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Part I. The Dark Sides of Strong Organizational Culture

2021-05-26 来源: 51Due教员组 类别: Essay范文

Organizational culture has become one of the most popular topics in business management since the publishing of Peters and Waterman’s (1982) In Search of Excellence and Deal and Kennedy’s (1982) Corporate Cultures. These books have created the idea that a strong organizational culture based on myths and rituals will be a strong motivational force for the employees to push for excellence. Within only three years, In Search of Excellence sold for millions of copies and was translated into fifteen different languages (Wray-Bliss, 2003, 162). However, in the tidal wave of the search for “excellence”, the dark sides of organizational culture are beginning to reveal. Through the case of Theranos, this essay attempts to characterize the negative features and implications of strong organizational culture. A strong organizational culture may lead to disasters for the organization, and the blind pursuit for strong organizational culture should be replaced by the emphasis on a healthy organizational culture.

A strong organizational culture is a designer culture characterized with deliberate control features and high homogeneity. According to Schein (1990, 115), the primary embedding mechanisms for strong organizational cultures include leader control, role modeling, coaching, and operational criteria for rewards, punishments, and recruitment. Among the three different types of organizational culture, a strong organization culture is the most integrative one. As a result of the control mechanisms, organizations with a strong culture typically show high homogeneity, with strong, sanctioned values of “dedication, loyalty, self-sacrifice, and passion” (Clegg, Kornberger, Pitsis, & Mount, 2019). At Theranos, employees were frequently asked to work overtime in order to match with the unrealistic visions of the CEO and founder of the company. A rigorous code of conduct was created by top management of Theranos, to make sure that the employees remain loyal to the company without revealing the dark secrets of the organization. Those who did not follow the rules were punished with lawsuits (Gottschall, 2016). In the case of Theranos, strong organizational culture leads to coerced homogeneity and excessive control.

The emphasis on the personal traits of the founder is another defining feature for strong organizational culture. According to Schein (1990, 115), the secondary mechanisms of organizational culture includes design of the physical environment, stories, stories, legends, myths, and symbols. A typical example of such mechanisms is the tales told by Silicon Valley companies such as Apple and Hewlett-Packard, which “started off in garages and grew to become global organizations” (Clegg, Kornberger, Pitsis, & Mount, 210). As inspiring as the stories are, they are merely the icing on the cake for the technology giants. However, the over-emphasis on such personal stories leads to personal cults. In the case of Theranos, the founder has constructed an appealing tale of how she dropped out of a top university to pursue her childhood dream, making herself “a living symbol of progress, innovation, and female empowerment” (Gottschall, 2016). Consequently, Homles became a “destructive leader”, with high charisma, a need for power, and narcissism (Kulik & Alarcon, 2016, 250). Without the foundation of technical expertise, her tales quickly became a destructive force that poisoned the entire organization.

The combination of primary and secondary mechanisms of strong organizational culture has significant implications on the employee performance. For the low-level employees, their visibility in organizations with strong cultures are significantly diminished because they become expendable compared with the grand goals of the homogenous organization (Kärreman, & Alvesson, 2004, 161). For the managers, strong organizational culture creates additional stress in their work because of concerns about “being policed from head office and working in fear of negative sanction” (Ogbonna & Wilkinson, 2003, 1171). Under such circumstances, subordination and obedience become the common strategies for the employees to survive in the organization. With the right type of leadership, such a strong culture may result in increased motivation. However, this was certainly not the case at Theranos. As a result of the constant maintenance of a distinct and high-pressure culture, some employees may feel extremely pressured and coerced to engage in the organizational rituals (Erhardt, Martin-Rios, & Heckscher, 2016, 40). This explains the high turnover at Theranos. In the case of fundamentally conflicting values between the organizational culture and the individual beliefs, employee performance is negative affected by the conflict.

