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Cultural Analysis

Quality Tools > Tools of the Trade > 50: Cultural Analysis


‘Culture’. The word is enough to strike terror into the heart of even the most project-hardened of change agents. Many, if not all, reports on change failure report that ‘culture’ is at the heart of most problems. Whether the project is directly targeted at the heart of the organisation, to change its culture, or whether it simply trips over it on the way to another change, culture is a permanent feature of the change landscape.

Cutting through all the academic descriptions, culture comes down to ‘the shared rules and patterns of thought within an organisation’. It is about what goes on in people’s heads, how thoughts are spread, and the visible attitudes and behaviours which result from these.


1. Understand how people are perceived

When you hear of a teenage gang which has beaten up someone, how do you feel? Angry that such horrible people exist? Or sad that their upbringing had led them to such a place? A key difference between these views is in the inherent goodness of people. In the work setting, you can perceive people as trustworthy and who want to do a good job, or you can perceive them as being basically lazy and requiring close supervision to ensure they do their job properly.

A culture where people are trusted can be seen through both formal systems of empowerment and care as well as the way people talk about and treat one another. Benefits are generous. Offices are clean and comfortable (not necessarily ostentatious). The conversation is more about ‘we’ and ‘us’ than ‘I’, ‘they’ or ‘you’.

In a higher respect, higher trust culture there will be greater social capital which will make people more likely to be willing to trust the company, accept change and actively engage in the process. Where people are assumed to be inherently bad or lazy, there will be a double effect as managers prefer a coercive approach to change whilst individuals blame management incompetence for their predicament. There is, of course, a whole spectrum between these extremes, and where an organization stands in it will affect both its natural approach to change and also the likely problems.


2. Understand how work is perceived

Where the culture places particular importance on customers or shareholders, the focus on being effective and efficient, of doing the ‘right thing, right’ will lead to an increased attention to the job in hand. Given the limited amount of time available, there is a balance to be found between a concern for the people and the social aspects of work, and the concern for tasks and the outputs of work.

A full work orientation also leads people to look beyond their immediate jobs to the whole company and beyond, understanding the working of peers, customers and entire marketplaces. It also helps with effective change design. An understanding of whole systems shows how a small change in one part of the company can cause serious problems elsewhere and possible some time later on.

Work orientation is visible through the intensity of conversations, the busy-ness of people, of the higher status of people in critical product jobs, such as R&D engineers. Where work has a higher priority than people, there will be more hiring and firing, stricter performance standards and a general tendency to treat people as resources to be managed along with budgets and equipment. Work and people orientations need not be mutually exclusive, and the most effective companies find the optimum balance that draws out the talents and motivations of its people that leads to sustainable high performance.

The stronger the work orientation, the easier it is to convince people of the need for change. Problems can arise where a high people orientation and a low work orientation leads to paralysis and (what can be literally) ‘terminal niceness’. The reverse is also hazardous: a low people orientation can lead to changes that work well on paper but which damage the social capital of the company.


3. Understand how time is perceived

Time is a peculiar thing. We can sense space, energy and matter through our normal five senses, but how do we sense time? The answer is that we construct our perception internally, which leads to a wide variety of perceptions of time. We often imagine time internally as a line that stretches out, curving or fading out into the future and back into the past. The way time is spread along this line is usually non-linear, with the immediate past and future looming larger than more distant times (similar to normal spatial perspective).

Depending on where we focus our thinking, we will see the past, present and future as having different importance. People for whom the past is most important will talk of the ‘good old days’ and will likely oppose change. A focus on today may allow the need for change to be seen, but has no thought for a solution. When perceiving the future, our time horizon is important; those who focus primarily on the short-term may see the need for change, but will prefer quick (and often dirty) changes that address the obvious symptoms rather than the underlying causes. Longer-term future views can lead to ignoring the lessons of the past and realities of the present.

Approaches for past-focused cultures will need to put particular effort into acknowledging the value of the company history and then expanding and extending the viewpoint to encompass more of the future. An extension of the viewpoint is also needed where the present and future-view is too short for a successful implementation the necessary changes.


4. Understand approach to risks

The future is always uncertain and risks always exist. In a culture of risk avoidance, decisions will be taken to minimize the probability and impact of known risks. For example, decisions on developing risky new products or entering new markets will err on the side of caution. Personal decisions can also be affected, such as where people do not speak out for fear of being criticized.

Changes to the organization are also likely to be seen as risks, and consequently are liable to face stiff opposition. In such circumstances, the management approach will need to somehow legitimize the acceptance of risk, make risks unavoidably visible and provide any necessary motivation to ensure that they are properly faced.

Attitudes towards experimentation are closely connected with risk orientation. Change often require an ‘let’s try it’ approach, finding out what works with an open and honest evaluation of results and a willingness to try something else.


5. Understand approach to conflict

Conflict is uncomfortable and consequently is avoided by many people and companies, especially where there is a strong people orientation, where emotional are not permitted, and where conflict is seen as being negative and destructive only. Conflict can also be positive and constructive, and can be an essential part of understanding the changes and making the natural emotional transitions to new ways of working.

Conflict avoidance can be seen in the way that disagreements lead either to rapid capitulation of one side or to avoidance of any decision by both parties. Issues which are evident to everyone in a meeting are not discussed, and the ‘dead elephant in the middle of the table’ is ignored.

In such situations approaches are needed which allow conflicts and formerly undiscussable issues to be tabled and openly managed. This may require a staged ‘emperor’s new clothes’ event where the naked truth is exposed and the consequent fall-out is managed.


6. Understand approach to control

A common human need that addresses the discomfort of uncertainty is for a sense of control. Within company cultures, a control orientation is seen through the attention paid to the design of the organization and its processes. At a structural level this may be seen by the use of hierarchical control, although strong control orientation may still be evident within an empowered organization, for example through the attention individuals pay to planning and process management.

Wherever the primary point (or points) of control are within the organization, it is essential that these are fully involved in the change. For example, a moderate hierarchical structure where any level of management can block change will probably require careful involvement of all those levels. A devolved and empowered organization will require lots of lower-level consultation. Where there is a strong approach to planning and control, this approach may be successfully hijacked and applied to managing the change project.

When power is pushed down the organization, groups and individuals will have greater independence from higher-level corporate management. This gives great organizational flexibility in responding to local environmental changes, and has been an approach taken up by many companies to cope with a rapidly changing organization.

True empowerment gives responsibility for tasks, the authority to complete them and also support in terms of such as coaching and authority back-up.

The problem with empowerment is that the vertical independence that it creates lead to significant problems for company-wide change. The price of local authority is central authority. In a fully empowered organization, changes will have to be sold to everyone, requiring a highly involving approach.


Table: Cultural mapping


Cultural factor



Implications for approach to managing change

People: Are generally viewed as trustworthy




People: Are to be cared for and respected




Work: Concern for task, getting the job done




Work: Understanding of the big picture




Time: Perception of past




Time: Perception of short term future




Time: Perception of long term future




Uncertainty: Avoidance of risks




Uncertainty: Approach to conflict




Uncertainty: Approach to control





Next time: The SIFT Model


A small celebration: This is the 50th edition of Tools of the Trade. It started back in 1994 and has been going every other month since then. By a strange coincidence, I’ve just turned 50 myself. Spooky.



This article first appeared in Quality World, the journal of the Institute for Quality Assurance

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