Can an organization have more than one culture?

Leigh Wintz

Of course they can. But, organizations, whether corporations, associations, not-for-profits, that have different cultures will show various symptoms of dysfunction. You can have an ideal structure and great processes for getting work done, but if you have competing cultures (managements styles, what gets rewarded and what doesn’t), then governance won’t work well. When I have observed organizations with different cultures at play, it’s a symptom of an unhealthy and ineffective organization and, if it doesn’t improve, it can become so toxic it can kill the organization.

Good leaders work hard to articulate culture through core values, norms and codes of conduct. Intrinsic and extrinsic rewards for living these things are even more important in associations where you don’t have financial benefits to motivate volunteers and staff to work and play well with others. The trade off to a lack of financial benefits is an affinity with the mission of an association. But if you have a conflict of organization values with personal values, it can create cognitive dissonance and turnover is bound to happen – in volunteer and staff ranks.

It’s important to have open discussions about cultures around a framework that helps leaders know what they can and should do to try to change behaviors. Sometimes it is easier to change people than to change people – but association leaders will almost always try to change the behaviors before they give up on a person. Sometimes just one bad apple can cause a group to look at their unexpressed expectations. Group norms need to be developed by the group. But leaders can consciously shape improvements to culture by paying attention to their own behaviors and rewarding the informal leaders in the organization – staff or volunteers – to help spread the desired behaviors.

To be an effective association leader, one must pay as much attention to the cultural component of governance as you do to structure and process. Not-for-profits don’t exist to make money from products or services, but to serve a greater good. Because of that obligation to mission instead of profit, greater care needs to be taken that organizational values, behavioral norms and ethics are scrupulously articulated and followed.

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About the Author

Leigh Wintz

Leigh is a Principal Consultant with Tecker International. She has 25 years experience in association management. She has led international organizations and guided US organizations with international expansions. She has expertise in healthcare, hospital administration, fundraising and corporate sponsorship.