Culture Then & Now: Replies to Questions and Comments posted during our 50th Anniversary Webinar (Part 1)

Thanks for joining us for our Anniversary webinar on April 28th, focusing on the state of the art of organizational culture today versus half a century ago—with an emphasis on the Organizational Culture Inventory®.  We tremendously appreciate all of your gracious comments and feedback on the webinar as well as your questions and requests for additional information.

This is the first installment of my two-part post with quick answers, additional explanations, and recommended resources in reply to five of the questions/comments we receive during (or after) the Webinar.  I will follow up with Part 2 with replies to another five questions.

The five questions and answers featured in this post focus on:  distinguishing between culture and climate, using the culture inventory with climate surveys, culture and safety & reliability, societal and organizational cultures, and the defensive misattribution of success to culture.

We’ve posted the video in case you missed the webinar or would like to revisit all or parts of it.  Thanks again for your collaboration and interest in the organizational assessments—and the leadership development and team building tools—that we have created over the past 50 years. 

Question/Comment:  Can you quickly define the difference between climate and culture?

Submitted by Sharon Richmond, USA

Quick answer:
Organizational Culture is about assumptions, beliefs, values, and norms. 
Organizational Climate is about perceptions and attitudes.

More specifically:
We view organizational culture as the underlying assumptions and values that can lead to norms which, in turn, guide the ways members interact, solve problems, and approach tasks.  Shared values (representing the “ideal culture”) are translated into norms (the actual or “current operating culture”) as leaders create an environment that communicates and reinforces these values.  They do this by selecting and putting into place systems and structures, designing jobs, and developing skills that reflect those values.  We view climate as members’ perceptions of these systems, jobs, skills and other evolving properties of the organization, as well as their attitudes toward them.

However, though leaders have the opportunity to create a climate that is based on their values and ideal culture, they often fail to do so.  In such cases, members’ perceptions of factors such as systems and structures (i.e., the climate) lead to normative beliefs and a day-to-day operating culture that are at variance with espoused values.  For example, despite values emphasizing teamwork, leaders may create appraisal and reward systems that focus on individual as opposed to group performance.  This can drive members to believe that they are implicitly required to compete rather than cooperate with one another—translating into an Aggressive as opposed to Constructive culture. 

Thus, culture and climate are distinct concepts, though closely related in practice.  While culture can lead to climate, the reverse is often the case—and this culminates in the need for change initiatives in many organizations to bring norms into alignment with values.

For further reading:
The above is from Meghan Oliver’s interview with me back in 2017.

Tim Kuppler and I also discuss the differences between these constructs in a blog post entitled: “Clarifying the Elusive Concepts of Culture and Climate”.

Question/Comment:  How is the OCI aligned (or not) with McKinsey’s Org Health Index?

Submitted by Sharon Richmond, USA

Quick answer:
Building on my answer to the question above, the Organizational Culture Inventory (measuring values and beliefs) is complementary to and can be used in conjunction with most climate surveys (measuring perceptions and attitudes).

More specifically:
I am very familiar with the early work of Matthew B. Miles (1965) on organizational health, that of Hoy and Feldman (1999) on their revised form of the Organizational Health Inventory, and various researchers focusing on the importance of a healthy climate for schools and other organizations.  Their pioneering work contributed significantly to the body of knowledge around the “survey feedback and problem solving” approach to organization development.  However, I am not as familiar with the more recent McKinsey survey on organizational heath.  Thus, in addressing your question, I’ll focus on the potential use of our OCI in conjunction with climate surveys in general.

As mentioned in my answer above, culture can lead to climate and, reciprocally, climate can lead to culture.  Thus, it can be very helpful to administer a climate survey along with the OCI.  The results together provide a basis for discussions on: the extent to which relatively “visible” aspects of the organization (e.g., systems and structures) are in alignment with cultural values; the current impact of culture and climate on outcomes; the climatic factors that can be used as levers to improve cultural norms; and the norms that may be interfering with the organization’s ability to make such changes.

Together, the data provided by culture and climate surveys, along with any data collected via more qualitative methods, provide a great base for planning and implementing organizational change.  Culture and climate surveys can be administered together or separately—either one shortly after the other or even in alternating years.  We typically convey to OCI clients that it is important for them to follow-up with our climate survey, the Organizational Effectiveness Inventory (OEI); however, it is even more important for our OEI clients to follow up with the culture survey.  That is because culture has a greater impact than climate on outcomes and its impact is more pervasive.

The omnipotence of culture makes it likely that a move toward Constructive norms will not only achieve the stated objectives of the data collection and development effort but will bring about other improvements as well.  Given the thinking and behavioral styles associated with such norms, ancillary outcomes can include greater diversity and inclusion, more ethical treatment of members and clients, and/or improved safety and reliability.

