Acculturation (part two)

A reader suggested a follow up to my post from a couple days ago (hi, Daddy!) on organizational culture. Specifically, she was interested in hearing more about organizational culture in practice and my experience of the cultures of the places I have worked over the course of my career.

Early in my career, I worked for a global public accounting firm that is now most remembered for the scandal that spelled its doom. The firm was a perfect example of the hierarchy type of organizational culture which Cameron described. A rigid and autocratic firm, this organization was inwardly focused to the point of seeming to disregard critical external forces, especially regulators like the US Securities and Exchange Commission. When the firm undertook change, which occurred during my time there in the form of a rebranding effort, it was incremental and carried out amid great secrecy. The hallmark of the organization was centralized control.

In contrast, the faith-based nonprofit organization at which I worked after the accounting firm collapsed seemed like it should also have been a hierarchy-type organization given the rigidity of religious authority structures. Surprisingly, it operated at the other end of the ambiguity spectrum. I’ve often wondered if the clan-type of organizational culture at the organization stemmed from the fact that it was a faith-based organization in every sense of the word. As such, although it was internally focused, it was also flexible. Collaboration wasn’t encouraged so much as it was expected. Similarly, the overall feel among the staff was that we were a family. Cameron would likely note that the organization was rife with symbols which underscored the culture. Jargon played a key role in emphasizing the familial nature of the organization, a topic that Joanne Martin addressed in her 2002 book on organizational culture. For instance, clergy were all referred to as either “father” or “mother.” Emails were often addressed to “My sisters and brothers,” among other affectations. The organization could manage change but, as Cameron noted, this type of culture favors slow, long-term change rather than quick adjustments on the fly.

When I owned my own firm, I created a culture I would best describe as an adhocracy. As a start-up, we were manically focused on our external stakeholders—especially our clients. Innovation was key to our success and so we embraced a culture of creativity and development. It was a transformational organization in terms of our approach to change. Given our very small size, individuality was embedded. Since we were starting from scratch, there was nothing to hold onto for stability and nothing to control. Everything was new.

In my current organization, I recognize strong examples of a market-type of organizational culture. Our firm has been going through a period of accelerated change and the pace has been breakneck. At the same time, there is clearly control and a desire to ultimately achieve stability at the end. In many ways, I think of what we are going through as an example of what Gersick referred to as punctuated equilibrium. As Cameron noted, a key aspect of this culture type is its competitive orientation. I see that reflected in the metrics and measures that the organization uses as well as in our jargon. At the same time, I also observe that there are elements of other culture types active in my current organization.

I tend to agree with Cameron that there is rarely a single organizational culture type that fits an entire organization and to approach it that way pigeonholes the observer into what Martin would describe as an integration perspective–perceiving an organization’s culture as a monolith. I think that it is important to consider subcultures within organizations, particularly large ones, and remain cognizant of the multiple types of culture that may be in play in a single company.


  1. Hi, Elizabeth! Without wishing to go into unnecessary particulars, both the faith-based organization and your owned-and-operated one encountered difficulties when key personnel “went rogue.” No structure can guard against human selfishness, greed, and fear (which last-named is the root of both of the others). Your childhood mantra “Fear not!” is the touchstone of a successful organization; Fear is the solvent of any organization.


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