Emil Păun and Anca Nedelcu

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II. 2. Patterns of organizational culture analysis

The first remark we need to make about organizational culture analysis is that we encounter a distinction between the normative and the expressive level that helps us differentiate the normative and the expressive cultures.

  • Normative culture designates a set of formal rules, norms, prescriptions, positions and hierarchies. It is an instrumental and prescriptive culture, mainly adaptive and imitative, focused on organization, compliance with the rules and appropriate accomplishment of tasks and responsibilities. It is strongly influenced by the managerial culture in the organization and represents the visible layer in organizational culture.

  • Expressive culture reflects emotions, feelings and aspirations of the organization personnel. It also includes organizational and individual ethos, being connected to different aspects in organizational environment. It represents a less visible layer. Still, it has several elements that can be directly noticed and represent the organization symbolism – rites, rituals and ceremonies that are specific to collective living, but often have individual meanings. We can include in this expressive culture myths and stories about the organization and its “heroes”, but they mainly concentrate on the imaginary and on collective representation.

The organizational imaginary is still under research, especially regarding its origins and its mechanisms that influence the life of the organization and its members. Expressive culture is a mixture of profound, hidden and visible aspects, expressing the organization real life. Unlike normative culture, that expresses formal and objective aspects, expressive culture is focused on individuals and groups, giving expression to the informal and the subjective dimension of the organization.

These two plans intersect and influence each other. Still, in specific situation, one of them can prevail. Expressive culture confers more authenticity, and thus, the identity of an organization.

Eventually, we can define culture in a synthetic manner as a common code for an organization and as the most important reference system for defining the organization identity.

The most important dimensions of an organizational culture are the following:

    • culture promotes an ideal that mobilizes learning institutions in achieving it,

    • culture is placed on a utopia/realism axis,

    • organizational culture can bring uniformity and unity, as well as diversity.

Multi-level pattern

One of the most popular patterns for organizational culture analysis is the multi-level or stratified pattern (Schein, 1985). According to this, organizational culture is structured on three levels or layers:

    1. Basic assumptions or beliefs.

    2. Values shared by the organization personnel.

    3. Norms that govern individual’s activities and behavior within the organization.

1. Basic assumptions in organizational culture are usually represented by general and abstract statements that express certain ideas and truths about human beings. They are the expression of a philosophy, of a general concept on individuals and society. Given the diversity of such concepts and the contradictory characteristics they have, these assumptions often have an eclectic, heterogeneous, fragmentary and unilateral aspect.

2. The values shared by the members of an organization represent the second layer in culture analysis. From an organizational perspective, values express essential meanings of basic assumptions. Therefore, values define a set of organization expectations from its members. Values are expressed and often imposed by the managerial elite and become, in some ways, a reference system for activity assessment. They are included in attitudes and behaviors, in the organizational habitat.

Individuals perceive these values and requirements differently. Some consider them to be constraining, some adopt, support and respect them. We have now an emotional dimension for these values, expressed by the degree of loyalty demonstrated by the individuals. In this respect, we can talk about instrumental values - focused on efficiency and control – and about expressive values – represented by attitudes and expression of an individual and collective ethos.

We can mention here some common values that exist in strong cultures: predilection for action, client-oriented values, desire for innovation, individual-oriented culture, desire for high-quality performances. Organizations that promoted these core values were more successful then others. This does not mean that such cultures have better results, regardless of the context and at any moment in the organization life. This is why managers hire experts (called “culture engineers”) to carefully study new internal and external challenges and to adjust the system of values, but also to provide new emerging values in order to maintain a prosperous and efficient organization.

Certain organizations promote a culture focused on a dominant value, developing an entire set of means to help them impose that respective value. We can mention the example of an organization (Handy, 1985) that, in order to promote harmony as central value, performs a series of rituals, especially an Indian one, with a specific symbolism, during which a fee or a fine is collected from each member who mentions the name of a competitor. The organization logo is “together, straight ahead”.

Of course, there is also the risk of a false harmony, since in lower layers we can find hidden tensions and conflicts, that tend to become contradictory subcultures.

Another example is an organization promoting competition as core value. The managerial style is based on intimidation, motivation through fear and member confrontation. The general atmosphere is that of a jungle, where the fittest wins. This is how they stimulate high performances, but at the cost of a psychological distress – tensions, suspicions. The logo is “the fighter jungle” or “winners destroy losers” Your peer is perceived as the enemy, and your assistant becomes an object you use. The problem in this case is whether the result – high performance – has destructive effects on the organization or not.

The value content of the organizational culture makes it function as a unifying principle for organizational stability.

The two levels we have mentioned (assumptions and values) represent the content of what we call an organization expressive area. Its origins can be found both in organization history, and in personal history of its members.

3. Norms form the instrumental and visible area of organizational culture. They represent the most evident layer for someone who comes in contact with the organization for the first time. They derive from culture values and basic assumptions. Norms are expressed in a set of rules and expectations that orientation to people behavior within the organization. This is why, even for the organization personnel, norms constitute their contact with culture and are the conveyor of values and basic assumptions.

The distinction we mentioned in the beginning of this chapter, between normative and expressive culture, is more obvious at norms level. From this point of view, we have two categories of norms:

  • formal, institutional norms, produced by managers or experts, hired for this purpose alone, and made mandatory.

  • informal norms, produced by the personnel or by certain groups and disseminated through legends, stories, myths, or reflected in ceremonies or rituals. They are the expression of informal culture, based on certain values spread in an informal space.

Such norms are usually produced by “culture engineers”, hired to program different aspects of informal expressive culture, in order to maintain a certain tonus and standard in the organization by means of expressive culture, considered their own product, and not by means of official norms, considered to be restrictive. Thus, myths and rituals are created and programmed – such as initiation, integration myths. This is one of the most efficient tools managers use to manipulate the personnel.

Norms are directly involved in the change process, since they allow for interventions in a field that is very accessible to individuals. Those who want to understand and comprehend organizational culture, refer to its philosophical and value layers. Those who want to change culture and use it as maintenance or development tool, refer mainly to its normative layer.

On the other hand, norms represent one of the premises for culture unity, the reference system for managers in personnel assessment. Such assessments sustain norms strengthening and are often accompanied by bonuses.

Norms are a reference system for the personnel as well, whose attitude towards them represents the framework that produces organizational ethos.


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© Universitatea din Bucureşti 2003. All rigths reserved. No part of the text may be reproduced in any form without written permission of the University of Bucharest, except for short quotations with the indication of the website adress and the web page. This book was first published by Editura Universităţii din Bucureşti ISBN: 973-575-815-6
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