For further reading:
These connections between, and the complementarity of, culture and climate surveys are explained via our model of “How Culture Works.”

Question/Comment:  Can you share or point us toward articles or other references that focus on the use of the OCI in nuclear power plants?

Submitted by Joseph Drago, USA

Quick answer:
Speaking of safety and reliability, I mentioned during the webinar that (as part of a conference for nuclear engineers and plant managers) we administered the OCI Ideal and came up with a strongly Constructive composite profile.  The manuscript that is most relevant to this profile—one that uses not only quantitative (survey-based) but also qualitative (focus group) methods to identify the ideal—was released in 2004 by the Community of Practice Culture Validation Team of the Utility Service Alliance.  We’ve posted their paper, the Nuclear Plant Optimal Culture Report, on our web site for you to download.

More specifically:
The OCI has been used in many nuclear power plants and, more generally, in numerous reliability-oriented organizations throughout the world.  High reliability organizations are those that carry out complex and potentially hazardous tasks for extended periods without serious accidents or failures, the consequences of which would be catastrophic.  Leaders of such organizations were among the first to show an interest in the Organizational Culture Inventory and other culture surveys.  In fact, the earliest large-scale printing of the OCI was for the Eastern Region of the Federal Aviation Administration.  Shortly thereafter, safety consultants and engineers began using the culture survey at petroleum refineries, paper and pulp facilities, and major construction sites.  Concurrently, researchers administered it onboard the USS Carl Vinson and USS Enterprise, to personnel operating phased array radar systems, and to employees at the Stanford Linear Accelerator Center.

For further reading:
With respect to nuclear facilities in particular, the Organizational Culture Inventory has been administered by researchers affiliated with Brookhaven National Laboratories—as part of a broader organizational survey—at various nuclear plants during a long-term research program.  For some history, see: 

Shurberg, Deborah and Haber, Sonja. Organizational Survey of the Los Alamos Site. Upton NY: Brookhaven National Laboratories, 1991.

Haber, S. D., & Shurberg, D. A. (1992). Organizational culture during the accident response process. In Knief, R. A. (Ed.), Topical meeting on risk management. La Grange Park IL: American Nuclear Society, pp. 152-156.

Haber, S. D., O’Brien, J. N., Metlay, D. S., & Crouch, D. A. (1991). Influence of organizational factors in performance reliability. (Overview and detailed methodological development, Office of Nuclear Regulator Research, U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission). Upton NY: Brookhaven National Laboratory.

This line of research continues to date, leading to many studies and publications in Europe, including:

García-Herrero, Susana, Mariscal, M.A., Gutiérrez, J.M., Toca-Otero, Antonio (2013). Bayesian network analysis of safety culture and organizational culture in a nuclear power plant, Safety Science, Volume 53, 82-95.

Eulàlia Badia, Navajas, Joaquín and Losilla, Josep-Maria  (2020). Organizational Culture and Subcultures in the Spanish Nuclear Industry. Applied Science. Volume 10.

Additionally, organizational development projects around Constructive cultural change have been carried out in the United States by teams specializing in culture consulting and leadership assessment and development.  See, for example:

Brooks, Jesse L. (undated).  A Culture Within a Culture: The Impact of Organizational Culture on Nuclear Safety. Global Nuclear Safety and Security Network. Denver CO: Tosan/ephektiv

Marquardt, Martin (Ephektiv) & Bonenberger, David (PPL) (2015).  A Personal Touch to Safety Culture. Chicago: Human Synergistics Ultimate Culture Conference, video

Question/Comment:  When constructing the OCI did you think of using items from the surveys of Hofstede in IBM in the 70s?

Submitted by Laszlo Szemelyi, Hungary

Quick answer:
Though Hofstede’s book on Culture’s Consequences was published in 1980, I really didn’t get heavily into his work until after the OCI items were written.

More specifically:
However, once I “discovered” Hofstede’s research with IBM, I became fascinated with the likely relationship between the strength of his societal dimensions of culture and that of the twelve OCI cultural styles (as measured by both the Current and Ideal forms) at the organizational level across countries.  Janet Szumal and I included the results of one of my favorite empirical studies on this topic in our book, Creating Constructive Cultures.

The data from this study, which was initiated back in the 1990’s, showed that Power Distance, Uncertainty Avoidance, and Collectivistic values at the societal level translated into strong preferences for both Passive/Defensive and Aggressive/Defensive cultures at the organizational level.  This was the case even though these values and the Defensive styles were negatively related to “world competitiveness” and other desirable outcomes—including human rights—across countries. In contrast, the Constructive styles were consistently viewed around the world as ideal for organizations, regardless of societal values.

