The thing about organizational culture most people get wrong

People generally understand organizational culture as something that unifies people around a set of norms, behaviors and values. But this perception overlooks an important reality about culture.

Organizational culture is as much about unity as it is about division, according to an article by John Traphagan, PhD, a professor in the department of religious studies and the program in human dimensions of organizations at the University of Texas Austin, in the Harvard Business Review.

Dr. Traphagan purports in the article that culture might shape behavior and unify people, but it can also be used as a "basis upon which people contest and counter certain ideas and values while accepting other values associated with a particular cultural context."

Even common values that members of the organization agree on — and thus constitute a culture — are not actually so common, Dr. Traphagan suggests. For example, a core value at the University of Texas is responsibility, which the organization formally defines as "to serve as a catalyst for positive change in Texas and beyond." Dr. Traphagan points out that this definition of responsibility is different than his own, which he says involves accountability and duty. Even if most members agree certain values are important, such as "responsibility," "respect" and "honesty," they might have very different ideas about what they all really mean.

Dr. Traphagan says the attempt to unify an organization by cultivating a "culture" is really a power play. "Fundamentally, a culture is not a set of (marginally) shared values; it's a web of power relationships in which people are embedded and that they use to meet both personal and collective goals but that can also restrict their ability to achieve goals," he wrote. "Those power relationships can function to pull people together, but they also can pull them apart because they are the product of differential access to resources."

Relying on culture to create unity can mislead leaders into believing the core values the company adopts are unquestioningly accepted by employees, which can lead to the false belief that expressed conformity with such values indicates individual acceptance of them, according to Dr. Traphagan.

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