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9.2 Organizational Culture and Accountability

Clearly, supervisors are the ones who possess the authority to hold employees accountable for results; and the board of directors is the group responsible for holding the senior-most executive accountable. However, managers and directors vary in their interest and ability to do this. Consequently, cultivating an organizational culture that supports and encourages accountability within an organization is fundamental to organizational change.

What Is an Organizational Culture?

While there are many definitions of organizational culture, I think that one of the clearest was offered by Edgar Schein. He defined organizational culture as

a pattern of basic assumptions—invented, discovered, or developed by a given group as it learns to cope with its problems of external adaptation and internal integration—that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.Schein (1985), p. 9.

Schein argued that there are three levels of culture in any organization. The most visible level of culture is where observable organizational artifactsObservable actions or items, such as technology and architecture, that provide information about an organization. such as technology, art, dress, pictures, architecture, and audible behavior occur. A cultural artifactA visible expression of the underlying values and assumptions that permeate an organization. is a term used to refer to any observable item or action created by humans that gives information about the collectivity of the creators, the users, or both. The intermediate level of organizational culture is the values and beliefs about what the purpose of the organization is, and what gives meaning to its existence. Usually, there is a social consensus as to what values and beliefs matter most within an organization. And finally, at the deepest unconscious level within an organization, there are assumptions about human nature, human relations, time, and the organizational and environmental interface. Schein argued that these assumptions serve as the foundation for the values, norms, and beliefs within all organizations, and are hardest to change.Schein (1985), p. 14.

Some observers argue that organizational culture can be a “social control” mechanism that is more efficient and effective than more formal and traditional control mechanisms due to its fluid pervasiveness.Ouchi (1980). However, a more common view is that organizational culture is the “social glue” that makes organizational life meaningful.Alvesson (2002), p. 32.

In recent years, organizational culture has emerged as a key source of competitive advantage for many firms. Since resources can be easily obtained by new entrants, technology can be easily copied by competitors, and employees are now highly mobile, traditional ways of generating competitive advantage through industry positioning are less relevant today. Furthermore, it has been increasingly observed that a strong set of core values and beliefs often leads to competitive advantages and superior performance for many firms. Since performance above industry norms is a common indicator of competitive advantage, organizational culture is getting more attention by strategists. Finally, since culture is relatively hard to imitate, the competitive advantage is often sustainable.Barney (1986).

How Cultural Norms Influence Accountability Behaviors

In many organizations, there is not a cultural focus on being accountable and getting results. Indeed, five “crippling habits” deeply embedded in an organizational culture are (a) absence of clear directives, (b) lack of accountability, (c) rationalizing inferior performance, (d) planning in lieu of action, and (e) aversion to risk and change.Prosen (2006).

There are many explanations for these negative habits. One is that senior executives consciously or unconsciously neglect their responsibility for executing the strategy well. Forming a brand new strategy is exciting, garners attention from external stakeholders, and happens rather quickly. In contrast, executing an existing strategy requires attention to detail, is often not noticed outside of an organization, and takes a long time to manifest an effect. Hence, making an organization accountable is often not “sexy” to senior leaders.Bossidy and Charan (2002).

Another reason why organizational cultures do not hold members accountable is what is known as the “smart talk trap.” This phenomenon refers to organizational cultures that emphasize talk over action, looking good over getting results, and sounding intelligent rather than delivering results. Managers sometimes let talk substitute for action because that is what they have been trained to do. In addition, there is a human propensity to assume intelligence for those who talk with complex words and focus on hard-to-understand concepts. Unfortunately, complex words and concepts are often difficult to execute. And finally, studies have shown that individuals who criticize ideas are often judged to be smarter than individuals who attempt to be helpful and constructive. While critical thinking is clearly needed in organizations, it often does not lead to constructive action.Pfeffer and Sutton (1999).

Whatever the reason for lack of accountability within an organization, organizational cultures are central to making the organization change capable. Indeed, there is a “hard side” to change management and it centers on keeping people accountable and getting organizationally important results. Prescribing desired results, clarifying responsibility, measuring performance, rewarding those who meet or exceed expectations, and challenging those who do not are all integral to an organization’s norms, values, and assumptions about the way things get done. Accountability is a cultural mind-set, and accountable behaviors emerge from organizational cultures that value it.