01 Feb 2018


However much research you do before starting a job, it’s only when you begin to tread the corridors of your new organisation that you will really get under its skin. Understanding the organisation’s culture early on will be essential for your success as a manager.

Words: Prof Sue Bridgewater

We often hear of the importance of respecting an organisation’s culture, but what does that mean? Among the many definitions and ways of understanding organisational culture, perhaps the most commonly cited is McKinsey and Company’s ‘the way we do things around here’.

By digging deeper into what makes your new organisation unique, you may find positive elements – powerful stories of past success, links with the community and a focus on nurturing, for example – that will help you to motivate and refocus the team. And you will become aware of the long-held traditions that you will need to be sensitive to when making changes or introductions.

Other parts of the culture, meanwhile, may not be so positive, and in your early weeks and months in the job you will need to look at how and to what extent it is possible to make subtle shifts for the better.

Over the years, a number of frameworks have been developed to help us understand organisational culture, one of the most frequently used being the Johnson and Scholes Cultural Web. It identifies six different dimensions of organisational culture: organisational structure, power structures, control systems, rituals and routines, stories and symbols. Assessing each of these areas during your first weeks and months in the job will give you an overall picture of the culture.


This is what you might see on an organogram or organisational chart. It shows the different departments and functions, who reports to whom, and what the responsibilities are of different individuals within the organisation. These can vary quite widely from one place to the next.


The lines of responsibility and accountability will also often reveal how an organisation works. Some may be quite ‘flat’ in structure, with fewer reporting lines and levels within the hierarchy. This structure is often associated with innovative organisations, because with greater equality everyone has a voice.


These are the measures and incentives that promote certain types of behaviour. In a sales environment, for example, bonuses might be offered for reaching targets. This might be a great way of boosting sales, but there can be negative impacts, such as a focus on gaining new customers above offering great service, and on short-term targets rather than long-term strategic issues. What are the incentives and measures of success in your organisation and how productive are they?


Your organisation may have developed habits, perhaps because techniques have been passed on over time or as a result of the power structures and control systems above. Many of these rituals and routines will be positive, but they can also be so rigid that they are a barrier to change and innovation. When introducing your own rituals and routines or other changes, you will need to tread carefully around these customs.


Every organisation has its stories, whether they’re funny social experiences or great stories about past successes and struggles. These stories, told to successive generations of team members, become part of the organisation’s lore and culture.


The symbolic value of people and things may also be important in some organisations’ cultures, for example, pictures of past managers and their teams, framed certificates, trophies and photos of memorable events. These symbols stand for something beyond the actual picture or item; they often have an emotional significance for the organisation and are part of its culture.

These six dimensions of organisational culture are not exhaustive; some places will have little that is unique here, while having other dimensions of their own. However, it can help to open up the debate about what organisational culture is, what it means, what is good, what is unique and what must be preserved even during change. This is important because, as a new manager, making changes and introducing new things too quickly and without due understanding of ‘how we do things around here’ can be disastrous.

Tools and frameworks of this kind can also help to explore whether areas of an organisation’s culture might be inhibiting innovation or excellence. It is important that, as the manager, you don’t underestimate the power of culture in striving for excellence, but also understand that it shouldn’t carry on regardless, never queried or challenged. Have you identified routines or structures that you believe to be negatively impacting on performance and, if so, how might you look to create a shift in that culture?

By digging deeper and getting to grips with each area of your new organisation’s unique culture, you may find ways to help engage, motivate and develop your new team.