The Fallacy of a Culture in Large Organizations

Organizations generate many observed behaviors which necessitate the use of paradigms such as culture. Small organizations (up to 300 persons) can show useful indications of the culture paradigm, where larger organizations (301-12,000+) can defy if not become unworkable within a cultural analysis. Military, paramilitary and law enforcement organizations typically adhere to more rigid cultural norms such as chain of command and ally with variables such as power, communication and tradition. Outside of the rigid cultures, we have many other possibilities. I want to focus on multiple cultures within one organization and what this may mean to leaders.

A useful parallel to understanding organizational cultural complexities is the existence of multiple climates in a land region. Geological features such as mountains, elevation, wind patterns, water and man induced land use can provide unique microclimates within a region. Yet it is helpful to compare climates to organizational cultures. How many times have you heard about the “chasm” between divisions, the “river that divides work” or the “mountain” that must be climbed to overcome change?

Just like microclimates in any region, we have microclimates or cultures within organizations. Typical terms used to describe these diversities include a culture of acceptance, equality, pride or quality of work, communication and clarity, innovation, competition and career enhancement. Add technology as a possible change ingredient and we can begin to understand how multiple behavior variables within an organization can drive or curtail one or more cultures while the climate (positive or negative) persists.

Let’s assume a healthy, productive and an efficient organization has these characteristics: appreciation of diversity, employee pride in the work, equal opportunity, strong communication, effective leadership, low turnover, acceptance of innovation and plentiful training. Comparatively, let’s assume an unhealthy organization does not. So one organization swirls in disorder and at times chaos, while the other breezes in the trade winds of productivity and more. Yet if we take a close look between the cultural microclimates, or the organization’s divisions or specialty centers, we may find unhealthy and healthy characteristics coexist. Oh, now what? Maybe a taste of reality is that leadership must recognize that internal cultures will vary and somehow find the organization better than expected.

After 40 years in state and local government, I saw strong, weak, retired military, industry, legal and many other leaders somehow orchestrate the cultures within large organizations. In the end, only a handful of leaders had the vision to recognize and work within the multicultural climates. Most tried to navigate with a narrow cultural model, such as authority to force change as in layoffs, budget cuts and favoritism.

What have you seen?  Are you a leader that is prepared to tread within cultures as in microclimates or to attempt power-driven actions? As a staff expert, have you noticed the differing cultures and how they blend and at times clash?


Submitted by Geoff McLennan

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