Corporate Culture and Employee Identity: Co-option or Commitment through Contestation?
Australian case study, November 2014
If you find things which are important to you are reflected in your organisation, how do you feel? The dynamics of organisational culture and identify are well documented; however what are the implications when culture is not mutually constructed? This study found that inclusion plays a critical role in shaping successful change programs to become a Values-based organisation. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.
“I take pride. I feel proud of the organisation and I want to be driving its success. If its values are aligned with mine, I feel very motivated, very enthusiastic. That’s it really. I want to shout about it and tell everybody everywhere else about it, why it is so fantastic.”
The dynamics of organisational culture and identity, the positive impact alignment has on an organisation, have been well documented. In particular, Professor Mary Jo Hatch (Gothenburg University School of Business Economics and Law), has written prolifically about two strong organisational forces, organisational culture and stakeholder culture, describing their mutual influences on organisational identity. Through this research, Hatch proposed that organisational culture should be socially constructed, with employees’ identities and organisational identities mirroring each other (2011). In this way, employees feel attached and committed to carrying out organisational activities, such as change.
The question still remains: what are the implications when organisational culture is not mutually constructed?
Building on the theoretical foundations of Hatch (2011), Christina Price (PhD Candidate) and Professor Alma Whiteley (Curtin Graduate School of Business, Curtin University, Western Australia) conducted a study which found there can be negative consequences when employees feel that their identities have been compromised by management imposing a particular culture on them.
This exploratory study focused on a “Values-based” culture change at a financial services organisation that was recently acquired by a larger institution. It revealed a sense of employee identity which was compromised as the (new) imposed Values were not aligned to the actual organisational culture, or employees’ own Values.
In essence, the case study demonstrated the critical role inclusion plays in culture change programs. Specifically, the study found that active listening must be complemented by the implementation of symbolic actions by management which embrace the Values to ensure employees feel connected to the organisation.
This study had two aims. The first was to fill a gap in the literature on the implications of management enforcing employees to adopt the espoused values management have created in isolation from employee contribution. Drawing on the mutual influences of both corporate culture and stakeholder culture on organisational identity (Hatch, 2011), the researchers used this case study to explore the consequences of an imposed Values-based culture program on employees, and assess the risk if employees felt management violated these espoused Values.
The Values imposed on this organisation were:
- Customer attention
- We: united team
- Achieve our goals
The second aim of the study was “build a theory around the development of a sustainable, co-created corporate culture process: ‘commitment through contestation.’”
There were two questions the researchers set out to answer in this study:
1. How do employees’ narrate their personal Values, their work and their organisational values?
2. How do employees’ work and personal Values intersect with organisational Values?
This research was conducted as a case study at an 800-employee Australian financial institution which had recently been acquired by a larger institution. At the time of the study, the financial institution was implementing a ‘people-focused’ culture change initiative.
The sequence of research events involved initial research questions, field data and discussions. Primary data was collected in the form of semi-structured interviews with 12 employees. Examples of questions asked ranged from understanding the employees’ organisational identity and story, to asking questions such as:
- When you find that the things which are important to you are being reflected in this place, how do you feel and what do you do?’
- How would you implement the culture change program?
Secondary data was collected via the organisation’s cultural documentation including HR materials, vision and value statements, historical statements, strategic priorities, manager instructions for change management behaviours and a line manager’s guide for facilitating the organisation’s action plan.
There were three key themes which emerged from the data, and a number of sub-themes in each.
1. Employees making sense of how senior managers demonstrate organisational Values
The key theme the data revealed was around the implications of managers not demonstrating the espoused Values they were imposing on employees. This led to feelings of disengagement and frustration. For example, one interviewee stated, ‘you see them [Senior Managers] behaving differently…everyone just starts to disengage’.
