Culture and Behaviours

Updated: Jul 2, 2020

At the beginning of my career in health care, I worked at The Royal Victoria Hospital in Montreal, Canada. That was so long ago that the building within which I worked has moved location. In my day, the Hospital sat proudly on top of a hill overlooking the city of Montreal. It was a grand old place with a long tradition of service and care. I worked as relief staff and, as a result, had the opportunity to move around the Hospital and spend time in a variety of clinical settings. Over time, I came to realise something important: each Ward in the Hospital was somehow different to every other Ward. Although all housed within the same complex and administered by the same team, each area was unique. Some Wards were relaxed environments to work in, with friendly and engaging staff; other Wards were sterner places, with staff appearing slightly tense and secretive. On reflection, it appeared to me that this had something to do with the Charge Nurses who ran each of the Wards and the staff working there. But that fairly superficial reflection was as far as my thinking on the subject went at that time.

Years later, as an undergraduate at Goldsmith’s College, University of London, I was introduced to the notion of organisational culture. In essence, organisational culture is defined by academics as ‘…the underlying beliefs, assumptions, values and ways of interacting that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organisation.’ ( A Management Consultant once simplified that definition for me. ‘Think of culture’, she said, ‘as the way we do things around here.’ This second definition has two advantages, first, it’s easy to remember, and secondly, it’s completely on the money in terms of accuracy. Every organisation and every sub-speciality within that organisation has a way of doing things that is often unique. Policies are written and agreed, formal statements are always in place, but because people are always people, the ‘way we do things around here’ sits more-or-less comfortably alongside the formal institutional directives. At long last, my reflections in Montreal had some meaning.

Organisational cultures can be positive, or negative, or, even, somewhere in between. Horror stories appear in the Press from time-to-time about organisations where the culture was entirely toxic. These stories usually appear after the organisation in question has imploded, usually as a result of the intolerable working environment that was created. The financial crisis of 2007 exposed significant cultural problems in leading financial institutions. Making money had become the only objective for some financial organisations and customers were no longer the focus. The Banks had lost personal connections with their core stakeholders and disaster ensued. The behaviours that were rewarded were counter-productive to the well-being of the company, but the prevailing ‘culture’ of the company made that possible.

What makes the whole idea of organisational culture even more intriguing is that there can be two sides to the culture coin: on one side, the culture that staff in the organisation can identify with and buy into and, on the other side, the ‘dark culture’ that may be a little less understood and a little more damaging. Just think of recent events in the United States and the justified public outcry following the death of George Floyd. There is now a strong perception among many citizens that some Police Departments in America are institutionally, one could say, culturally racist and that unacceptable behaviours are tolerated and, even potentially condoned within the organisational culture.

So, clearly, underpinning organisational culture are a whole series of behaviours. These behaviours are both the result or response to the prevailing culture and, at the same time, serve to maintain the culture. In some situations, staff may find that the culture of the organisation is based on values that are complimentary to their own. In health care, for example, staff may find that an organisational focus on excellent client care is entirely in keeping with their own personal values. Maintaining that focus maintains the culture and serves both the individual staff member and the organisation. In other environments, where for example, bullying is a part of the dark side of the culture, staff may struggle to ignore destructive behaviours out of fear of reprisal and may, thus, help to maintain a noxious culture to their own personal detriment and to the detriment of the organisation.

Maybe there are some things to think about here. What do you think defies the culture you are working in? Is the culture resonating with your own values? If not, why not? What can you do to begin shaping the culture in a more positive way, if required? Becoming more aware is always the first step in any positive change – think about your culture.

Deacon Michael Ross

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