Is attempting to introduce a positive organisational culture a waste of time?

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I was recently asked to discuss the statement “Attempting to introduce a positive organisational culture is a waste of time”. Effective answering of the question required definitions which framed positive culture as at least potentially amenable to change. The benefits of positive cultural change were explored. The merits of two possible positive psychology interventions as mediums for facilitating this change and possible areas for future research were discussed as were the implications of complex adaptive systems. The outcome of following the above process resulted in a position that whilst introducing a positive organisational culture is problematic, it is a worthwhile approach to enhancing employee perception of the organisation and also enhancing organisational performance.

 

Introduction

Attempting to introduce positive organisational change might reasonably be considered a waste of time if either, it cannot be done, or if the results from such attempts do not warrant the resources needed to achieve them. In examining these possibilities, we first explore “organisational culture” as a construct that is amenable to change by internal and external interventions.  We then discuss “positive organisational culture” as the culture that emerges from the application of positive psychology principles in an organisational context. Having established a working definition of positive organisational culture, we examine the potential benefits that such a culture might bring to an organisation and discuss two positive psychology interventions as examples of potential vehicles to deliver these outcomes: The use of Appreciative Inquiry and Strengths. The evidence for the effectiveness of these approaches is discussed along with suggestions for future research. Finally, the implications of Complex Adaptive Systems theory for positive psychology, and other organisational interventions are discussed. It will be seen that attempting to introduce a positive organisational culture is challenging, with sometimes unpredictable results. However, the encouraging results from this nascent field indicate that such endeavours are not a waste of time.

 

 

Organisational culture

Despite its popularity, the definition of organisational culture continues to be debated with approaches varying from very basic and rudimentary definitions: For example, according to Davis (1984) culture is simply the beliefs and values of the organisation, whereas more complicated multidimensional definitions have included values, symbols, tacit understandings, rites, rituals, shared assumptions, shared understandings and traditions and more (Schein, 1992; Sergiovanni & Corbally, 1984). Indeed, some researchers and theorists refuse to even attempt to define the term (McAleese & Hargie, 2004). Others argue that organisational culture is pluralistic with the majority of organisations having multiple cultures or sub cultures which are distinct from the overall culture within which they are embedded (Trice & Beyer, 1993). However, common to most definitions of organisational culture are shared values, understandings and norms (Mamatoglu, 2008).

Organisational culture has also been defined from the perspective of the employee. These approaches examine employee perception of organisational attributes and how they relate to the employee in terms of motivation, engagement and behaviour (Michela & Burke, 2000). The term “organisational climate” is often used to describe the shared employee perceptions approach to organisational culture. This approach views culture and climate as distinct, but inter-related constructs: Culture is relatively static and resistant to change whereas climate is more accessible and amenable to change. Moreover, as organisational climate is seen as being able influence organisational culture , understanding and working with organisational climate is seen as more appropriate for relatively short term change interventions (Barker, 1994). A further differentiation has been made between organisational and psychological climate with organisational climate being the aggregation of employee perceptions of the organisational environment, and the latter referring to individual perception of workplaces in relation to their personal values and psychological desires (Sarros, Cooper, & Santora, 2008).

How culture is defined has obvious implications for how it is analysed and measured, and how any change intervention will be evaluated (Brown, 1995). Given the ambiguity in the area, it would appear reasonable to view culture as a collection of interpretations, with each interpretation being derived from its author’s perspective (McAleese & Hargie, 2004). For our purposes we will use the “psychological” climate approach: Organisational culture is viewed as potentially amenable to change via short term interventions and the potential use of a positive psychology approach in developing a positive organisational culture is enabled.

 

Positive organisational culture

What is a positive organisational culture? Is it positive for the organisation? For the employees? The American Management Association (2008) reports that a positive organisational culture may be manifested by innovation, flexibility and trust, but also asserts that exactly what a positive organisational culture is has not yet been defined. For our purposes, we define a positive organisational culture as the culture that emerges from the organisational application of the principles of positive psychology and that is manifested in an improved organisational psychological climate.

Although definitions of positive psychology may vary, most are relatively consistent with Linley and Harrington’s description of positive psychology as “the scientific study of optimal functioning, focusing on aspects of the human condition that can lead to happiness, fulfilment and flourishing” (A. Grant & Spence, 2010; Linley & Harrington, 2005). Positive psychology is focused on improving the lives of individuals, and many individuals spend a large proportion of their lives at work. Therefore, it follows that the workplace provides one of the greatest opportunities for people to experience and benefit from positive psychology interventions (Stairs & Galpin, 2010).

