Today’s business organizations operate in an increasingly global environment. Leaders must be prepared to succeed in a fast-moving, complex and competitive world, making the most of every resource. And its not just lip service to say that people are truly our greatest assets. Those in positions of leadership or who write about effective leadership all come to the conclusion that competitive advantage comes to those who make the best use of their people, providing environments that engage and enable employees.
Engagement and Company Culture
A popular phrase used in organizational communication and other circles today is employee engagement. The term is used to describe members of an organization who are personally invested in their work and in the success of their organization. These are not individuals who are simply putting in hours or marking time, but those who truly care about the future of the organization and are willing to invest their time and effort to ensure organizational success. Research conducted among U.S. companies suggests that only about one in four employees are actively engaged in their jobs, and as many as one in 10 are actively disengaged.
To use a popular example, this would mean that if you were to put a football team on the field, only two or three players would be totally committed and willing to take the personal initiative to help the team win, and one of your players might be actively sabotaging the team’s efforts through their poor attitude and opposition to direction from the coaching staff. Imagine trying to win a game with that mix of players, yet many organizations are trying to compete in a global environment today with exactly that kind of lineup. Successful organizations and effective leaders find ways to improve their odds, ideally creating a climate and culture in which all members are truly engaged.
Not surprisingly, when theorists or practitioners discuss means to achieve or improve employee engagement, the discussion turns to the culture of the organization and the role of leadership in shaping and supporting that culture. Typically, successful corporate culture centers on such variables as credibility, confidence and collaboration where a large measure of control shifts from leaders to their followers.
Though not specifically writing on employee engagement, Tichy and Cohen wrote in 1996 of organizations that effectively compete amidst the challenges of globalization, expanding technologies and unrelenting social change: “We believe that leadership is imperative, not only at the CEO level, but at all levels of the organization.” Today’s leaders must recognize that a critical measure of their effectiveness is their ability to inspire and develop other leaders within their organizations. Organizational leaders must serve as architects who effectively analyze the existing cultural structure of their organizations and reshape them so that the culture itself becomes a source of energy and engagement.
Consider that that one-in-four statistic was measured in a study of U.S. companies where employees and leaders likely came from similar cultural backgrounds with similar beliefs and expectations. Now imagine how much greater the challenges are that leaders face when they seek to create an organizational culture in a multinational, multicultural environment where a very diverse workforce brings a variety of culturally-based values and expectations.
Among communication theorists, culture has been defined as a “web of significance, a system of shared meaning.” Those studying and analyzing organizational cultures might focus on what Pacanowsky termed “cultural performances.” He analyzed organizations in terms of the communication used to express their unique corporate cultures. Among those cultural performances are the common metaphors used throughout an organization to describe, clarify and explain itself to new members and to others. References to management and employees as teammates, members of a family or community, for example, provide insight into how the organization sees itself and its members in a cultural context.
In the same way, Pacanowsky pointed to shared stories that are passed mouth to mouth, often across organizations as a cultural means to perpetuate and emphasize important values and exemplary traits and actions. He also encouraged analysis of the rituals adopted by organizations to mark important events in the lives of their members or of organizations themselves. These often illuminate those things in life we chose to observe and celebrate. Through such cultural performances, we gain insight into an organization’s culture and how its values are reflected, shaped and perpetuated throughout its life.
Karen Miller, a scholar of organizational communication, also listed values and rituals as critical elements for analysis of organizational culture, but added heroes and cultural networks to the list. She suggested that the role models perpetuated within an organization provide useful insight into the values such heroes embody and the organization upholds. She also suggested that another important element for cultural analysis is the cultural network through which organizational values are communicated and reinforced. These networks include both the formal channels of communication incorporated into an organization’s structure as well as those informal networks that often operate outside the control or intention of formal leadership.
New Models for Multicultural Settings
As organizations grow and expand into more complex environments, leadership and management challenges grow as well. The manager of a small, local business is likely to supervise a mix of employees with similar experiences and shared values. Those same cultural aspects are often shared with customers and others likely to interact with a small, local organization. However, as organizations grow and expand across regional and national borders, both the analysis of organizational culture and its effective adaptation to accommodate multinational settings grows ever more complex and challenging.
Just as Paconowsky and Miller prescribed standards to serve as the context for cultural analysis in a traditional organization, new models have emerged and others are still being developed for analysis and comparison of multicultural settings.
One of the popular frameworks for cultural analysis at a multinational level was first offered by the Dutch anthropologist, Geert Hofstede. He suggests that each culture must deal with questions that can be resolved according to a series of dimensions depending on the degree of intensity within each of five dimensional variables measured across a spectrum.
- Individualism/Collectivism. The first of these variables evaluates whether people within a culture see themselves at a very deep level as part of a larger group, or as single, independent actors. Cultures that traditionally call upon individual obligation to place the needs of the whole above individual needs represent more collective or communal societies, whereas cultures that place greater emphasis on independence, self-fulfillment and personal advancement score high on the individualism scale. This is not a measure of whether people like to be members of a group, rather is it a question of how people self-identify their relations with others.
- Uncertainty Avoidance. In some cultures, people prefer to have everything spelled out in detail so there will be few, if any, surprises. Bureaucratic organizations often rely upon this cultural element and would be described as having a high level of uncertainty avoidance. In other cultures, especially where various economic, environmental and social conditions limit an individual’s ability to control circumstances, members learn to be more passive and exhibit more relaxed expectations and are not anxious when some factors of a situation are unknown.
- Power Distance. Power structures and hierarchical organization is a feature of most human life, but in some cultures, the relative gap between high and low power is wider. In those cultures where wider gaps exist between the various echelons, people show a greater deference and respect to those in power, and there is lower expectation of movement between classes, castes or levels. In cultures where power distance is low, people tend to expect that those in power will have earned it, rather than simply gaining power by virtue of position. These cultures often tend to diminish the value of ranks and titles in favor of a more horizontal and less formal power structure.
- Masculine/Feminine. Sometimes labeled “aggressiveness,” this descriptive label refers to a gendered view of relationships and competition. Cultures ranking as more feminine represent values emphasizing negotiation and consensus building. Establishing and maintaining relationships are recognized as a fitting goal both at individual and organizational levels. More aggressive, masculine cultures tend to emphasize competition, value assertiveness and place winning above all else. While associated with gendered labels, individuals and organizations may demonstrate different positions along the spectrum regardless of biological gender.
- Long Term/Short Term Orientation. Hofstede’s initial research only focused on the previous four variables, but as he expanded his research to analyze Asian cultures, a colleague steered him to this fifth cultural variable. Cultures identified with long-term planning, thrift and industriousness were labeled as long-term orientation cultures. Those cultures that place greater value on living for the day, immediate gratification and emphasis on short-term gains are associated with a short-term orientation. The long-term end of the continuum has been associated with what are sometimes called Confucian values, although it is important to note that cultures that are neither Asian nor Confucian can also be labeled long-term cultures.
While Hofstede’s variables represent only one multicultural framework for cultural analysis, leaders looking to more effectively lead their organizations into the global environment would be smart to employ this and other emerging models as tools to analyze their current organization as it compares to other cultures likely to influence future operations. Organizations with significant differences between their corporate culture and the cultures of others in their shared environment would be smart to evaluate relative strengths and opportunities for accommodation to lessen the challenges that arise from too rapidly changing your own corporate culture or expecting others to embrace the cultural values of your organization without a significant period of adjustment.
The critical step, then, is to effectively analyze cultures, especially in more complex multi-cultural applications, to create cultural values and performances that best serve to unify the organization. iBi