Is your organization cool green, hot red, true blue, or dull gray? The answer could explain your feelings about work.
“A theory is a set of abstract concepts that we make about a group of facts or events in order to explain them” (Engler, 1979). Unlike data, which are to be judged on the basis of their accuracy (as determined by the validity and reliability of the measures on which they are based), theories are to be judged on their idols to be worshipped, and must be judged on the basis of their utility, not their sacredness. Otherwise, they come to be seen as cruel masters, rather than useful servants.
Some organizational theorists have contended that theories must be expressible as a mathematical formula (Mater, 1960). Whereas such theories may present more precise powers of prediction, they may be less easy to grasp (especially by non-academic practitioners). Opposing Maier’s thesis is the dictum that good theory is simple. I shall take a synthetic position: The best theory is one that represents a balance between simplicity and precision so that theory can be employed in daily practice.
The theory of corporate culture
Beginning in the 1980s, the model of the organization as a human cultural system has become a topic for academic researchers and theoreticians. Organizational cultures tend to be self-perpetuating because the dominant culture affects such things as who is selected for employment, who is promoted, and who is rewarded. People in positions of hiring authority do not hire or promote whoever is best in an objective sense, but whomever appears to be best to them. And their own view of “best” is colored by the corporate culture. Different organizations reward people differently. Those individuals not getting the kind of rewards they need look for more compatible organizations. After a while, the organization’s culture becomes widespread knowledge throughout the host society, and people who have compatible personalities are attracted to their appropriate organizations. This kind of career filtering leads to a homogenous group of people in a given organization—at least homogenous in the sense of sharing the same work-related values.
This concept of corporations as cultures has generated useful theories as to why some mergers might fail—“a clash of different cultures,” according to Lefkoe (1987)—or how leaders need to embody and articulate the values of the culture. CEOs and front-line managers have become enamored with the concept of corporate culture, but their conceptions of culture have more hype than the kind of cautious concern for precise measurement found among academicians.
Before we chastise the practitioners for simplifying our formulations, let us acknowledge that practitioner context requires concepts that lead to rapid identification of problems and suggestions of specific solutions. The academician’s approach to culture must involve numerous dimensions for the consideration of interacting variables. Practitioners prefer an easy-to-remember typology that allows pigeonholing of any situation.
There have been several attempts to offer a fourfold typology of organizational culture. Vrakking (1985) suggested “power,” “role,” “task,” and “persons” orientations. Quinn and McGrath (1985) used four different terms to outline a similar breakdown: rational, hierarchical, ideological and consensual. Maccoby’s (1988) study of the personalities of today’s workers delineated four types that may correspond to the fourfold typology of organizations: innovator, defender, expert, and helper—plus a new type that did not fit very well in any organization, the self-developer.
Color coding culturesTable 1: Porter’s Typology and Organizational Aspects
Porter (1974, 1978) developed a color-coded theory of motivation that described how individuals behave in interpersonal situations. Because corporate cultures are arenas for interpersonal activity, Porter’s theory might be applicable. Various typologies, organizational aspects, and their corresponding colors are depicted in Table 1.
|Cool green||Hot red||True blue||Dull gray|
|Quinn & McGrath's |
|Aspects of organization|
|Role of individual |
|Autonomy of individuals||High||Low||Low||Low|
|Role of formal rules||Low||Low||Low||High|
|Role of informal |
|Manager seen as a |
|Manager seen as a |
|Manager seen as a |
|Manager seen as a |
|Manager seen as a |
|Manager seen as a |
|Age of organization||Varies||Young||Varies||Old|
|Size of organization||Varies||Small||Small||Large|
|Role of budgets and |
|Average job tenure||Varies||Short||Long||Long|
|Evaluation based |
|Evaluation based on |
|Promotion based on |
|Promotion based on |
|Promotion based on |
|Stress due to |
|Stress due to |
|Standardization of |
|Standardization of |
|Standardization of |
Cool green people are motivated by autonomy. Usually these are very intelligent and competent people who like to do their own thing, in their own way, without having to depend upon others for help or guidance. In a work situation, they will respect the autonomy and integrity of others and require that kind of respect from both colleagues and managers. Cool greens dislike being around exploitative, emotional, or frivolous people and prefer to be around others who will respect them.
