Although the idea of organizational or corporate culture has degenerated to become the punchline of a joke thanks to the all-too-realistic portrayal of corporate life and the evils of bureaucracy and managerial incompetence in cartoons like Dilbert, a knowledge of organizational structure is actually a useful tool in understanding how a particular organization functions, and how one might choose to optimally function within that organization - whether as an intern, employee, manager or consultant.

The node referencing The unconscious nature of culture provides a lot of useful concepts which should be kept in mind when reading this. Remember that "culture" forms almost automatically with any sufficiently large group of people, not just a country, much less a civilization! Culture is good, can be wonderful; it is bad and can be horrendous. The key is to understand what makes a culture dysfunctional and to stay free of prejudice - that just because a culture is of a certain type, we can't assume it is "evil" or broken. Our analysis has to go deeper than that.

Please note at the outset that you will be encountering a significantly simplified view of culture and socialization, at an organizational rather than governmental or global level. Although much of the methodology is similar, a great deal of material of interest to scholars of human social behavior (in sociology, anthropology, social biology, transpersonal psychology, evolutionary psychology, etc.) is beyond the scope intended for this essay.

What is Organizational Culture?

Organizational culture is formed around the peculiar successes and failures, and (more importantly) the personalities and philosophies of its founders. It is somewhat mutable, but tends towards inertia and acts to preserve itself. As others join the organization, they are acculturated - socialized - into the peculiarities of its functioning.

Transmission of corporate culture occurs primarily by means of:

  • Stories, history, and myth
  • Ritual activities
  • Material and status symbols
  • Language, jargon, and acronym

These devices are the primary tools of socialization, systems which are set up and learned gradually rather than explained clearly and objectively. Often, individuals within an organization are largely unaware of the culture-driven functions that they perform on a daily basis.

Stories, history, and myth : Usually these have some sort of historical basis but the probably mundane deeds or lucky breaks which caused the events grow to almost legendary proportions and the realm of the heroic, much as the lucky breaks become the conscious works of visionary leadership or business genius.

Ritual : Repetitive sequences of tasks are characteristics which emerge in nearly all highly-structured environments. Ritual serves to reinforce the value structure of an organization and knowledge of it is usually withheld, so that it becomes secret, and a device useful for social control. Bureaucracy is a peculiar mix of ritual and functionality, more symbolic than utilitarian.

Material and status symbols : From CEOs with corporate jets and top executives with corporate retreats, plush, spacious offices with leather chairs and mahogany desks, to employee-of-the-month awards and personalized clothing emblazoned with the corporate logo, these symbols serve as displays of one's status and supposed value within the organization.

Language, jargon, and acronym : Specialist vocabularies in industry and academia develop both for reason of convenience and for reason of secrecy and control of channels of communication. Language serves as a major unifying force which gives the company or department a common base of understanding.

Organizational Culture : The Four-Culture Typology

A simplified structure developed by Goffee and Jones1, divides organizational culture by two traits they refer to as sociability and solidarity. Sociability refers to the degree of communication and connection displayed by individuals in the organization; solidarity refers to individual orientation towards the tasks and goals of the organization. Cohesiveness would probably be as good a term.

           + _________________________
            |            |            |
            | networked  |  communal  |
sociability |-------------------------| 
            | fragmented |  mercenary |
            0      solidarity           +
    Organization relations are like those of family and friends. Information is openly shared and power is freely distributed. A focus on friendship and social maintenance, not productivity or organizational goals leads to poor performance and the formation of various political cliques. There is a strong sense of "belonging" to the company and often intense loyalty and identification with its product.
    An organization of individualists. There is little to no identification with the organization and each individual pursues his or her own goals. Employees are judged almost solely on the quality of their work, and on their demonstrated productivity. There is no real communal sense, and the environment results in harsh criticism and critique in the process of peer review. Status allows freedom of association and organizational privilege.

    Here there is a feeling of community, but the organization maintains a high sense of focus on its goals. Leaders of the organization tend to be charismatic, inspirational, and are perceived as visionaries. The actual goals are defined by these leaders and enforced throughout the organization.

    This type of involvement and faith in authority and its leadership can lead to almost cult-like environments which consume leisure and work time and regulate all aspects of life. Employees tend to identify with the goals of the corporation as being something "bigger" than themselves, and its leaders take on exaggerated and heroic qualities. Also see How to Be a Charismatic Cult Leader.

    This is a ruthlessly goal-focused organization with little sense of community or any sense of values beyond achieving defined goals. Individuals are determined to meet goals and tend to be intense. There is little organizational politics and status is achieved through aggressive competition and outperforming one another. Lack of ethics tends to be a problem, thanks to a combination of ruthlessness, goal-focus, and no shared values. This generally becomes a "pecking order" in the literal sense of the term. Open conflict and agression are part of day-to-day life in such an environment.


Most organizations will not fit perfectly any of these descriptions, but generally will have predominant features in one or at most two of these categories. Equally, larger organizations will have departmental subcultures which also tend to fit within the above categories.

Sales environments tend to be mercenary, especially commission-based sales. High-status intellectual environments such as major universities or top law firms are generally fragmented. Dot-com startups were greatly communal. Small companies, or highly brand-focused organizations which began that way are often networked at their lower levels.

Always observable will be the distinction between real and ideal culture - what the management thinks or hopes for, in issuing mission statements, guidelines, and policy, and what is actually reflected by managerial behavior in relation to its employees, or which develop when a group of employees refuse to accept organizational culture for whatever reasons.

Cultures by their very nature resist change, which is perceived as a threat to survival. Business texts often refer to institutionalization of an organization, which occurs when the entity takes on a life of its own outside any of its founders or individual members, as its immortality.

It's dangerous to play with peoples' conceptions of immortality, and change management is a subject unto itself. Each environment has advantages and problems unique to it, but altering these environments in fundamental ways is difficult, expensive and even dangerous to career, reputation, finances, or person.

  • 1R. Goffey and G. Jones, The Character of a Corporation. Harper Business, 1998.
  • Robbins, Stephen, Organizational Behavior: 9th Ed.. Prentice Hall 2001.
see also:The Unconscious Nature of Culture,The company way of life,Our work and why we do it

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