Strong organizational culture also has the potential of encouraging serious corruption. Part of the definition of culture involves how people perceive the world. Thus, a strong organizational culture may create a strong distortion based on consensus and homogeneity, easily leading to fatal “blind spots” (Clegg, Kornberger, Pitsis, & Mount, 213). “The existing dominant subculture might also rely on its power base to form the nucleus of resistance” (Ogbonna & Harris, 2015, 229). When the dominant organizational culture honesty and incorruptibility, corruption is much less likely to occur with such a strong organizational culture. However, the lack of emphasis on honesty and incorruptibility easily drives organizations into the other extreme. In the case of Theranos, there was indeed a lack of such emphasis in the work climate, legal environment, and industry environment. “Cult leaders redefine their own legal environments in a way that suits their purpose and mission (Kulik & Alarcon, 2016, 254). Theranos was essentially a medicine industries hiding under the disguise of technology where laws are not strictly enforced. Consequently, the dominant culture of corruption became the norm.

In addition to corruption, creativity losses are the biggest problem with organizations with strong cultures. In the hyper-competition of business organizations nowadays, innovation and creativity are the source of life for organizations. However, strong organizational cultures “underscore the image of dullness, group-think, low creativity, and low innovation capacity” (Kärreman, & Alvesson, 162). Under the high homogeneity environment, more and more truths become uncomfortable and undiscussable. Telling the truths are avoided as much as possible because people want to avoid “short-term conflicts, threats, and embarrassment” and maintain peace and unity (Toegel & Barsoux, 2019, 37). However, the opportunities to address problems, improve performance, and promote learning are also lost. In 2008, Theranos engineer Aaron Moore created a prank ad after months of frustrations with the development problems of the porotype blood test machine, calling it “mostly functional” and included “leeches”. Instead of having the struggles of the engineer property addressed, Holmes force him out of the organization (Toegel & Barsoux, 2019, 38). Strong organizational culture in its extreme is a total creativity nightmare.

Finally, distorted by the false reality under strong organization culture, ethical boundaries are eroded in such organizations. The absolute subordination to authority and homogeneity creates an alternate reality like the emperor's new clothes. Hypocrisy is a typical feature for misguided strong organizational cultures. Consequently, an organization has two entirely different images for the insiders and the outsiders. For example, organizations with friendly public images are often revealed to have elaborate facades (Clegg, Kornberger, Pitsis, & Mount, 217). Despite the propaganda of fun and dreams advertised by Disneyland at the time, researcher from 1991 found that the organization was haunted by stressed-out workers, obnoxious customers, and hassled supervisors, all seeking an advantage over others, and using organization resources to do so" (Clegg, Kornberger, Pitsis, & Mount, 217). Similarly, while marketing as a company that reduced pain and thrive for the health and wellbeing of the public, Theranos created a culture of fear and denial internally, which not only led to fraud and bankruptcy, but also jeopardized public health (Toegel & Barsoux, 2019, 38).

In the end, strong organizational cultures should not be the only concern for organizations. Instead of building a company with strong business culture, manipulated hierarchical relationships, and illegal policies, practices, and procedures (Kulik & Alarcon, 2016, 265), it is more important to build a health organizational culture. A health organizational culture, as characterized by Kumar (2016), is a culture that places its emphasis on responsibility, empowerment, and ethics. Social corporate responsibility and ethical conducts should be the basis of any cultural narrative or collective identity. In terms of employee motivation, healthy organizational cultures place more value on individual contributions and worth to the organization, treating the employees as the essential resource for the company rather than expendable parts. While it is important to motivate employees to fulfill personal goals and organizational goals at the same time, business organization leaders should realize that they are doing legal business, not running secular cults or criminal organizations.

In conclusion, the emphasis on strong organizational culture characterized by soft control and personality worship is extremely dangerous to an organization. Strong organizational cultures are similar to drugs for an organization, “try them if you so desire, just don’t get hooked” (Wray-Bliss, 2003, 174). The emphasis of a strong organizational culture places addition strains on the employees and the managers, leading to a culture of fear and subordination. Under the distorted reality of strong organizational culture, corruption, creativity losses, and ethical boundary erosion are much more likely to occur. Each of these consequences are fatal to the long-term survival and success of an organization. The Theranos case reveals that company leaders and managers should place most of their effort in building a brand or a product, and treating organizational culture as icing on the cake. While developing organizational cultures, they should also focus on building healthy organizational cultures of responsibility, empowerment, and ethics, to minimize the potential negative implications of strong organizational culture.

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