There’s a lot of hoopla about creating a ‘good’ organisational culture.  I recently read an interesting paper by Professor R Westrum (Eastern Michigan University) which presents a typology model of organisational cultures. Westrum reckons that there are three broad types of organisational culture: pathological, bureaucratic and generative.  Pathological cultures are preoccupied with personal power, needs or glory; bureaucratic cultures are typified by rules, positions, and departmental turf; and generative cultures are those that focus on the mission. It is an interesting model. Westrum maintains that a key marker of organisational culture is how information flows around the organisation. Pathological cultures inherently restrict information flow and generative cultures inherently promote information flow.

If you’ve never worked in an organisation with a ‘pathological’ culture, then just watch a few episodes of Gordon Ramsay’s ‘Kitchen Nightmares’ or ‘Hotel Hell’. Each one of the organisations that Ramsay visits is a wonderful example of a pathological culture where, invariably, the self-serving, autocratic boss is at war with oppressed but well-meaning staff, or the burned out, demoralised chef rides rough-shod over the owners and fights with the wait staff, etc – and the result is … chaos and gross dysfunction in full technicolour.

This makes for great television but that’s where the benefits of apathological organisational culture stops. In a recent episode I watched, Ramsay had the hotel boss and all the staff gathered together in a hotel room and he posed the question “Who is the most important person here?”. Various responses were offered – the boss, the chef, the maître de, etc to which Ramsay responded “no you f**** idiots, it’s the f*** customer!!”. I suspect Professor Westrum may have couched this slightly differently, but what Ramsay was saying, in essence, was that the hotel needs to transition from a (self-centred, power based) pathological culture to a more (mission-focused) generative one.

The big question, of course, is how.  How do you change an organisation’s culture? Professor Westrum maintains that it is the leader’s preoccupations that shapes and organisation’s culture. The symbolic actions, rewards and punishments to which leaders subscribe send an unspoken but strong message about what is important. These preferences then become the preoccupations of the workforce. When I read this it reminded me of the old adage (which always brings a smile): ‘What interests my boss fascinates me’. If the leader’s preoccupation is with personal power and glory, welcome to a pathological culture. If the leader’s preoccupation is with rules, positions, compliance and departmental turf, welcome to a bureaucratic culture. And if the leader is preoccupied about achieving the organisation’s mission and satisfying its customers, welcome to a generative culture.

This is not rocket science. Professor Westrum is just articulating something each of us intuitively knows. Gordon Ramsay knows it too. Whilst he engages with everybody in that hotel or restaurant to gather intelligence, it is the owner or boss who ends up in Ramsay’s sights. He knows that if change is to happen, it will need to come from the boss, not the wait-staff.  We have seen that, too, with organisations we have consulted to. One organisation in particular had a well-recognised history of entrenched bullying which understandably resulted in low morale; then in walks a new CEO genuinely focused on people and sharing information openly, and the organisational climate changed within weeks. We witnessed an amazing transformation.

Although not explicitly stated, Professor Westrum’s model infers a hierarchy of cultures, with the pathological at the bottom, bureaucratic in the middle and the generative at the top.  From a humanistic view point, striving to build a generative culture (where there are high levels of cooperation and inclusion, where information flows freely, innovation is encouraged, risks are shared, and ‘failure’ is seen as a learning experience) is the way to go. These cultures drive organisational improvements, innovation, creative solutions, reduce staff turnover and absenteeism and result in employee commitment and improved bottom lines. What’s not to like about that!

The question is, can every organisation develop a generative culture? Can every organisation be a Google? 

For many organisations, Professor Westrum’s bureaucratic culture may have some appeal. For an organisation to move from the chaos of a pathological culture (personal power-plays, poor information sharing, low cooperation and role confusion), some structure is needed. Rules and policies are developed, procedures, role descriptions, performance management systems etc are implemented. And these all have to be managed, so people are employed to make sure these rules, policies and procedures, etc are followed – and the bureaucratic organisation is born!  This structure provides a level of certainty, which provides those at the top of the organisation with a level of comfort. A preoccupation with adherence to these rules will likely develop into a culture of compliance – and this is where many traditional organisations exist. Is that a bad thing? When you are in the nuclear power industry, compliance is not a bad thing. When flying in a commercial aircraft most of us would hope that the pilot doesn’t get too creative during the landing. As a society, we expect compliance. If people break the law, we expect consequences. Heavily regulated industries have stringent compliance requirements. Even the corner store has to comply with safety, environmental and employment legislation.  Google has rules too.

It’s about balance. Some organisations will have a 33 page code of conduct document, some will have one page.  A generative culture will have all of the compliance requirements necessary to deliver the organisation’s mission, but a generative culture will not have or support self-serving compliance requirements which, unintentionally or otherwise, restrict creativity, employee engagement and commitment – and generally ‘de-humanise’ the workplace. Humans are not a ‘resource’ – they are people, and in our experience, people work best when they are treated as people.

The compliance/commitment dilemma strikes at the heart of people’s underlying beliefs and values. It is being impacted by the social and technological change that is occurring in workplaces across the globe. The world of work is changing and traditional organisations and their paradigms are being challenged. In four years, millennials will make up half of the workforce. And their views on work align more with generative organisational cultures, than bureaucratic or pathological ones. Like Gordon Ramsay, they have a voice and they are not afraid to use it.

By Graham Miller