CorporateCoach eNewsletter

Issue No. 35, 17th November 2003


  1. Editorial: You are a metaphor of your organisation
  2. Coaching notes: Analysing the culture of an organisation

1.     Editorial: You are a metaphor of your organisationRichard Winfield

Richard Winfield - editor and principal consultant

As consultants, Brefi Group place a high value on helping clients determine who they are, why they are here and what they stand for. A fundamental of leadership is a congruent organisation in which all the parts share a vision and fit together in the optimum manner to achieve the shared objective.

My favourite management book, Built to Last, demonstrates the long term value of this, and the British quality standard Investors in People is based on it.

We place equal weight on helping individuals sort these matters out as we do for organisations. Our objective is to achieve a fit between individuals and their employers. People like to work for organisations whose values they share. The Disney Corporation told me that they recruit for values. They don't sack people for performance, but because "we have a values conflict". If the values are right, many other things can be sorted.

I attended an enjoyable workshop with Deborah Spence, an accountant who now advises on image. She told us "You are a metaphor of your organisation". Organisations place a high value on projecting brand values in their promotional literature, maybe applying a strict corporate style to buildings and stationery. But how often do they have a strict dress code? And, if they have a "dress down day" or provide corporate entertainment for their clients do they have strict guidelines on style and quality for casual wear?

You cannot not make an impression. Image is about other people's perception of you. And in our behaviour and our dress we indicate the core values of our organisation.

Have a look around. What can you learn about others from their dress and behaviour? And then consider what do they perceive in you? Are you always both smart and "appropriate" – whether you be a designer or an investment banker?

And if you would like a further challenge, check out your building, car and web site with fresh eyes.


2.     Coaching notes: Analysing the culture of an organisation

Last week we looked at doing business in different national cultures. This week we look at business culture.

Fons Trompenaars

Fons Trompenaars is the authority here. He defines three layers of culture:-

The outer layer: explicit products - the observable reality of the language, food, buildings, houses, monuments, agriculture, shrines, markets, fashions and art. They are the symbols of a deeper level of culture.

The middle layer: norms and values - norms are the mutual sense a group has of what is "right" and "wrong". Norms can develop on a formal level as written laws and on an informal level as social control. Values, on the other hand, determine the definition of "good and bad", and are therefore closely related to the ideals shared by the group.

While the norms, consciously or subconsciously, give us a feeling of "this is how I normally should behave", values give us a feeling of "this how I aspire or desire to behave". A value serves as a criterion to determine a choice from existing alternatives.

The core: assumptions about existence - to answer questions about basic differences in values between cultures it is necessary to go back to the core of human existence.

The best way to know something is a basic assumption is when the question provokes confusion or irritation.

Dimensions of business behaviour

Trompenaars defines seven key dimensions of business behaviour: –

1. Relationships and rules

Universalist, or rule-based, behaviour tends to be abstract; it tends to imply equality in the sense that all persons falling under the rule should be treated the same; it has a tendency to resist exceptions that might weaken that rule.

Particularist judgements focus on the exceptional nature of present circumstances. This person is not "a citizen" but my friend, brother, husband, child or person of unique importance to me, with special claims on my love or my hatred. I must therefore sustain, protect or discount this person no matter what the rules say.

Business people from both societies will tend to think each other corrupt. A universalist will say of particularists, "they cannot be trusted because they will always help their friends": a particularist, conversely, will say of universalists, "you cannot trust them; they would not even help a friend".

Reconciling universalism and particularism: central guidelines with local adaptations and discretion.

2. The group and the individual

The conflict between what each of us wants as an individual, and the interests of the group we belong to. Do we relate to others by discovering what each one of us individually wants and then trying to negotiate the differences, or do we place ahead of this some shared concept of public and collective good?

There is considerable evidence that individualism and communitarianism follows the Protestant-Catholic religious divide. Calvinists had contracts or covenants with God and with one another for which they were personally responsible. Each puritan worshipper approached God as a separate being, seeking justification through works. Roman Catholics have always approached God as a community of the faithful.

Reconciling individualism with communitarianism: Give clear objectives that need individual initiative and accountability to succeed.

3. Feelings and relationships

In relationships between people, reason and emotion both play a role. Which of these dominates will depend upon whether we are affective, that is we show our emotions, in which case we probably get an emotional response in return, or whether we are emotionally neutral in our approach.

Members of cultures which are affectively neutral do not telegraph their feelings but keep them carefully controlled and subdued. In contrast, in cultures high on affectivity people show their feelings plainly by laughing, smiling, grimacing, scowling and gesturing; they attempt to find immediate outlets for their feelings.

When our approach is highly emotional we are seeking a direct emotional response: "I have the same feelings as you on this subject." When our approach is highly neutral we are seeking an indirect response. "Because I agree with your reasoning or proposition, I give you my support."

4. How far we get involved

Closely related to whether we show emotions in dealing with other people is the degree to which we engage others in specific areas of life and single levels of personality, or diffusely in multiple areas of our lives and at several levels of personality at the same time.

In specific-oriented cultures a manager segregates out the task relationship she of he has with a subordinate and insulates this form from other dealings. However, in some countries every life space and every level of personality tends to permeate all others.

