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Organizational Culture Polarities Hold the Key to a Healthy Culture

By Quality Digest on 19 April 2018

Too much of a good thing brings out its downside. Ever had too much team time? It makes you long for a solo vacation on a desert island.

One of the best portrayals of “too much of a good thing” was in Black Mirror’s Nose Dive (Season 3). In what initially looks like a utopian culture where everyone is always happy, people use an app to rate each other on the quality of their interactions. The more points you get, the higher your socioeconomic status. But the underside of too much pleasantness is insincerity. After a series of miserable mishaps, a pretty, perky young woman is unable to maintain the facade. It ends with her in prison, having lost all her points, quite happily trading insults and obscenities with another prisoner.

There is an upside and downside for each type of organizational culture. Some people think one type of culture is better than others. But overemphasis brings out the downside of any culture, as Nose Dive demonstrated.

The upside of a collaborative culture is the ability to achieve greater heights—the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But too much collaboration and you end up with groupthink. The upside of a competitive culture is individual excellence and delivering results that meet customer needs, but the downside is burnout and stress.

A bureaucratic culture’s upside is operational excellence. But if it’s overdone, you get bogged down in red tape. The upside of an entrepreneurial culture is flexibility and creativity. The downside is chaos.

Organizational culture polarities

Each of the organizational culture types can be viewed as a polarity in relation to its opposite type. Instead of dismissing the opposite (ex. collaborative is better than competitive), find ways to incorporate some of its upside to avoid ending up with too much of a good thing.

This is the key to maintaining a strong, healthy culture. If you find you’re hanging out more in the downside of your culture type, you can tweak it by taking a close look at your policies, procedures, structures, and reward systems, providing communications to change mindsets, and changing your own behavior as a leader.

The most interesting organizational culture polarities lie in the diagonals where the culture types have nothing in common. They are opposites on both the Internal:External dimension and the Change:Stability dimension. If your culture is primarily Community, its diagonal is Competitive. The diagonal of Bureaucratic is Entrepreneurial.

The upside and the downside

Barry Johnson developed a way of mapping polarities to understand the upside and the downside of each pole. Each of the culture type diagonals are mapped below. Locate your organization’s primary culture type (Community, Competitive, Bureaucratic or Entrepreneurial) and then consider how much your organization’s culture resides in the upside. Do you see evidence of the downside at play? If so, take a look at the upside of its opposite. As you can see on diagram, the remedy to the downside of each side lies in the upside of its polarity.



Jesse Lyn Stoner

This article was originally published in Quality Digest, and is reporoduced with permission.