Organisational Culture as Character: A Concept Worth Considering?

Organisational Culture as Character

The Subject Of Culture

Organisational Culture has been a focus for business for more than three decades and demands attention as organisations try to attract talent, overcome low engagement levels, and build their reputations and sustainability. Culture (including organisational culture) reflects in shared meaning, characteristics and behaviour (internally and with the outside world). A workable definition derived from Hofstede for organisations, “it is the mental programming that we inherit from our ancestors and pick up from the people around us.”In juxtaposition is Jung on the development of individual character, “The more intensively the family has stamped its character upon the child, the more it will tend to feel and see its earlier miniature world again in the bigger world of adult life. Naturally this is not a conscious, intellectual process.”2


Understanding organisational culture is more important than defining it, and many have attempted (successfully in many cases) to move from the abstract to the concrete by using illustrative archetypes and metaphors. To mention a few: Trina Paulus’ parable of organisational life, hierarchy and ambition, introduced the notion of a caterpillar pillar.3  Gareth Morgan looked at the complexity of organisations from many angles, and invoked the power of metaphors such as machines, organisms, brains, and psychic prisons to extend our understanding of aspects of organisational culture.4  And what about orchestras, dinosaurs, fortresses, trees, an army, the human body, gangs…

Stanford addresses organisation culture complexity by suggesting climate and weather as a good analogy for three different (but synthesized) perspectives of organisation culture:

  • A major climate zone provides a view of a dominant, integrated, single, identifiable and measurable perspective
  • Sub-climate zones or variations within a major climate zone provide the possibility of an overarching culture with internal differentiations or sub-zones (departments, teams) accommodated within – each with their own daily weather patterns
  • Fragmentation – the ambiguous, paradoxical, non-dualistic  aspect of culture5

Culture As Persona

My work is to bring healing to the organisations I work with – whether this be smoothing out of cumbersome and poorly focused business processes, poorly utilized technology or operational  dysfunction due to people ‘issues.’  Increasingly I realise that the work is about:

  • Healing people and not fixing things
  • Enabling them to be, then the doing follows
  • Focusing on the habits, thinking, emotions, behaviours, physical and spiritual needs of individuals is what adds up to meeting of team, department and organisation needs

And more and more I’m coming to the view (not yet popular!) that culture and character, organisation and people go together like horse and cart – and that we can fruitfully view organisations as personas – where dross can be turned to gold and be constantly refined over time.

“Academic institutions have turned culture – which should help us to live and die well – into abstract scholarship.” 
-Edgar Schein

The current drive for both individuals and organisations to contribute to society, manage their carbon footprint, live in harmony with others and sustainably for the sake of coming generations, strengthens this view. We too readily separate culture (society) and character (individual).

Of course organisations, unlike us, are not biological – but the analogy can be extremely useful in bringing understanding and awareness – usually the first step in any ‘intervention’, or transaction. Consider:

(1) Displayed Virtues. Some people and organisations understand that they are a part of the interconnected web of life, adopt a triple bottom-line approach and contribute to a wider world. Others espouse values without following through with congruent behaviour. Yet others chase profit maximisation (or income, possessions, status ) and selfish interests.

A Cherokee elder explained to a grandson, “There are two wolves inside each one of us and they fight constantly. One is anger, greed, desire for power and possessions, ego, deceit and self-interest. The other is peace, joy, humility, hope, authenticity and love.”

“Which wolf wins?” asked the boy.

The elder replied, “The one that you feed.”

Within organisations one may see either cohesion or fragmentation of conscience as has been set out in The Virtuosa Organisation.6

“In virtuous organizations, employees collectively behave in ways that are consistent with the best of the human condition and the highest aspirations of human kind.”7  People are attracted to curiosity, compassion, love, being present. And people who are purpose-driven are more content, focused, engaged. They’ve moved from job to career to calling.

Recent research shows that organisations driven by a higher purpose secure superior engagement.8   We should avoid either/or arguments such as ‘strategy execution is more important than strategy formation,’ ‘culture trumps strategy.’ We are not suggesting that ‘purpose supersedes engagement’ – rather that it stimulates engagement. After all, an organisation is simply a collective of like-minds and behaviours, gathered around a common higher purpose, in order to ensure sustainability of people, planet and profit.