This type of interpersonal motivational style would be right at home in certain organizations. Let’s call them cool green organizations. They are built upon a foundation of mutual respect for autonomy and respect. Employees tend to be highly competent professionals capable of working independently. The cool green environment is enjoyed by physicians in a medical group, senior partners in a law firm, management consultants who affiliate with each other, professors at a top university, and engineers on a R&D project. Whereas some of the most admired U.S. companies (Merck, IBM, Hewlett-Packard) have successfully maintained this cool green culture--at least for some employees—most large organizations find it difficult to give much respect to individual autonomy.
Cool green cultures are characterized by creative activity. Some of the employees seem to be non-conformists. Such deviance is not usually accepted in other types of organizations, but the cool green accepts this as a sign of creative potential rather than a symbol of nihilistic rebellion. Whereas other cultures may be fearful of brash know-it-alls, this culture realizes that although they don’t know it all, they do know something, and can use their knowledge to achieve much if given the opportunity to do so.
The lack of external controls over employees means that such organizations must select employees who are so internally directed they can be trusted to do what they should, even though no one is checking up on them. An organization cannot remain a cool green culture if it lets just anyone in, for few people are sufficiently competent and self-directed. Perhaps that is why such cultures tend to be confined to organizations that employ people whose professional training has been long and difficult, having served to establish high levels of competence, and cull out the inept or undermotivated.
Porter describes hot red people as being assertive and directive. They see themselves as strong and ambitious, and want to rise to a position of leadership and authority. Hot reds like to be around subordinates who obey and superiors who will model and mentor for them. They dislike being around inept, gullible, uncommitted, or rebellious people. Hot reds think that any one who cannot lead or follow should get out of the way. We could apply this personality type to young, small organizations whose culture still reflects the personality of an entrepreneurial founder. A hot red environment can be maintained even in larger organizations if there is a high rate of growth.
This culture has several things in common with cool green. Both emphasize the importance of achieving goals, but in the cool green environment employees are fairly free to determine their own goals and how to reach them, whereas in the hot red environment the boss tells them what their goals are. Both types of organizations would have a fairly flat and lean organizational chart, with few intervening levels of management or staffs or “assistants to” off on the side. (Because they put such a high percentage of their workers in these directly productive roles, both the cool green and hot red organizations actually do accomplish a great deal.) The cool green organization is lean because decisions are made directly and autonomously by individuals. Hot red organizations can dispense with procedures manuals and committees because they are like a dictatorship. The employee’s task is to listen to the boss carefully and obey thoroughly.
Employees in hot red organizations, especially middle-level managers, feel they are being evaluated by two different standards: what they achieve and whether they have followed orders. Of course, these two standards are thoroughly compatible when the boss gives you an order to accomplish something, then leaves it up to you to figure out how—or when the boss tells you how and the boss’s method works. But what do you do when you think you have a better way? What does the boss really want, obedience or results? The more management respects employee input, the more the culture approximates cool green. But the stereotypical red hot executive thinks, “I built up this business from nothing, so don’t tell me how to run it.”
Such an attitude frustrates subordinates’ creativity. They don’t know whether to be on their toes or on their knees. This lowers morale and leads to turnover. Competent technical and professional employees seeking more autonomy will look for another firm with a cooler, greener environment, while confident middle-level managers may turn entrepreneurial and start their own hot red firms so they can do things their way.
Porter also spoke of a true blue personality. These are “people” oriented people who want, more than anything else, mutually supportive, friendly interpersonal relationships. True blues are helpful and concerned; they get along with people who need them and who, in turn, are concerned about them and kind to them. True blues have a hard time dealing with selfish, competitive, or detached people.
We could apply this interpersonal style to the kind of organization that is more concerned with the group’s subjective assessment of the quality of the interpersonal process at work than with any objective accomplishments. In the true blue environment, no one person should be “bossy” because that might be upsetting for some people. Leadership in the true blue culture tends to be a case of the bland leading the bland. If a promotion becomes available, a senior or popular person will be accepted by the group, but not an ambitious, abrasive achiever, especially an outside one “who does not appreciate our way of doing things around here.”
Decisions, when they are made, should be made not by individuals but by groups, especially everybody. Of course, it is difficult to get committees to come up with bold courses of action, and it is even more difficult to achieve unanimous consensus (the true blue ideal), so not that many decisions are made in these cultures. Chronic indecisiveness also means there will be no organization charts or job descriptions or objective evaluation for employees.