Such findings suggested that organizational and culture change initiatives in certain countries (e.g., those with strong Power Distance and Collectivistic values) and in global organizations should emphasize strengthening Constructive styles to maximize “buy-in” for culture change at the outset.  Development programs could then focus on reducing Defensive styles after members gained an appreciation for their incompatibility with Constructive styles and negative impact on effectiveness at the individual and organizational levels.

Research, writings, and informal conversations suggested that the impact of successful OD interventions in such organizations had the potential to “spill over” into the local community and reduce, for example, Power Distance and Uncertainty Avoidance values. In turn, this transformation in values and norms could potentially improve the world competitiveness of, and human rights within, the countries involved.  This, in part, led to our mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time.®

For further reading:
Hofstede, Geert (1980).  Culture’s Consequences: International differences in work related values. London and Beverly Hills: Sage Publications.

Szumal, Janet L. and Cooke, Robert A. (2019). Creating Constructive Cultures: Leading people and organizations to effectively solve problems and achieve goals.  Plymouth MI: Human Synergistics International. (See pages 48-55)

Question/Comment:  This is so good a point about culture! Misattribution of success and Imputation of failure!

Submitted by Ivan Dmitrić, Serbia

Quick answer:
The misattribution of success remains a subtle yet powerful source of resistance to culture change and leadership development programs.  Leaders of organizations that are currently performing well sometimes misattribute performance (at least while it remains positive) to the culture they’ve created—which clearly, from their potentially biased vantage point, must be good and therefore does not require improvement!

More specifically:
Thanks very much for your interest in these erroneous attributions—which are often communicated by leaders with a high degree of assuredness!   About twenty years ago, we began writing about their propensity to “misattribute success” as follows:

The defensive misattribution of success.  Resources and demands, particularly when the former are substantial and the latter are minimal, can have a greater bearing than cultural norms on the short-term performance of an organization.  Organizations that enjoy strong franchises, munificent environments, extensive patents and copyrights, or massive financial resources are likely to perform quite adequately, at least in the short term and possibly even over the long term–if environmental pressures for innovation, adaptation, or greater flexibility remain minimal.

However, the indirect effects of resources and demands on outcomes are not always consistent with the direct effects, particularly when managers lose sight of important core values and/or the factors that led to the organization’s success in the first place.  Though an abundance of assets and a non-threatening environment can make it “easy” for an organization to perform effectively, these same factors provide members with slack resources and obliterate accountability and feedback on the true impact they are having on the organization.  Managers can “get away” with implementing ineffective systems, designing organizational silos and unwieldy hierarchical structures, introducing technologies that destroy motivation, and providing leadership based on questionable skills—and, in the process, creating an Aggressive and/or Passive organizational culture.” 

Thus, the legacy success of an organization can paradoxically promote a Defensive culture—or at least “enable” culture to trend in that direction.  The problem is further exasperated when leaders fail to recognize the deteriorating norms, mistakenly attribute performance to them, and refuse to entertain initiatives to “renew” and realign norms with long-term values.

For further reading:
The text above was written for our chapter on “Using the Organizational Culture Inventory to understand the operating cultures of organizations” (Cooke, Robert and Szumal, Janet (2000).  Handbook of Organizational Culture and Climate, 1st edition. Sage Publications).  Sage has kindly granted us permission to share the chapter via the Research and Publications section of our website.

Download the chapter to read a bit more about this phenomenon and another one as well, which we refer to as the “culture bypass” dynamic.

“Imputation” is something we’ve been noticing more recently and have not yet written about.  We’ll put writing an article or blogpost on imputation on our agenda (but if we fail to produce one, we promise not to blame it on the culture of our organization)!


Watch for Part 2 of the answers to the Webinar questions and comments to be posted on our Constructive Culture blog.

About the Author

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Robert Cooke, Ph.D.

Robert A. Cooke, Ph.D. is CEO and Director of Human Synergistics International and Associate Professor Emeritus of Management at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Cooke specializes in the development and validation of surveys used for individual, group, and organization development. His surveys include the Organizational Culture Inventory®, Organizational Effectiveness Inventory®, Leadership/Impact®, and Group Styles Inventory™, which have been translated into numerous languages and used worldwide for developing leaders, teams, and organizations. He is the author of more than 75 articles, chapters, and technical reports in journals including Psychological Reports and The Journal of Applied Behavioral Science. Cooke received his Ph.D. in Organizational Behavior from the Kellogg School of Management, Northwestern University, where he was a National Defense (Title IV) and Commonwealth Edison Fellow.