 

Organisational benefits of positive culture

If it is possible to develop a positive organisational culture then, there is emerging evidence that it may well be far from a waste of time. Moving an organisation from functioning to optimal functioning has potential benefits for both the organisation and its employees. The link between organisational culture, employee satisfaction and organisational performance is well established in the research literature (Barney, 1986; Gunn, 2000; Saffold, 1988). Some researchers argue that organisational performance is more a function of its culture than a result of directives from senior management and often directly impacts the implementation of organisational strategy (Janargin & Siocum, 2007). For example, positive psychology is often used to increase the levels of employee engagement within organisations and there are direct organisational consequences associated with the level of employee engagement: Engaged employees advocate for, and are loyal to the organisation and have higher discretionary effort than disengaged employees (Bauruk, 2006). Employee engagement is a stronger predictor of business outcomes than employee satisfaction and various studies have demonstrated links between higher engagement and increased productivity correlating with individual, group and organisational performance (Ronerston-Smith & Marwick, 2009). Higher engagement levels are associated with lower employee turnover (a commonly accepted estimate of employee turnover is that replacing an employee costs the organisation up to five times that employee’s annual salary (Harter & Blacksmith, 2010)), less sick leave, higher productivity and higher return on investment (Bauruk, 2006; CIPD, 2006). Organisations with high levels of employee engagement increased their operating income by 19 per cent and their earnings per share by 28 per cent year? to?year, compared to those with lower levels of engagement (Towers-Perrin, 2007). Gallup estimate that it takes five fully engaged workers to cancel out the impact of one actively disengaged colleague (Smith, 2009). Organisations realise that the “soft” markers of psychological climate, such as engagement, have “hard” outcomes that impact on organisational performance. These climate markers can be seen as “surrogate” markers strongly associated with organisational outcomes, in the same way that blood pressure is a surrogate marker of individual health.

 

Positive psychology interventions

Having defined psychological climate as an aspect of organisational culture that is amenable to change, we now examine how that change might be facilitated by discussing two currently popular exemplars of positive psychology, Appreciative Inquiry (AI) and the use of Strengths.

 

 

Appreciative Inquiry (AI)

In contrast to traditional approaches to organisational change, which focus on identifying and solving core organisational problems and “gaps”,  AI focuses and builds on what is working when the organisation is at its best (Fitzgerald, Murrell, & Miller, 2003). AI attempts to improve culture by fostering a deep appreciation of what is good in organisations rather than focusing on what is lacking (Fitzgerald, et al., 2003). AI was initially proposed as an agent of organisational change by Cooperrider and Whitney in 1995 and later refined as a four staged process: The Discovery stage, the Dream stage,  the Design stage and the Destiny stage (Cooperrider, Sorensen, & Whitney, 2005). AI encourages self-disclosure amongst employees to develop deeper connections with each other, thereby creating a psycho/social foundation of shared vision and trust which then fosters and sustains action towards positive organisational change (Dematteo & Reeves, 2011).

AI has become increasingly popular as an organisational intervention, with researchers claiming that it has been successful in facilitating positive organisational change in educational institutions, hospitals and corporations  (Aronson, 2011; Carter, 2006; Fitzgerald, et al., 2003; Fortmayer, 2009; Whitney, Cooperrider, Garrison, & Moore, 2002). However, whilst the literature is replete with the successful use of AI to create and sustain positive organisational culture, there is a dearth of large scale empirical research: Most research takes the form of case studies rather than structured empirical interventions (Dematteo & Reeves, 2011). In addition, some researchers question whether AI can actually be an agent of change: By focusing on what is good when the organisation is at its best, and not critically analysing the broader social, political and economic context of the organisation, it is claimed that the resulting work will implicitly support the current organisational status quo (S. Grant & Humphries, 2006). In other words, the psychological climate might change, but this might not be reflected in any change in the deeper culture.

Future research on AI could build on the encouraging results of the current evidence base by focusing on developing some empirical “robustness”. This might take the form of well structured, large scale interventions. Further, a more integrated approach whereby AI is combined with a critical approach to the organisational context within which AI is being implemented may give insights into AI’s ability to effect longer term cultural change, as well as short term changes in psychological climate (S. Grant & Humphries, 2006). If AI, and other positive psychology interventions are to prove themselves more than the quick fix, band-aid solutions that some critics suggest they are,  then research that uses them as part of an integrated cultural change process could prove very useful (Garcea, Harrington, & Linley, 2010).

 

Strengths based approaches

The use of strengths to enhance employee engagement and productivity, and the building of strengths based organisations has become increasingly popular in recent years.  There is as yet no clear definitions of strengths and consequently consensus on how they should be measured (Elston & Boniwell, 2011). They have been described as ”the ability to consistently provide near perfect performance” (Buckingham & Clifton, 2002) and a “pre-existing capacity for a particular way of behaving, thinking, or feeling that is authentic and energising to the user, and enables optimal functioning, development and performance” (Linley, 2008).  Strengths have been associated with goal progress (Linley, Nielsen, Wood, Gillet, & Biswas-Diener, 2010), improved subjective wellbeing (Proctor, Maltby, & Linley, 2010) and increases in self-esteem, psychological wellbeing and satisfaction with life (Minhas, 2010). Strengths have also been associated with increased employee engagement (Minhas, 2010) and improved work performance (Linley, Woolston, & Biswas-Diener, 2009).

