Taking (Back) Control of Your Organizational Culture

Effective change requires mastery of Critical Evaluation, Leadership & Navigation, and other competencies

By Joe Jones, Ph.D. November 1, 2016
Taking (Back) Control of Your Organizational Culture

​Over the past 18 years, I have worked at a number of organizations prior to landing in my current role. I have interviewed hundreds of job candidates. One of the questions candidates ask most frequently is "What is your corporate culture like?" It's a great question, which many readers have probably heard, and may have asked, as I have, when being interviewed for a job themselves. 

Early in my career, when candidates asked me that question, I thought for a few seconds about my response, and then I answered with something about collaboration, mission focus, and/or the firm's general level of passion and energy. More recently, my approach has changed. I still think for a few seconds before responding, but these days I give two answers. My first answer is similar to the one I used before (collaboration, etc.). But my second answer is now a follow-up on the first: "That's the organizationwide culture. Like any organization, we have different subcultures. So let me tell you about the culture on my team, in my department and in other departments across the organization." 

I believe in the rationality of my updated response, but its implications are perplexing. What does it ultimately mean for an organization to have multiple cultures within it? And if there are multiple cultures in almost every organization, what is HR's role in ensuring that those cultures facilitate, rather than hinder, organizational success? 

To answer these questions, it helps to start with a better understanding of what we mean by "corporate culture." Many definitions of corporate culture have been proposed over the years (Ehrhart, Schneider, and Macey, 2014). But, to simplify things, let's define it as "the beliefs and behaviors that govern how people act in an organization." Past research suggests that almost every organization (except, perhaps, the smallest) is bound to have a variety of cultures (Gregory, 1983). To have more than one culture in an organization with more than a handful of people is almost unavoidable, across teams, departments and even levels of leadership, due to differences in personalities, cultural backgrounds, ages, team missions, approaches to work, ways of hiring and rewarding employees within departments, and leadership styles, among other factors. 

Is having one organizational culture really as important as some of the literature suggests (e.g., articles in Inc. magazine and the like)? The answer, in my mind, is maybe. I suspect there are both positives and negatives to having multiple cultures (or cultural identities) within an organization, and some research seems to support this belief (Pratt and Foreman, 2000). On the positive side, multiple cultures may lead to productive and healthy internal competition, innovation, attraction and selection of a greater diversity of talent, and organizational knowledge-sharing and cross-cultural learning (Egan, 2008). But on the negative side, multiple cultures may encourage silos, conflicts, mission uncertainty, challenges in cross-organizational collaboration, inconsistent HR practices and customer confusion. What is considered positive or negative may also depend quite a bit on the organization's sector, industry, geographic location and lifecycle stage.  Some suggest that this may not even be an "either/or" situation, but that organizational culture can be viewed as consisting of subcultures within a more complex whole (McCollom, 1993). 

So, what does all this mean for HR? Regardless of whether there is one or many cultures in an organization, HR in particular has an important and challenging role: helping leadership retain or regain control of the organization's culture(s) in a way that optimizes business performance and sustainability. How does HR help take (back) control? What competencies are essential to this task? 

A recent online article by Meredith Mejia, director of marketing for employee recognition consultancy WorkStride, lists three steps to help an organization reset its company culture

  1. Identify what's working and address what isn't.
  2. Ask employees for feedback.
  3. Write a company statement that proclaims your company culture. 

What competencies do HR professionals need in order to make this happen? Applying the SHRM Competency Model, steps 1 and 2 require the Critical Evaluation competency—knowing what questions have to be answered, what data has to be collected to answer those questions, how to collect that data, and how to analyze and interpret the results. Critical Evaluation is also helpful for gathering data across cultures, clarifying the similarities and differences among them, and determining which of those help or hurt the organization. Step 3 requires the key competency of Communication

Leveraging what's working and addressing what isn't working in an organizational culture sometimes requires significant change (Alvesson and Sveningsson, 2015). Effective change management, therefore, can be vital (see what HR executive Tim Mulligan told HR Magazine recently about change at the San Diego Zoo), and success calls for many different steps. For example, a recent article by Christina Folz, editor of HR Magazine, highlights 10 steps for changing organizational culture, as described by Norm Sabapathy, executive vice president of people at Cadillac Fairview Corp. 

Although all nine of the SHRM-defined competencies come into play during cultural change management, for organizations struggling with how to control the negative impact of multiple cultures, the Leadership & Navigation competency is of particular importance. HR professionals faced with change in such organizations have a twofold responsibility: They must use their understanding of Leadership & Navigation to help organizational leaders effectively drive the change, and they must position HR itself as one of those leaders. 

HR leads the effective management and support of people in an organization; it's up to HR, therefore, to lead the effective control of organizational culture and to navigate the complex network of multiple cultures when they exist in a single organization. Asserting control of organizational culture by applying the nine competencies in the SHRM model is a clear path to success. It also makes it easier to answer the question, "What is your corporate culture like?" 

Joe Jones, Ph.D., is director, HR competencies and resources research, at SHRM. 


Alvesson, M., & Sveningsson, S. (2015). Changing organizational culture: Cultural change work in progress. Routledge. 

Egan, T. M. (2008). The relevance of organizational subculture for motivation to transfer learning. Human Resource Development Quarterly, 19(4), 299-322. 

Ehrhart, M. G., Schneider, B., & Macey, W. H. (2014). Organizational climate and culture: An introduction to theory, research, and practice. London: Routledge. 

Gregory, K. L. (1983). Multiple cultures and culture conflicts in organizations. Administrative Science Quarterly, 28(3), 359-376. 

Pratt, M. G. & Foreman, P. O. (2000). Classifying managerial responses to multiple organizational identities. Academy of Management Review, 25(1), 18-42.

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