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Cultural sensitivity allows a more effective Change Management: organizational culture as a field of discourses in tension

Cultural anthropologists have addressed the cultural aspects of organizations and companies since the 1920s, beginning with the Hawthorne Experiments. Now, economists and management have come to recognize that organizational culture is a resource for economic success that should not be underestimated. There are two trends in the debates about a precise definition of organizational culture: while one group assumes that every company has a culture (instrumental view, objectivism, organizational culture as subsystem), the other side argues that every company is a culture (institutional view, subjectivism, organizational culture as an encompassing system) (see, e.g. Franken 2004: 219f). Both groups, however, tend to disregard a fundamental aspect of culture: its dynamic nature.

In the following analysis, organizational culture will be considered as a field of discourses in tension within which employees have a range of possible courses of action at their disposal. Following Rainer Keller’s sociology of knowledge approach to discourse (Keller 2005), discourse is understood to be »ensembles of meaningful units structured by content and form, which are produced within a specific set of practices: structured connection of interpretation/action. They provide meaning […] to social phenomena and therefore constitute their social reality. They are simultaneously an expression and constitutive condition of the social.« (Keller 1999).

According to cultural anthropologist Wolfgang Kaschuba, a discourse includes

  • a set system of argumentation,
  • a system that defines a topical field and sets the rules of engagement,
  • a thought system that configures the perception of reality and
  • a social practice system that connects manners of thinking and acting. (Kaschuba 1999: 236f)

Every social system prefers a certain type of discourse and controls, organizes and channels the production of all discourses so as to maintain order (see, e.g., Foucault 1994). Philosopher Jean-François Lyotard, however, made it clear that any single social system is always percolated by several discourses, which will either support each other or are mutually exclusive in a state of the differend (Lyotard 1987). Even where one discourse is excluded or suppressed by the publicly advanced and currently more powerful discourses that does not mean that it does not have any influence or cannot even become that major discourse in particular situations.

From this point of view, every company is a lived culture, where the manner in which culture is lived will be defined by (competing) discourses. A company can, however, also have a culture, e.g., by having a displayed culture that may be enforced by top management by means of discourse in order to attain a principle set of concrete values, norms and rules. The discrepancy between displayed and lived culture is, as change projects show time and again, one of the most important reasons for resentment and a lack of motivation among the employees. In this context, a differend in discourses will soon develop into internal crises of plausibility within companies, and these will sooner or later seep outside via the employees and can cause lasting damage to the company’s, brand’s or product’s reputation.

However, change management that goes deeper than the mere surface essentially produces a differend in discourses and therefore a field of discourses in tension: the »old« lived organizational culture (condition as is) is confronted with a »new« displayed organizational culture (condition as desired). Change management has to face the challenge of turning displayed into lived culture – easily said, but much more difficultly done. Each lived organizational culture has discourse resources that can support change towards a displayed culture; it can, however, also raise discourse barriers that will hinder successful change management.

Against this background, cultural anthropology and its own theoretic, methodic and practical set of tools emerges as a leading discipline for a change management that has a sensibility for culture and therefore will have a lasting effect…

Johannes Ries

This text is an extract from the article »Führungs-Kraft Unternehmenswerte: Kultursensibles Change Management im diskursiven Spannungsfeld von Unternehmenskulturen«, published in the anthology »Die verdeckten Spielregeln der Veränderung«, ed. by Johannes Ries and Susanne Spülbeck, Lit-Verlag, 2015. Available at bookstores.

»Stay healthy, you are important to me!«

Thoughts and ways to an improved organisational safety culture

How can one create and, most importantly, durably establish a successful HSE Culture (health, safety, environment), based on mutual care?

The majority of established HSE Systems use external motivational factors to raise safety related awareness. Employees are influenced »from the outside« thanks to a wide panel of methods such as safety instructions, various protections and safeguards, process briefings, »almost accident announcements«, informational posters and site inspections. Of course, all these measures are invaluable and necessary to ensure a safe working environment. However, implicitly, these measures can provide employees with an exaggerated sense of safety, to the extent that they can forget to take into account the small, but non-negligible, remaining risk factors in their everyday work routine.

An improved, work safety culture is one encouraging initiative regarding safety regulations. Work Safety 2.0. would therefore no longer be the responsibility of management only, but rather all employees. Everyone would continuously and systematically concern themselves with their and others’ safety, as naturally as they would care for their daily personal hygiene.

The path to such a culture goes through an increased sense of individual responsibility and a more self evident relationship to safety.

Individual responsibility is the willingness to vouch for one’s own actions, as well as their consequences, otherwise known as responsibility ethics. The foundation of this concept is the conviction that free, adult humans are responsible beings that are able to show maturity, think and act autonomously, as well as follow instructions. Disposition for personal responsibility involves an individual readiness to take on situations and assignments, an easier feat when employees enjoy the tasks they are given. Therefore, sense endowing work safety measures do not solely involve warnings, appeals and shocking images. We also need a safety culture in which employees are continuously encouraged and valued for their individual efforts regarding safety. The usual »Good job!« won’t suffice here. Close attention needs to be given to small successes and improvements as well.

The majority of onsite accidents are not caused by new recruits, but usually by the most experienced workers. When routine decreases concentration, and when new processes interfere with well-implemented habits, accidents occur. These changes are often noticed by the less experienced employees, but not openly addressed, since they believe the experienced colleague should be »the one who knows best«.

What we therefore need to do:

  • Abstain from the »look-away« culture, especially in regards to the more experienced employees (»experts«)
  • Open up the current corporate communication culture to create enough space for feedback and welcome questioning
  • Listen to the different opinions and perspectives there might be on the topic of corporate safety, in order to approach this complex matter with as many elements as possible, and find alternatives to unsafe behaviour.
  • Change from an external to an internal motivation, in which employees themselves act as the drivers of corporate safety, rather than only relying on external directions and guidelines.

This increased care and awareness will not only raise corporate safety to a new level, it will also support other company related themes, such as quality and improvement measures.

The experiences gained from these measures could be put together during projects with the leading companies in terms of corporate safety. Being at the highest safety levels already, they cannot improve the safety conditions by merely copying existing mechanisms, but need tailored solutions to trigger new impulses.

Wilhelm Dick