It would therefore appear from the literature that approaches focusing on strengths have high potential to affect psychological climate. Advocates of the strengths based approach suggest that organisations should move away from competency models of job design and recruitment and focus on using strengths to determine organisational roles and to guide the recruitment process (Garcea, et al., 2010). They also claim success in complimentary job partnering, whereby teams are constructed so that the relative strengths and weakness are matched so that, in effect, weakness is eliminated from the team (Linley, et al., 2009).

Whilst the benefits of a strengths based may be intuitively appealing, the approach is not without problems. Despite the large amount of evidence demonstrating an association between strengths, the individual’s ability to use them in the workplace and outcomes, such as high engagement and productivity, there is very little high quality evidence demonstrating that a strengths based approach actually changes psychological climate, culture and organisational outcomes. Some of the evidence cited is relatively opaque and lacks clarity and granularity. For example the “successes” cited by Garcea et al (2010) p.325 are interesting but unconvincing in terms of empirical research. That being said, the strengths approach is a relatively nascent field of research and many of its advocates are aware of the limitations of the available research (Garcea, et al., 2010). Suggestions for future research have included large, controlled organisational studies to explore if, and how, strength based organisations might be able to out-perform their competency based peers,  (Garcea, et al., 2010) and longitudinal studies to examine the predictive nature of character strengths (Peterson, Stephens, Nansook, Lee, & Seligman, 2010).

 

Complex adaptive systems

Organisations are complex adaptive systems and positive psychology interventions interact with these systems. Complex adaptive systems (CAS) are synergistic, rather than additive, combinations of whole subsystems, for example human resource departments, marketing department, finance, logistics, teams, individual employees and so forth. The chronological interaction and interdependence of these subsystems forms the larger and complete CAS (Cavanagh, 2006). In a CAS, events, ideas and agents interact with each other in a largely unpredictable manner and change emerges from this interaction. The random nature of these interactions combined with potential sensitivity to small changes in the system can lead organisations to act in an organic and unpredictable way (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). Viewing the organisation as a CAS would see the organisation’s historical culture as irreversible, its current culture as an emergent property of the system and its future culture as unpredictable (Dooley, 1996).

A CAS perspective on organisations can be problematic when trying to give simple answers to questions such as whether attempting to introduce a positive organisational culture is a waste of time: Change in complex adaptive systems does not usually occur in a linear fashion and is often manifested in  unexpected places. The dynamic nature of CAS renders it impossible to return the organisation to its previous state and re-run the intervention (Marion & Uhl-Bien, 2001). Put simply, it is impossible to predict precisely what the impact of trying to introduce a positive culture into an organisation will be, and given the dynamic multifaceted nature of organisation, it is very difficult to establish causality between any change in the system and the intervention. How do we know the intervention was, or wasn’t a waste of time?  What do we measure?  When do we measure and where do we measure?  Where we measure would appear to be critical. By interacting with the system we change the system, however, these changes might always occur in the areas that we would expect and may well not be noticed or attributed to the intervention.

Is any intervention in an organisation is pointless? If we can’t measure outcomes and establish causality, why bother? CAS are not totally random, having both a degree of consistency and the ability to adapt (Lewis, 2011). For example, a flock of geese generally has the same form each the time the flock forms, but how each individual bird comes together to form the flock will vary each time the flock forms. For the flock to change from its normal shape requires change at the individual bird level, and small changes at the individual level can ultimately cause large changes in the system. Therefore, from a CAS perspective, relatively small changes at a local level, for example a positive psychology intervention, may elicit relatively small changes in the psychological climate which ultimately cause large changes in the system. Whilst these changes are not specifically predictable, in the same way that we can’t predict with a high degree of accuracy, what the temperature will be on June 15th, 2015, they can be broadly predictable; we could reasonably expect the temperature on June 15th, 2015, to be cooler than on December 15th, 2015.

In the context of complex adaptive systems we could broadly predict that positive psychological interventions have the potential to positively impact on psychological climate. However, we would be either brave, or foolhardy, to predict with certainty what specific changes to the organisation and its culture would occur.

 

Conclusion

The complex nature of organisational systems, issues with nomenclature and definitions, make introducing a positive organisational culture challenging and unpredictable. This, combined with a limited research base, may lead some to conclude that it is indeed a waste of time. However, the potential benefits to employees and organisations, and the encouraging results that the research to date has provided, make it worthy of further exploration. As our understanding of complex adaptive systems increases, and the evidence base for positive psychological interventions becomes more robust, we would reasonably anticipate the development of more informed and refined interventions. This may ultimately lead us to a position where we are discussing whether we have the time to waste, before we attempt to introduce a positive organisational culture.

 

 

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About the Author:

Experienced coach and trainer. 12 years experience in sales and sales management, sales training, life and business coaching. Currently enrolled in Master of Applied Science - Positive Coaching Psychology at Sydney University. Strong belief in the power of individuals to change themselves. Frustrated rock god and player of the guitar! Husband to a loving and tolerant wife, father of 2 fantastic daughters and grandfather to 5 extremely cool granddaughters.
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