Those who segregate their lives are much more likely to appear more friendly and accessible, because they might only "know" someone for limited purposes. In contrast, where life is diffused access to private space is much more guarded - because once a friend is admitted it lets him or her into all, or nearly all, your private spaces.

Specific cultures, with their small areas of privacy clearly separated from public life, have considerable freedom for direct speech. In relationships with diffuse people this approach can be taken as an insult.

Specific and diffuse cultures are sometimes called low and high context. Low-context cultures tend to be adaptable and flexible. High-context cultures are rich and subtly, but carry a lot of "baggage" and may never really be comfortable for foreigners who are not fully assimilated.

Diffuse cultures tend to have lower turnover and employee mobility because of the importance of loyalty and the multiplicity of human bonds. They tend not to headhunt or lure away employees from other companies with high (specific) salaries.

5. How we accord status

While some societies accord status to people on the basis of their achievements, others ascribe it to them by virtue of age, class, gender, education, and so on. The first kind of status is called achieved status and the second ascribed status. While achieved status refers to doing, ascribed status refers to being.

There is a correlation between Protestantism and achievement orientation, with Catholic, Buddhist and Hindu cultures behaving considerably more ascriptively.

Ascription-oriented organisations justify their hierarchies by "power-to-get-things-done". This may consist of power over people and be coercive or power through people and be participative.

Achievement-oriented corporations in western countries often send young, promising managers on challenging assignments to faraway countries without realising that the local culture will not accept youthfulness and/or gender however they achieve.

Reconciling achievement and ascription: Respect what people are so we can better take advantage of what they do.

6. How we manage time

How we think of time has its own consequences. Especially important is whether our view of time is sequential, a series of passing events, or whether it is synchronic, with past, present and future all interrelated so that ideas about the future and memories of the past both shape present action.

Synchronic or polychronic styles are extraordinary for those unused to them. People who do more than one thing at a time can, without meaning to, insult those who are used to doing only one thing.

Synchronic cultures are less insistent on upon punctuality, defined as a person arriving at the agreed moment of passing time increments. Given the fact that most of those with appointments to meet are running other activities in parallel, any waiting involved is not onerous and late arrival may often be a convenience, allowing some time for unplanned activities.

Likewise, people who do only one thing at a time can, without meaning to, insult those who are used to doing several things. To a synchronic person, not being greeted spontaneously and immediately, even while still talking on the telephone, is a slight.

There is accumulating evidence that sequential planning processes work less well in turbulent times. They are to brittle, too easily upset by unforeseen events.

7. How we relate to nature

Societies which conduct business have developed two major orientations towards nature. They either believe that they can and should control nature by imposing their will upon it, as in the ancient biblical injunction "multiply and subdue the earth"; or the believe that man is part of nature and must go along with its laws, directions and forces. The first of these orientations we describe as inner-directed. This kind of culture tends to identify with mechanisms; that is, the organisation is conceived of as a machine that obeys the will of its operators. The second, or outer-directed, tends to see an organisation as itself a product of nature, owing its development to the nutrients in its environment and to a favourable ecological balance.

The preponderant inner-directedness of North America and parts of western Europe may help to explain why we have to go out of our way to teach "customer orientation" and "scanning the business environment". To outer-directed cultures like Japan and Singapore, this comes so naturally that they do not need to teach it. One reason staff suggestions enrich several Asian organisations and participation is so high is because listening rather than declaiming is seen as the more admirable trait.

Reconciling internal and external control: Use opportunities by taking advantage of existing forces and not contradicting them.

An illustration of how to analyse an organisation

Trompenaars suggests four models of organisations as an illustration.

  Family Eiffel Tower Guided Missile Incubator
Relationships between employees Diffuse relationships to organic whole to which one is bonded. Specific role in mechanical system of required interactions. Specific tasks in cybernetic system targeted upon shared objectives. Diffuse, spontaneous relationships growing out of a shared creative process.
Attitude to authority Status is ascribed to parent figures who are close and powerful. Status is ascribed to superior roles who are distant yet powerful. Status is achieved by project group members who contribute to targeted goal. Status is achieved by individuals exemplifying creativity and growth.
Ways of thinking and learning Intuitive, holistic, lateral and error-correcting. Logical, analytical, vertical and rationally efficient. Problem-centred, professional, practical, cross-disciplinary. Process-oriented., creative, ad hoc, inspirational.
Attitudes to people Family members. Human resources. Specialists and experts. Co-creators.
Ways of changing "Father" changes course. Change rules and procedures. Shift aim as target moves. Improvise and attune.
Ways of motivating and rewarding Intrinsic satisfaction in being loved and respected. Promotion to greater position, larger role. Pay or credit for performance and problems solved. Participating in the process of creating new realities.
  Management by subjectives. Management by job description. Management by objectives. Management by enthusiasm.
Criticism and conflict resolution Turn other cheek, save others' faces, do not lose power game. Criticism is accusation of irrationality unless there are procedures to arbitrate conflicts. Constructive task-related only, then admit error and correct fast. Must improve creative idea, not negate it.

Source: Trompenaars, f. and Hampden-Turner, c., Riding the Waves of Culture: Understanding Cultural Diversity in Business, Nicholas Brealey, London, 1997.