But my industry is different! … We often hear this from our clients when we present data-based evidence that Constructive organizational norms lead to increased effectiveness, while Defensive norms decrease effectiveness. But are industry-specific norms and expectations for interacting with others and approaching work hindering our potential for success? Let’s dive deeper.
The Impact of Industry Standards on Effectiveness
Many businesses and professional practices strive to adhere to industry standards or the required or ordinary manner of performance in their field. For example, the medical field has standards of care for cardiac repair; similarly, ISO standards for quality management are reviewed and updated almost yearly. These standards serve various purposes, especially providing professional or legal guidelines for what is considered reasonable.
However, when it comes to norms and expectations for interacting with others and approaching work, are they specific to each industry? Can we expect that the effectiveness of Constructive behavioral norms transcends industry boundaries? Janet Szumal’s research on the Global Ideal Culture Profile indicates that people across countries strongly agree on the importance of Constructive styles. And our published research on organizational cultures across industries does not show significant differences across the industries studied. But can we show that Constructive styles are associated with effectiveness more than Defensive styles?
Challenging Fundamental Assumptions
Organizations and leaders often have fundamental assumptions about what motivates their members. These assumptions influence management styles and, ultimately, the behavioral norms and expectations within their organizations. One such assumption is that members dislike their work and have little motivation, leading to a ‘hands-on’ management approach that involves micromanaging to ensure tasks are done properly.
This assumption gives rise to the belief that Constructive styles won’t work in certain industries, leading management to state, “My industry is different.” Manufacturing organizations, for example, argue that their workforce requires close attention to every behavior and detailed job planning to minimize mistakes. They believe that allowing individual thoughts and autonomy wouldn’t increase effectiveness. However, when comparing Constructive and Defensive cultures within manufacturing organizations, we find that Constructive organizations (which encourage individual discretion and initiative) report higher effectiveness in three key areas (see Figure 1):
- Role Clarity (and Conflict): The extent to which people receive clear messages regarding what is expected of them (and the extent to which they receive inconsistent expectations from the organization and/or are expected to do things that conflict with their own preferences).
- Satisfaction: The extent to which members report positive appraisals of their work situation.
- Quality of Service/Products: The extent to which the organization has achieved service excellence with respect to internal and/or external customers/clients.
Figure 1 (click image to enlarge)
Challenging Assumptions in Education and Non-Profit Sectors
Another assumption is that the work itself is satisfying, and members are self-motivated, needing little direction. This assumption is commonly made and applied within the Educational and Non-Profit sectors. Educational and Non-Profit organizations provide services that aim to help others grow, develop, or heal. However, leaders in these industries often hesitate to compare themselves to ‘businesses’ with traditional bottom-lines, as the focus is on social causes, the clients or patients they serve, or the public at large. This can ultimately lead to understating the needs of employees.
Figures 2 and 3 present comparisons between Educational organizations with Constructive versus Defensive cultures and for Non-Profits (NPOs) with Constructive cultures and those with Defensive cultures. Once again, we find that members of Constructive organizations report higher effectiveness in the three important areas.
Figure 2 (click image to enlarge)
Figure 3 (click image to enlarge)
Exploring the Legal Services Industry
Legal Services is an industry known for its competitive and aggressive nature, with firms and brands that uniquely set themselves apart from competitors. However, even in this industry, Constructive organizations report higher effectiveness in terms of the three important outcomes (see Figure 4).
Figure 4 (click image to enlarge)
Constructive Norms: Breaking Industry Assumptions
These examples clearly demonstrate that Constructive norms provide an environment for increased effectiveness across industries. Culture matters, and to enhance effectiveness, regardless of your industry, embracing Constructive norms should be the goal.
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4 Douglas McGregor developed two contrasting theories that explained how managers’ beliefs about what motivates their people can affect their management style. He labeled these Theory X and Theory Y. While these theories have been refined and updated, for present purposes the simple dichotomy works. See https://mitsloan.mit.edu/institute-work-and-employment-research/douglas-m-mcgregor
5 See Justin Henry’s “Everyone Talks About Their Law Firm’s ‘Culture,’ But Is It Possible to Measure It?” in https://www.law.com/americanlawyer/2023/03/15/everyone-talks-about-their-law-firms-culture-but-is-it-possible-to-measure-it/