Organizational Culture: Open or Closed?

Culture in an organization is comprised of shared values, goals, norms and processes. One overarching theme uncovered in studying organizational culture is that leadership creates and reinforces culture. A traditional organization operates in a hierarchical model with an authoritarian culture that seems to foster privacy or secrecy. An open culture is the foundation for creating a high performance organization. An open culture within an organization fosters transparency and accountability to its customers and the public. If management doesn’t have a culture of open communication, then that culture suffers.

One of the best practices of high performance organizations is for leadership to nurture a culture that allows for people to question openly and have honest dialogue. A leader’s beliefs and values create the direction and the boundaries that people need to perform well. In “Good to Great” (2001) Jim Collins asserts, “good-to-great companies built a consistent system with clear constraints, but they also gave people freedom and responsibility within the framework of that system.” This is Policy Governance in a nutshell.

When organizational leaders have an authoritarian culture where people are afraid to question decisions, diverse viewpoints cannot be heard. When people can raise objections when they think they need to, it paves the way to better decision-making. If an organization follows Policy Governance principles, it will find that Policy Governance creates a “safe” way to have meaningful dialogue around an issue (instead of a personality), and largely, reduces organizational barriers to having the dialogue in the first place.

Warren Bennis is a professor at USC’s Marshall School of Business. Bennis cited by Koestenbaum, Keys, and Weirich says, “Exemplary leaders create a climate of candor throughout their organizations. They remove the organizational barriers — and the fear — that cause people to keep bad news from the boss. They understand that those closest to customers usually have the solutions but can do little unless a climate of candor allows problems to be discussed.”

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