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Cultural shift

Organisational culture is a “tool” for social change, says new article co-authored by Professor Jennifer Howard-Grenville.

Illustration of workplace culture.

Organisations can help employees navigate their company’s culture to foster social and sustainability goals, says a new article “Organizational culture as a tool for change” in Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) co-authored by Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor of Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School.

Jennifer Howard-Grenville
Jennifer Howard-Grenville

Organisational culture is central to the performance of any organisation – be it a business, nonprofit, or other entity – because it reflects how employees interact, how they respond to change, and how outsiders view the organisation.

“Despite its importance, culture as a topic of discussion often elicits trepidation when managers and leaders confront changing or cultivating it in order to improve their workplace,” the article says. “This happens in part because culture presents as a mysterious facet of organisational life – essential to how an organisation functions, but hard to guide or change.”

But organisational culture is not out of reach. In fact, Howard-Grenville and her coauthors were motivated to write the article based on their observations that employees actually often know a great deal about how to navigate their organisation’s culture and “[some] are very savvy at using aspects of it to introduce new issues or to generate fundamental change.”

For example, earlier research co-authored by Jennifer showed how employees at an athletic-apparel company overcame inertia in incorporating concern about sustainability into the work of designers and marketers.

What might hold back this kind of change are three “common myths” about organisational cultures:

  • That only senior leaders define and control culture: in fact, while founders and early leaders are key to establishing a firm’s culture, it’s the daily practices of many people throughout an organisation – not top-down control – that refine a company’s culture and help it to persist.
  • That only organisational insiders create culture: more recent studies have shown that trends, people and norms outside an organisation inform its culture – and some firms “actively cultivate” their employees’ experience in other spheres to shape the company’s internal culture through diverse “toolkits” developed elsewhere.
  • That culture operates through consensus: There’s a mistaken tendency to identify a firm’s culture through “shared values”, but practices and beliefs that define a culture are often unevenly shared across diverse parts of an organisation and may include contradictory elements. A culture can be cohesive without being uniform.

Moving beyond these myths, the SSIR article argues that “change can occur when aspects of a culture are reoriented toward new employee or societal concerns.” And people at any level of the organisation can conceivably work toward change in this manner. At the athletic apparel company: “rather than attempting to fundamentally shift the culture, employees led their peers to see and use a fundamental aspect of their culture – innovation – in a new way that met societal needs for more sustainable products.”

The article focuses on how organisations adapt their cultural “toolkit” to benefit both society and the firm itself. It suggests that everyone can sharpen and sustain such a toolkit through use, and this democratises cultural change in ways that can foster sustainability and social goals. 

“Employees and other stakeholders increasingly care about social and environmental issues,” the article concludes. “By helping them connect these concerns with aspects of the existing cultural toolkit, organisations can not only speed uptake and action on these issues but also do so in a way that is authentic to their missions and their members’ experiences and skills.”

The article in Stanford Social Innovation Review, entitled “Organizational culture as a tool for change”, is co-authored by Jennifer Howard-Grenville, Diageo Professor of Organisation Studies at Cambridge Judge Business School; Dr Brooke Lahneman, Assistant Professor of sustainability at Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University in Canada; and Dr Simon Pek, Assistant Professor at the Gustavson School of Business at the University of Victoria in Canada.