Challenging Three Organisational Culture Myths

Myths can be understood as beliefs and ideas that are widely held but which are ultimately false, skewed, exaggerated or idealised. As they are told and re-told, myths are perpetuated and over time often become the starting point for all discussion in a defined area.

In a recent paper (please see reference below), I investigated three common organisational culture myths, and in doing so, questioned some of the assumptions that form the basis for understanding culture in organisations.

Myth 1: Culture is only what is ‘shared’

Culture is usually defined as ‘shared beliefs, values, practices (etc.)’ or described as ‘the way things are done around here’ indicating that consensus and uniformity of thought and action are at the core of culture. Following this assumption, organisational strategies are deployed to enhance shared perceptions and behaviours, reinforcing the notion that culture is generally equated with social cohesion on the one hand and effectiveness on the other.

By privileging what is clearly shared it is easy to dismiss what isn’t shared (difference, contestation, uncertain meanings) and demote these differences as not cultural or as being of less cultural importance. Yet, people evaluate and enact culture in various ways and for a host of reasons (e.g., different personal values, identities, roles, status, levels of authority). Given these social differences (and sometimes inequalities) how can everyone possibly interpret culture in the same way, as a singular, solid monolith that looks the same no matter the angle? The ‘shared’ focus therefore risks a number of blind spots, often resulting in ‘thin’, idealised and sanitised analyses that capture the obvious, less remarkable aspects of consensus, but that reduce the complexity of organisational social life. More nefariously, it is a perspective that can marginalise other worldviews, value systems and cultural identities and push people who don’t clearly conform to the fringes, even when they belong to the same organisation or group.

Myth 2: Culture is a variable

Culture is typically treated as a thing; something a group has, thus objectifying culture and framing it as a clear entity that is ‘out there’ in the world waiting to be discovered by those with expert knowledge and appropriate tools. Subsequently, culture is operationalised in a manner comparable to how scientists treat variables. As a variable, culture can be isolated, regulated, manipulated and linked to other analytically ‘distinct’ variables.

Many culture theorists reject this view of social reality and reframe culture as something an organisation is. From this perspective, culture is not a variable to be measured and manipulated, but a root metaphor for analysing and interpreting how people understand their worlds. This means emphasising the symbolic, expressive and ideational aspects of culture and conferring a less concrete status upon the social world. Culture is understood as meanings that weave through and under social interaction, which re-casts the uncritically accepted notions that culture can be easily objectified, quantified, categorised or mechanically moved around, as actually quite absurd. Proponents of this view therefore tend to downplay convenient leader-centric usages of culture, such as the extent to which one person can be either a source for the creation or management of culture.

Myth 3: Culture change involves creating a new culture

This myth often subtly implies that the introduction of new ideas, principles, values, and behaviours, change an existing culture into an entirely new one. Cultures — by their very definition — innately retain elements that have been historically important and that support a group’s sense of meaning, identity, tradition, and existence. As such, what is valued culturally will not be given up easily, even under demands from authority. There are practical benefits from such understanding. It emphasises that acts of resistance themselves might also be ‘cultural’ and moreover a good indication that culture change can sometimes also be about preserving what is culturally meaningful, and not only about wholesale, sweeping change that moves linearly from A to B.

In summary, therefore, the value in challenging myths is that the process can root out assumptions that enable weak arguments and faulty thinking. If done well, de-mystifying myths can stimulate important debate and offer alternative intellectual footing to develop new practices. Of course, there needs to be keen awareness of the space between the myth and the challenge, which also merits exploration, lest we succumb to the temptation to create new myths to replace the ones we seek to dismantle.

Michael McDougall

This article has been authored by Dr. Michael McDougall and is a summary of the findings in the following paper:

McDougall, M., Ronkainen, N., Richardson, D., Littlewood, M., & Nesti, M. (2020). Three team and organisational culture myths and their consequences for sport psychology research and practice, International Review of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 13(1), 147-162.

The author’s own pre-publication copy can be accessed here.