No theory forbids me to say "Ah!" or "Ugh!", but it forbids me the bogus theorization of my "Ah!" and "Ugh!" - the value judgments. - Theodor Julius Geiger (1960)

Influencing organizational cultures

Kühl, S. (2018), Organizationskulturen beeinflussen – Eine sehr kurze Einführung, Wiesbaden: Springer VS.

According to Stefan Kühl, organizational culture serves as a terminological vacuum cleaner for everything that has to do with organizations, from basic assumptions, through the prevailing norms and values, to “self-referential contexts”. The purpose of this booklet is to enable readers to learn about an organization's culture and provide clues to change it. Kühl proposes that the researcher looks at how the cultural expectations of the organization - the undecided decision premises - develop.

The idea that a target culture should be defined on the basis of an actual analysis of the organizational culture, which can then be achieved through various cultural measures by management, is seen by Kühl as an expression of exaggerated control fantasies of managers and consultants, which ultimately tends to contribute to the obscuration of the really existing organizational culture. In defining the target cultures of organizations, according to Kühl, a “humanistic-harmonistic” idea about organizational cultures has formed. According to Kühl, it is understandable that one (eg "proactive") culture is preferred over another (eg "reactive") culture. Ultimately, this "value prose in management and consultant discourse" hinders a closer look at the organization.

Organizational culture consists of behavioral expectations of organizational members that have not been officially established by management, but have slowly crept in through repetition and imitation. One can distinguish (1) the organizational culture (or informal structure) from (2) the formal structure and from (3) the face of the organization created for the external presentation.

The only way to influence the culture (the informal structure) of an organization is to change the formal structure (programs, communication channels and personnel decisions), according to Kühl. Organizations are constantly making decisions that members must adhere to if they want to remain members of the organization. The established membership conditions form the formal structure of the organization. At the same time, the informal structure in organizations is gradually developing. These are definitions that have become habitual and successfully established. When it comes to attitudes, attitudes and ways of thinking, formulating a membership requirement is difficult, if not impossible. The subtle influence of informal expectations plays a central role here (organizational scientists speak of undecidable decision premises). There are also expectations that can in principle be formalized and compliance checked, but for which the organization refrains from formalization (the decision grounds that can in principle be decided but have not been established). Their development is related to the fact that organizations are confronted with conflicting demands that cannot be solved by decisions at the formal level. In organizations, there can only be one consistently planned, legitimate formal sequence of expectations. Since organizations must respond to conflicting demands, but at the same time ensure that members are confronted with a consistent and, on the other hand, largely non-contradictory formal structure, they have no choice but to tolerate or even encourage informality , and sometimes even illegality. Expectations serve as a reference point for concrete actions, but do not yet determine how to act. You can deviate from social expectations, but then you have to bear the consequences.

In organizations, expectations are formed in the form of three structural types: Programs (frameworks or target systems) bundle criteria on the basis of which decisions must be made. They are used to determine which actions in organizations should be considered right or wrong. Communication channels determine how people can or must communicate in the organization (legitimate contacts). Finally, there is the staff decision premise, which has to do with recruitment, transfer or qualifications (for knowledge and skills).

Formal programs are inevitably not always adapted to the situation. Strict compliance with the program therefore threatens to block the organization. An organization's programs act as filters, allowing only relevant information to pass through. This confirms that the organization is on the right track with the current organizational structure and that the programs that appear to be tried and tested are being further consolidated and refined. True circles of self-affirmation arise, in which the organization over and over again sees the environment as confirmation of its own functioning. Informal programs are therefore a functional addition to the formal programs. Informal conditional programs are established routines that are never centrally established. Informal goal programs are goals that are not formulated as a formal expectation. Formal communication channels and formal personnel decisions are also complemented by specific informal decision-making processes.

Kühl says that only by systematically observing the three sides of the organization can one avoid two fundamental errors in the discussion of organizational cultures: (1) the first error is not systematically relating the informal side of the organization to the formal side (the informal structure is formed by the formal structure, fills gaps in the formal structure and conflicts with the formal structure), (2) the second error is making no fundamental distinction between the informal side and the visible side of the organization The visible side is quite different from the informal side, which is more about the important development of organizational cultural behavioral expectations adapted to everyday problems. Thus, all three sides with their very different functions have to be considered.


Below, you can see a video with Stefan Kühl who talks about organizational culture.

Organisational Culture - a very short video introduction by prof. Stefan Kühl

Organizational culture has evolved significantly over the years, tracing its roots back to the human relations movement of the 1920s and 1930s. It reached its pinnacle in the 1980s, notably with works like "In Search of Excellence" by Peters and Waterman, which underscored the impact of culture on an organization's success.

Within organizations, communicating and influencing cultural expectations present considerable challenges. Newcomers grapple with informal expectations beyond formal structures, often learned through experience, like adapting to unwritten norms within a team or grasping implicit job responsibilities. These informal structures, much like pathways forming in a park, are based on shared expectations and significantly influence behavior. It’s crucial to acknowledge that adherence to these expectations varies within different social contexts.

Unlike families or informal groups, organizations possess distinct mechanisms for establishing and enforcing expectations through leadership decisions. They can formalize rules and expectations more explicitly, allowing individuals to align or opt out. While formal structures entail defined rules, hierarchies, and decision-making processes, the unspoken and cultural norms within organizations are challenging to define or regulate. This informal structure profoundly impacts behavior by shaping expectations and practices within the organization, often leading to a tug-of-war between formal rules and informal cultural expectations.

Certain behaviors and expectations, such as creative problem-solving or genuine friendliness in customer service, defy easy formalization. This results in tensions between formal guidelines and cultural expectations within organizations. Despite the existence of formal rules, informal practices often take precedence as employees navigate their roles more effectively, devising shortcuts or workarounds that are not officially endorsed. This informal structure arises from the inherent contradictions in organizational expectations, which consist of employee satisfaction, customer service, shareholder interests, and policy compliance.

The commonly depicted idealized organizational culture portrays employees working cooperatively, driven by purpose, customer focus, and environmental responsibility. But this depiction only represents a fraction of organizational culture. The other part includes behaviors that deviate from official rules, involving minor manipulations, rule violations, and even legal infractions, often adopted to streamline work processes.

Formal expectations are enforced through hierarchical structures, while informal expectations thrive through exchanges and informal practices. Employees engage in unofficial exchanges or reciprocity to accomplish tasks, even if these actions contradict formal regulations. Informal exchanges or deviations from formal structures are sometimes necessary for operational efficiency, as observed in industries like mining or the military.

During World War II, soldiers who excelled received informal rewards, fostering exchanges that built trust over time. These informal exchanges among employees developed in the shadows of the formal structure. Loyalty networks, promotion alliances, and cultural expectations play significant roles in building trust, as highlighted by sociologist Horst Bosetzky's "Don Corleone principle". Negative sanctions, such as mobbing by peers or superiors, serve as brutal elements within organizational culture to drive colleagues toward high performance within the formal system.

Efforts to influence organizational culture often fall short with typical methods like cultural evangelism or culture analysis. Paradoxically, the only effective means to change organizational culture appears to be through modifications in formal structure. Understanding both formal and informal aspects of organizational culture is crucial in comprehending how work operates within these environments.