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Organizational Cultures and Individual Behaviour


Thinking of making a major move?

Successfully joining, managing, buying, partnering or merging with an organization depends on a great many factors. Indeed, aligning the different forces and communities within any organization is a complicated task. We are often tempted to focus on the factors that have immediately measurable dollar values, but intangibles are often among the real causes of success and failure.

Why Does Culture Matter?

Culture, the human terrain of an organization, has real bearing on organizational success and performance. It affects communication, co-operation and learning.

It can help explain why changes will prompt some employees to quit even when compensation is not affected, why a talented leader may flounder in a cultural mismatch and why incentives and individual psychology alone don’t predict results.

As some of the most successful companies have shown, defining and delivering on the promise your organization’s culture can deliver tremendous internal and market-facing benefits.

In a previous post, we looked at how organizations view risk. Individualist cultures are entrepreneurial and fear missed or mismanaged opportunities and external constraints. Egalitarian cultures are enclaves and perceive mostly internal threats and global cataclysms. Hierarchical cultures are positional, and fear threats to the chain of command. Fatalist cultures tend to be balkanized, with a right and a wrong way of doing things for each group, and they stumble in the face of breaches of protocol, imprecision, or chaos.

 What About The Individuals That Make Up A Culture?

The risk behaviours above may remind you in some ways of the behavioural styles of individuals, which suggests that we should explore briefly the connection between the two categories.

There are 4 Behavioural Styles often utilized/identified in management consulting and 4 basic Culture Types in classical Culture Theory. They do not match up exactly, but a suggestive alignment is as follows:


What does the rough alignment mean? Only that, for example, an Egalitarian organization, or an Egalitarian function within a given organization, will tend to attract and promote Relater-types, and that each side of the equation may provide indicia for the other.

 How To Identify The Culture You’re In

But while the attributes of the Behavioural Styles are well-known, their relation to cultural factors, such as risk perception, are seldom considered.

Here are some of the quick finger-in-the-wind tests you might use:

Which programmes are the hardiest in the face of budget overruns and survive in times of austerity?

  1. Benefits?
  2. C-suite projects?
  3. Bonuses?
  4. Corporate Rituals, Accounting or Reporting?


  1. Can you eat, shower, play and live there around the clock? Does everyone have the same title?
  2. Is every work station ranked by prestige?
  3. Are there performance awards posted conspicuously?
  4. Does inertia set in if policy is not explicit and clear?

What determines influence?

  1. Veterancy?
  2. Position?
  3. Charm, Energy, Performance, Initiative?
  4. “Correctness”, Protocol?

In case you were wondering, each of the items listed above in each grouping correspond to an Egalitarian, Hierarchical, Individualist, and Fatalist culture in that order.

As with most rules-of-thumb, none of these litmus tests is infallible. Any organization will exhibit traits of more than one Culture Type, and in fact a balance of the four types is a healthy sign. And people who might be at home in one type of culture may lead as the exception within another. For example, an aggressive entrepreneur may be at home within an Individualist culture, seek to move within elite Hierarchical circles, and seek to create a bureaucratic, Fatalist culture in the ranks below. Again, a Socializer’s charisma may count as leadership within an Egalitarian enclave, because of the preference for values over rules which that type of culture tends to exhibit.

 The Take-Away

The exercise of mapping some of the dominant traits in any group or department typically aids significantly in developing systems that help personnel fit in, in communicating more effectively, and in setting and pursuing the right goals. It also helps identify the opportunities and limitations facing an organization.

In any engagement that tackles strategy problems, a focus on the intangibles as well as the bottom line is key because of the human element involved and what it means for the success or destiny of an organization.

Optimus Think