter stage might be best described as ‘facing the reality’. Enacted values by the organization’s staff might very well contradict the ones the new employee learnt during his or her selection. The new employee now needs to compare previously held and actual beliefs and values, sometimes leading even to extreme occurrences, such as resignation from the organization. The last stage within the indoctrination process, called metamorphosis, then furthers when the held perceived culture is amended to the imposed reality.

Robbins (1996) argues that there are five different entry socialization options. These options range from explicit training, either individually or collectively, fixed time-duration promotion schemes to divestiture socialization, where ones beliefs and values are shaped according to the encountered dominant culture. These options all contribute to work satisfaction and thus employee turn-over conditions at the organization.

Rituals, language, and the organization’s symbols all form a strong basis to influence and manage the organization’s culture. Tales about the organization, often grossly exaggerated over time, will leave an everlasting mark on the receptor and thus influence his/her beliefs and consequent actions. It is not uncommon to hear questions like: is it possible to reach the top of this organization within ten years? Commonly given answers to these types of questions will create a common bond between the newly hired employee and the existing human resources and thus changing and influencing their behavior.

By adhering to an organization’s distinctive philosophy, its members do not only create a clear picture of what the organization stands for, they also create a united group with shared traditions, concepts and beliefs. Modern organizations tend to design its structure to be flat, with a wide span of control, reduced formalization and empowered employees organized in teams (Robbins:1996). With the resulting lost bureaucracy and formalization within organizations, Robbins (1996) argues further that an organizational culture helps aligning employees towards the organization’s vision.

As stated before, organizational leaders tend to influence the culture to a high extent. Leaders should therefore be very aware that their actions will influence, positively or negatively, the behavior and held morales of their subordinates. Creation of an ethical culture must therefore be realized by ‘leading by example’. It is important not only to hold ethical values as a leader; these also should be visibly communicated throughout the organization. Financial results should never be the only measurable within the organization; on the contrary, leaders should emphasize and reward the road taken to financial success. Staff training needs to reflect and actively address the ethical values of the organization, and whistleblowers should never fear to be punished.

A relatively simple way of influencing an existing culture that delivers reasonably quick results is to modify the more visible aspects of the organization’s culture, such as the mentioned rituals, the language used, and the symbols of an organization. Creating new rituals, for example when finishing a project, can, if done correctly, enhance tremendously the sense of belonging of the employees. Organization’s internally floating stories do affect employees in their behavior towards their immediate boundaries. By communicating positive lessons learnt from these stories, even if the latter might be grossly exaggerated, leaders and managers will influence the ethical behavior of not only the employee, but more importantly of the whole organization. Leaders do have the power of making their subordinates see what they want them to see. Without any doubt a tremendous operational and commercial weapon that, if used ethically, will benefit the whole organization.

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