(2)  Personality. We use convenient typologies to gain insight into an individual’s (relatively fixed) character, and how they function under normal and under stressful conditions. One example is the Jungian-based Myers-Briggs assessment.  William Bridges developed an Organisational Character Index9  based on the same ‘opposing tendencies’:

  • An Extroverted organisation looks outward to its markets, the environment in which it operates, its competition. A primarily Introverted organisation is inwardly focused on its own culture, hierarchy, style, technology
  • An iNtuitive organisation focuses on complexity, the bigger picture and unearthing new possibilities and opportunities; whereas Sensing organisations focus on current reality, events, required responses
  • The Thinking organisation makes logical decisions grounded on established processes and systems. Feeling organisations operate from a basis of feelings and virtues
  • Judging organisations prefer clear ‘black or white’ answers, while Perceiving organisations seek context, interconnections, open-ended, and non-dualistic approaches

The leader’s character influences culture. “I think it is no accident that Henry Ford’s rather severe limitations as a person and a leader have become much more common knowledge at a time when the company he founded has been trying to break away from the ISTJ character he established.”9   The story of the psychologically – opposite Dassler brothers rivals the intrigues, tensions, sibling rivalry and dynamics of those of Cain and Abel or Romulus and Remus. Rudi (Puma) was a typical, outgoing, sales person while Adi (Adidas) was an INTP (like Bill Gates).

Culture may also be influenced by a recruiter’s bias towards hiring ‘kindred spirits’, and organisations or departments may be populated with specific personality types – depending on need and function. Thus a sales force may be comprised mainly of ESFJs.

(3)  Diversity.  People do inner work to utilise strengths, achieve balance, become more well – rounded, multi – dimensional,  and make the most of our many parts.  Diversity comes in the form of personality, nationality, thinking style, culture, level of education, religion, ethnicity, gender, class, age or generation.  In organisations, diversity provides a range of viewpoints, behaviours, responses and approaches that enrich an organisation’s functioning if properly and positively harnessed.

The wave of migrations that the world is now experiencing, together with an already strong trend to more diversified workplaces (because of legislation, social pressure, globalisation) raises new challenges for organisations. How accepting are we as people, as communities, as an organisation? Do we want to separate, accommodate, integrate, assimilate others? Our hardwired prejudices and a tendency to stereotype may keep us from adapting to a new person or outgroup, and lead to resentment, friction, and conflict.

The Social Brain10 outlines a choice between:

  • a protective, aggressive response to outgroup threats
  • non-dual coalition thinking to stimulate performance, innovation, progress

Both responses have been hardwired throughout our historical development as individuals and groups. We are able to cultivate the latter, overcome instinctive (sometimes subconscious) fears, and accept and adapt.  In the long run “…diversity in our social ecologies nurtures a more creative, resilient and adaptive culture”.10  Ancient African Ubuntu (an example of a set of social values) resonates with this sentiment at both the individual and cultural level, placing value on belonging and acceptance: A person is a person through other persons. 

(4) Resilience and adaptability.  Taleb alludes to the people-organization similarity by categorizing “something or someone” as either fragile or robust (anti-fragile) in their response to random shocks – with the latter being “something or someone … who is more than just adaptable, resilient or robust and they don’t just endure shocks and change, they benefit from them and actively seek them out. 11   Three agility/ survivor traits that apply to both individuals and organizations12:

  • a clear focus on what it is they want to achieve
  • an ability to experience surprises as challenges and setbacks as valuable learning experiences, refusing to be immobilized by change
  • a firm sense that most of the time they are in control of their actions and in control of the meanings that they assign to events (although not in control of the events themselves).

“I came to see, in my time at IBM, that culture isn’t just one aspect of the game – it is the game.”
-Lou Gerstner

One can extend the ‘culture as character’ analogy to include first impressions, our persona/ heart/ soul (Brand), authenticity, life stages/ degree of maturity, mindfulness, curiosity, blind spots, our shadow side … but it’s time to turn to how we go about merging individual character with organisational culture.

Blending Character and Culture

The types, characteristics, intentions, values, predispositions of people comprising any organization are legion. Blending this mix into a dominant corporate culture/ character, so that people do things, respond, make decisions and solve problems cohesively (‘align’) is a huge challenge.

Theoretically the options (to apply overtly or subtly) range from Orwellian practises – laying down the rules and meting out toe-the-line punishment, to ‘brainwashing’ and manipulation from the moment new staff are ‘on-boarded,’ to various ‘socially acceptable’ forms of coercive persuasion, conscious and unconscious influencing and conditioning, social sanctions; to participative, voluntary, cooperation. Bremer offers one such top-down and bottom-up approach:  “A motivated team of 10 can change ‘the way we do things around here.’” She advocates the power of small workshopping groups for evolving a culture – supported by plenary sessions, “building the bridge while we walk on it.”13   It is about what a culture ‘is’ which results in what (and how) the members ‘do.’ Interestingly, talk in culture-change circles these days has moved from the mechanistic notions of restructuring/re-engineering to living-system, human notions such as transformation and more recently, regeneration.