The true blue culture is possible only in small organizations serving stable and secure market segments. The people who fit into this culture will stay a lifetime. Usually they will tolerate poor wages, for they have so many supportive coworkers with whom to commiserate. Those who want to accomplish something will leave for red or green organizations, because the true blue culture is designed to resist change, and achievers are scorned as brash, antisocial types. Many true blue cultures have a hard time with exceptionally talented individuals who serve as a painful reminder to everyone else that many people in such organizations are less than competent.
Where do true blue organizations come from? Once they were hot red or cool green; they had external goals, which they met, and earned a niche in the marketplace. The niche got so established that the market position was secure, so it became unnecessary to worry about meting the external goal. Management tried to be “kind” or got lax about who was selected (especially if low pay meant a small pool of applicants from which to choose). As long as the market doesn’t change, these organizations can survive. But a dynamic marketplace is a call for action and achievement and true blue organizations have an inbred incapacity to respond to anything other than their employees’ feelings. Many true blues would rather die than change, and they get their wish.
Although Porter had only three types of interpersonal styles, I would suggest a fourth kind of organizational culture: the dull gray of bureaucracy. This culture is founded in organizations that are run on the basis of rules, guidelines, and procedures manuals instead of individual authority or group participation. Government agencies are prototypes, but most large, old organizations find themselves developing formalized procedures and an organizational chart with more levels of management (and more positions off to the side). Just as a ton of iron turns to three tons of rust, a once lean and productive organization finds that it now has most of its people in middle-level management and staffing positions.
Instead of focusing on achieving goals, the dull gray culture is concerned with procedures. Unlike true blue consideration, bureaucracies follow impersonal guidelines to the letter. The rules are not written to respond to people, so people must respond to the rules. Of course, the rules were originally made to help accomplish some goal, purpose, or mission, but that was a while back. Now they are enforced by administrators, inspectors, and clerks who have clear-cut job descriptions but little knowledge of, or commitment to, the overall mission of the organization. They are just doing their jobs—following the book or passing the book.
The dull gray culture values precision and continuity, and any attempt to bend the rules to fit an individual case would violate those norms. Unfortunately, ignoring the variability of humankind is one of the greatest sins against human nature. People often complain, justifiably, that bureaucrats treat them as numbers rather than individuals—that the purpose of the agency seems to be to follow the rules rather than solve real world problems. To the extent that problem solving requires a creative approach, this is true, for bureaucracies are intrinsically incapable of creative responses.
Who gets promoted in a bureaucracy? One factor rarely considered is concrete achievements. Rather, the upwardly mobile bureaucrat usually has a combination of the following traits: seniority, paperwork attesting to compliance with formal procedures, experience in managing large budgets (which can be made larger by increasing expenditures), not making superiors angry (though not necessarily having done anything to please them either), high scores on standardized tests, and a talent at writing new procedures in “officialise” (the language that protects the writer instead of informing the reader).
Unfortunately, bureaucracies tend to be interpersonal environments that few humans find optimal, as either superiors or subordinates. The routine nature of the work can become a monotony leading to boredom. The lack of interpersonal consideration means that interpersonal stresses will mount. Most “burnout” occurs in human service professionals who try to function within a bureaucratic context.
Why do bureaucratic workers stay on for so long? The color of the culture may be a dull gray, but the handcuffs are golden. Most of these workers would not be selected for a cool green organization and could not keep a job in the demanding pace of a hot red company. The package of wages, benefits, and pensions that large, bureaucratic organizations offer is usually substantially higher than that found in the small true blues. Best of all, there is incredible job security—just follow the book and you can’t be fired. And, unlike in the smaller true blues, there is little danger of a large bureaucracy going out of business, especially a government agency. Nevertheless, most people are probably happier in a brighter, non-bureaucratic environment.
Dull gray seems to fall on most firms as they age. The hot red company grows so big that one person cannot direct it, so orders become written memos, then formalized procedures. When the cool green havens of autonomy start becoming dependent upon budgets, especially funding that comes from the government, government-imposed regulations are not far behind—as education and health care have discovered.
