A Relook at the Time of Downturn

Date:   Friday , January 02, 2009

The term 'culture' came from the Latin word 'cultura', which means 'which is part of'. Though researchers working on organizational behavior have defined organization culture in many different ways, there is little agreement among them. As a matter of fact, there are virtually as many definitions of organization culture as scholars that have studied it. Despite the fact that organization culture is associated with so many complex overt phenomena, it can be looked at as 'shared assumptions', which a group learns over a period of time. Organization Development guru Schein points out, "Initially, when an organization starts functioning it is the leaders who propose a certain course of action for solving the group's internal and external problems. These problem solving mechanisms or actions, when proven successful, become distinctive characteristics of the group. Over the years when employees deeply share and practice these values, beliefs, and assumptions they become the 'taken for granted' way of organizational life. So much so, that not only a value starts getting attached to them, but also the group members find it awkward to discuss or re-examine them even when the context in which they are operating starts changing in a fast pace."

Through the process of socialization, these are passed on to new members who join the organization. That is why, in an organizational context, studying what a relatively newcomer learnt from his or her older colleagues can indicate the 'solve aspects' of organization culture. However, what is implicit in this process is the manipulability of culture as the unique and essential function of leadership. It must be kept in the mind that when in an organizational context a solution to external or internal problems repeatedly works well, it becomes to be taken for granted. With the passing of time it becomes a 'reality' for the majority of employees. They start believing that nature really comes that way. These implicit assumptions, in real terms, actually start guiding their behavior. Needless to say, these assumptions are very difficult to change since attempting to relook at these assumptions would mean destabilizing one's own cognitive and interpersonal world, which in turn would create a lot of anxiety. Faced with such a situation in an organizational context, where probably re-examining of such basic assumptions become inevitable, the organizational members still try to perceive events around them as congruent as these basic assumptions even at the cost of distorting, denying, or falsifying facts to themselves. However, we must keep in mind that at the core of any organization culture lies these 'taken for granted basic assumptions' of employees.

So what happens at the time of a downturn? The preferred ways for success that are practiced regularly for years and are ingrained in the managements of most of the organizations now become doubtful methods. Therefore driving any change process during a tough time would mean changing these basic assumptions. Hence, mobilizing the employees to change these assumptions in order to thrive in the new and fast changing environment assumes a critical importance. Without such change any organization would falter. Influencing people to re-examine these basic assumptions and making them adapt to changes, in fact, become the hallmark of effective leadership in such a turbulent time. This is where the leaders need to work with employees to bring changes in the organization culture. This change would mean changing the basic assumption of at least a majority of employees in the organization. Almost all the recent works carried out in the context of organizational change, be it conceptual or empirical research, support this contention.

Organizational researchers Levy and Levy, while talking about change, touched upon the concept of self-transcendence, which is very relevant when we talk about changes during an economic downturn. Their description of four stages of this change process, namely crisis, transformation, transition, and stabilization seem to indicate what leaders should follow for development and what seem to be happening in today's world. According to them transformation would mean "creating or discovering new realities, a sudden shift in perception, a moment of illumination, insight, and the emergence of new possibility."

Therefore, it goes without saying that at the time of downturn the leadership effectiveness essentially will depend on this transformation ability. However, leadership as seen in this light also requires a supporting learning strategy. A leader, from above or below, with or without authority, has to engage people in confronting the challenge, adjusting their values, changing perspectives, and learning new habits. It may not be out of the way to point out the fact that the concept of organizational learning, which is presently considered by many researchers as a major focal point for organizational change, can be linked to what we described earlier as 'change in basic assumptions'. Organizational learning occurs when leaders act as learning agents for the organization, responding to changes in the internal and external environments of the organization during a downturn by detecting and correcting disconnects in the processes and systems in these basic assumptions within an organization.

Finally, while concluding, it may be worthwhile to examine the aspect of organizational culture in the Indian organizations, in the context of the current downturn. We must remember that the root of any organizational culture can be traced back to the 'taken for granted basic assumptions' of the employees. Relating to this fact, we can comprehend that an organizational culture in developing countries like India are rooted in the social cultural milieu within which an organization evolves and functions. As a matter of fact, the organizational behavior researchers propounded a model of cultural fit, which recognizes the influence of the external environment in the internal work culture of organizations. The basic rationale underlying the model is that the human resource (HR) practices are based on the values, assumptions, and beliefs that leaders have about the human nature, and these define the work culture. This model explains that the external socio-cultural environments and enterprise variables influence the work culture, which in turn has an impact on the HR practices.

It is interesting to note that despite coming from the same social milieu, leaders not only need to differ in their perceptions of external socio-cultural variables, but they also differ in their beliefs and assumptions about the human nature in an organizational context. If they do so, chances are that these leaders will put into use more effective human resource practices like feedback, autonomy, task-significance, empowerment, supervisory control, and performance reward contingency. Obviously, if they are successful in their endeavors, they will in turn help the employees not only to look at shared basic assumptions but also understand the learning process by which such basic assumptions are arrived at. At the time of downturn this could be the best way to align the employees and work towards a transformational change.

It is indeed a process of self-transcendence for leaders. As aptly quoted by Levy and Levy, "Self-transcendence is related to learning how to jump over one's own shadow, as well as the capacity to change one’s point of view and explore one’s situation in a different light."