Underneath this key finding, the data also exposed some other interesting perceptions from employees. Employees generally accepted the espoused Values, however they also sought to make sense of purpose of the culture change. One participant said ‘in the past it’s been a siloed approach, so they’re trying to bring everyone together . . . The overall aim is to get everyone to work as ‘one team’’. They felt the way management was mandating these Values was wrong. ‘We can’t just say, now as of today these are our new Values and behaviours please would you live by them’. This was echoed in response to management incorporating the new Values into an appraisal mechanism, furthermore highlighting the imposed nature of the program.
2. Impact of no channel to provide feedback on the culture or values of the organisation
There appeared to be a lack of opportunity for employees to discuss the organisation’s culture and values with management, with some employees almost feeling they were ”constrained from the inability to really share information.”
Furthermore, employees felt that significant announcements or initiatives surrounding the change project had been insufficiently communicated to them in the spirit of the three Values espoused by managers. For example, one employee stated “communicating about the redundancies was done poorly,” further highlighting the disconnection between the Values and employee experiences. As another participant stated, “there is an illusion some of the more senior managers, the exec level, are a little disconnected from the shopfloor so to speak.”
3. Impact of identifying oneself with the organisation
The final finding demonstrated the impact of an employee’s identity to an organisation. The researchers found that the more an employee identified with their organisation, the more likely they were to be affected by critical incidents, which were defined by the researchers as “an incongruent event experienced by employees (for example, observing senior manager communicating incongruently with Espoused Values (EV’s) which was emotionally disruptive, challenged employees’ beliefs in the veracity of management’s rhetoric and destabilised the employees’ sense of identification with the organisation.” For example, one participant described that they felt this was ‘just a job’ and the “takeover didn’t affect me as much as it did other…people.” This illustrates that the deeper the attachment to the organisation, the more impacted employees can be of critical incidents.
The second element of this finding is the congruence of personal and professional Values, which deepened the feelings of attachment to the organisation. This particular finding refers directly to the research question on the intersection between personal and organisational Values. The deep entrenchment of the two sets of Values amongst employees made it even harder to witness management not ‘walking the talk’, to the point where some employees felt “they would leave given the chance…I have seen enough of it, the promises and the false promises”.
These findings demonstrate that there were many dynamics at play beyond Hatch’s original proposal of identity and culture within this particular culture change.
The findings therefore elicited a theoretical interplay of various dynamics including organisational culture, employee identity and identification, employee agency and commitment, folkloric and contestable discourse. Ultimately, the findings represented that when there is a lack of mutual construction around organisational Values and culture, the level of commitment and motivation by members can decline.
As a way of re-setting the direction for future change initiatives, the researchers proposed a new development to Hatch’s original theory whereby culture is positioned as a ‘continuous process of contestation and struggle’. Named ‘Commitment through Contestation’ (see diagram below) the researchers’ proposed theory is fundamentally a model of engagement for employees to contribute to the cultural discourse of the organisation. It is a platform for employees to freely discuss their identity as it is tied to the organisation, to tell their stories and debate the merits of the Values and of the organisation’s culture. Importantly, the model included external factors - something which Hatch did not include as a way of contextualising the critical incidents that employees need to make sense of. In the case of this study, it was the business acquisition. The researchers suggested that such an open dialogue would lead to employees feeling valued and included within the organisation, and more committed to achieving success. Whilst not applied within this case study, the researchers have positioned it as an alternative theory to better understand how organisational change can be effective.
Figure 1: A situated contestable environment: commitment through contestation.
Practically, this study sheds more light on the power of inclusion. Here it has been demonstrated that when employees feel their voices and opinions are not heard or are ignored by managers who don’t practice what they preach, they feel less attached to the organisation and less motivated to achieving its goal. Theoretically, this study is important because it provides fertile material for future researchers and practitioners, presenting the theory of ‘commitment through contestation’.
To read the full article, see Whitley, A., & Price, C., (2014), Corporate Culture and Employee Identity: Cooption or Commitment through Contestation? Journal of Change Management, (14), 2, 210-235; or visit: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14697017.2014.896391.