For me, key principles are:

  • seeing that having a higher Purpose acts as both magnet and glue
  • unearthing aspirational virtues and aligning these to purpose. A methodology for doing this is set out in The Virtuosa Organisation 6
  • majoring on intrinsic motivation
  • offering appropriate practices and techniques that assist people on their journey. After all, it is only human behaviour that causes damage to the planet, people and profit. And only human behaviour will bring about sustainable solutions.These may include habit-reversal and behaviour modification (raising awareness, re-imagining and visualisation that address memory, frame-switching, time-lining; narrative embodiment exercises; rituals), shared value explorations – including the exchange of cultural norms and stories, narrative embodiment exercises; and building change-resilience
  • being patient, allowing organic spread. Christianity spread in ever-expanding circles facilitated by the passing on of parables and anecdotes. “Among Buddhists, fables, fairy tales, anecdotes, adventure stories, and pious legends were very important as instructive narratives … made their way, stage by stage, across Asia Minor, Greece and Rome to modern Italy, Germany, England and France …”14
  • being inclusive, ensuring that everyone is involved. “There is an old (African) tradition where every traveller who passes a certain spot would add a stone to a pile of stones. In doing this, every traveller become part of the common purpose and identifies with a certain good cause. This ritual is named ‘isivivane.'”15  “Any public enterprise needs the contribution of the ordinary person, hence the Zulu proverb Ukuphosa itshe esivivaneni, to make a personal contribution to a great task. Literally to place one’s stone on the pile (monument).”16

What are your thoughts? I invite your participation and comments on social media. 


  1. Hofstede, G Culture’s Consequences, International Differences in Work-Related Values Sage, Newbury Park 1984
  2. Jung, C.G. The Theory of Psychoanalysis The Journal of Nervous and Mental Disease NY 1915 (Reprinted by Forgotten Books, 2015)
  3. Paulus, Trina Hope for the Flowers A Newman book, Paulist Press  NY  1972
  4. Morgan, Gareth Images of organization Sage Publications 1986
  5. Stanford, Naomi. Organisation Culture: Getting It Right The Economist in association with Profile Books, London 2010
  6. Williams, Graham; Haarhoff, Dorian & Fox, Peter The Virtuosa Organisation: the importance of virtues for a successful business Knowledge Resources 2015
  7. Horne, Amanda Virtuous Organisations August, 2012
  8. Hurst, Aaron (CEO of Imperative Group, Inc.) & Tavis, Dr Anna (Adjunct Professor of School of Professional Studies, NYU) Workforce Purpose Index 2015
  9. Bridges, William The Character of Organizations: using personality type in organization development Davies-Black (an imprint of Nicholas Brealey Publishing)  2010
  10. Crisp, Richard The Social Brain: how diversity made the modern mind Robinson, UK 2015
  11. Taleb, Nassim Nicholas Antifragile Penguin 2012
  12. Lynch, Dudley & Kordis, Paul L Strategy of the Dolphin: scoring a win in a chaotic world Fawcett Columbine  1990, citing psychologists Suzanne Kobusa and Salvatore Maddi
  13. Bremer, Marcella Organizational Culture Change: unleash your organization’s potential in circles of 10 Kwikker Groep  Zwolle 2012
  14. Gruber, Elmar R & Kersten, Hoger The Original Jesus Element 1995
  15. R. Lessem & B Nussbaum Sawubona Africa: Embracing four worlds in South African management Zebra Press 1996
  16. Kokopelli Partners Limited – Advised by Eugenie Banhegyi, Steve Banhegyi, Jim Heaney Cougar and Ralf Sibande   Isivivane for change and cooperation: leave no stone unturned 2016

About the Author

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Graham Williams

Graham Williams, CMC, B.Com Hons, B.A. is a Cape Town-based certified management consultant, thought provoker, executive coach and author who has worked in over 40 countries around the World. An essential component of his ‘motivational fingerprint’ is to overcome severe organisational blockages by installing creative, healing solutions – from concept to implementation. He focuses on the use of narrative, anecdote and metaphor as critical contributors to successful business interventions and has written or co-authored a number of business books.