How to diagnose corporate culture
Consultants and even job seekers must learn how to correctly identify the culture of a potential client or employer. There are tip-offs given by a site visit. Upscale cars in the parking lot and quality furnishings usually bespeak a hot red or cool green environment. When offices are little cubicles or “rat mazes,” a cool green culture cannot survive. How do the people dress? Like they are trying to impress the boss? It’s hot red. Like they have the freedom and money to where whatever they want? It’s cool green. Like uniforms? Dull gray. Like some are too poor to dress any better, and the rest of the people don’t want to embarrass them? True blue. Look at calendars and knick-knacks on the desks. Highly individualized? Cool green. Designed to impress? Hot red. Designed to pass inspection? Hot red or dull gray. If you see things such as “Hang in there,” “Is it Friday yet?” or “Murphy’s Law”—true blue or dull gray.
One of the best approaches is to directly solicit information about the corporate culture in the interview. What kind of people seem to be happiest here? Who doesn’t fit in? Who gets frustrated and leaves? However, there is some bit of danger in asking these questions, because true blue interviewers expect that everyone should love their organizations, and some red hots and bureaucrats will think only unappreciative rebels have problems fitting in. So it may be better to just listen to the interviewer’s description of things. Words like “opportunity” are essentially claims of being hot red; “independence, creativity, problem solving” are claims that an organization is cool green; “We’re just one big happy family” or “The world’s nicest people work here” would denote a true blue image.
But beware: not all organizations give an honest portrayal of themselves (Table 2). Cool greens are usually honest and accurately describe their environments. The other cultures may be honest or may try to make the organization look a little better than it is. Dull gray, for example, won’t say it is a bureaucracy unless it really is. Some red hots and true blues may describe themselves as being more green then they actually are. This is not always due to a bald-faced attempt at deception. Some red hot managers actually believe they give their subordinates more independence than they do, and some true blues imagine that their people actually accomplish something—such managers just don’t know the different. Rarely will bureaucracies attempt to claim that they are cool green, but may represent that there is more opportunity (red) or consideration (blue) than there actually is.
Table 2 How different cultures present themselves
These cultures Cool green Hot red True blue Dull gray May claim to be these Cool green * * * Hot red * * True blue * * Dull gray *
Decisions and changes in the corporate culture
There are four levels of power within the decision-making process (see table 3). The “prime mover” is the person (or office) having the greatest responsibility for innovating as well as implementing a new program. Someone having “veto consent” must approve of the project before it can be enacted. (Extensive use of this level means that new programs can be easily blocked.) The level of “solicit input” means that the person will be consulted prior to any change, but this level is not capable of blocking unwanted change. The lowest level is to merely “inform” someone a decision has been made, after the fact. (Exclusive use of this level for the implementers means they may be called upon to develop the details and accomplish the goals of programs in which they had no say.)
Table 3: Levels of responsibility
|Roles for decision making||Cool green||Hot red||True blue||Dull gray|
|External markets and authorities||Solicit input||Solicit input||Inform||Prime mover|
|Top executives and administrators||Veto consent||Prime mover||Veto consent||Solicit input|
|Middle level executives||Prime mover||Inform||Solicit input||Inform|
|Committees||Solicit input||Inform||Veto consent||Inform|
|Keys to levels of responsibility||Has highest |
|May block a decision, |
but not get one going
|Must be consulted |
before a decision
made, but cannot
|Must be informed|
after the decision
has been made,
but no input is
Hot reds listen to their marketplace, but otherwise this can be a model of dictatorial decision making. Equally unattractive is the dull gray bureaucratic model. The true blue offers the best guarantee that bad programs will not be adopted, but the least chance of launching new programs that address the needs of a shifting market.
Cool green has the advantage of making the middle-level managers (who are the actual implementers) the prime movers. Veto comes only from higher administrators who have to direct control over budgets. Committees can and should be consulted prior to the decisions about new programs, but their consent is not essential.
It is easier for individuals to leave incompatible corporate cultures than to stay and change them. The most foolish thing any one person can do is attempt to change a corporate culture. Unless a new chief executive can change the underlying root metaphor and dominant myth of the culture, he or she cannot begin to transform the organization. Then these symbolic changes will have to be followed up by changes in the reward system and long-term changes in what kinds of people are hired and promoted within the organization. Otherwise, buzzwords change, but the people and their behavior stay the same.
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By T.L. Brink.
T.L. Brink is a visiting professor of psychology at the Iberoamerican University in Mexico City, and is on the faculty of Crafton Hills College, Yucaipa, California.