Blog Post

Does Your Organizational Personality Matter?

Dr. Tom Tonkin

Principal, Thought Leadership & Advisory Services

What does that even mean, organizational personality, and why should we care? If you are concerned about high attrition/low retention in your organization, then this is a "must-read" blog post. See how your organizational personality affects employee engagement.

I was talking with my friend; we will call him Phil, well, that's because that is his name. He mentioned that he felt that his relationship with his boss was starting to wane. When I asked him what specifically he did to bring their relationship to a standstill, he couldn't give me more than his perception of who his boss was and not based on anything that his boss did. It was his perception of who his boss was that changed Phil’s engagement. I wonder if this was true of employee engagement. Would an employee engage differently based on their perception of the organization's personality? Let’s add some science to this discussion.

Are you a ’Happy’ Organization?

Stephen Linstead and Heather Höpfl (2000), authors of "The Aesthetics of Organization," suggest that giving human qualities to an organization may give us greater insight to some of the issues we may face with particular talent management concerns. For example, beautiful organizations are found to be attractive and harmonious while ugly organization, the opposite of beauty, are found to be alienating and fake. Comic organizations take deliberate actions to provoke laughter. Unfortunately, comic organizations are born from an unexpected release of fear. Once we have an understanding of different organizational personalities, we may see a metamorphosis. These authors maintain that a comical organization is what happens to an ugly organization when it evolves. Comical organizations are like beautiful ones, however, while beautiful organizations are the opposite of ugly one, a comical one may embrace its ugliness in a charming and self-deprecating way.

If we anthropomorphize organizations (give organizations human qualities), we may be able to diagnose talent attrition issues better and generate better solutions to increase retention. For example, you would not want to hang out with an angry person, would you? They are usually negative and see the glass half empty in almost all topics of conversation. Well, let’s say that your organization is "angry," and the culture is that of being jaded and sarcastic, you wouldn’t expect people to hang around very long.

Let’s do an exercise right now. How would you describe your organization? What one word captures the personality of your organization? Overbearing? Happy? Joyful? Once you have that word, what "behavioral" evidence (remember, we are anthropomorphizing your organizations) do you have to make your claim? Is it unfair policies? Perhaps an espoused meritocracy that is mostly based on biased practices with little advancement led from effort and accountability. Whatever behaviors may be embedded in your culture, there is something you can do to improve these "personality traits."

It’s really about culture

I think you guessed it by now that these "personality traits" all transcend into the organizational culture. Organizational culture is all of those shared norms, beliefs and values that linger in the fabric of the organization. Some of these values are embodied in the policies and procedures while others are an unintended consequence of these same policies, procedures and practices.

Edgar Schein, an organizational culture icon and a personal academic hero of mine, suggests that there are three major components in interpreting organizational culture, artifacts, espoused values and basic underlying assumptions (Schein, 2010).

  • Artifacts – These are the visual organizational structures and processes. These are usually hard to decipher as they are out of context and require us to see the whole picture before we can see their value.
  • Espoused Values – These are the strategies, goals and philosophies of the organization, the justification for their actions.
  • Basic Underlying Assumptions – Unconscious, taken for granted beliefs. These are our thoughts and feelings, the ultimate source of our actions.

Let’s get practical

Given these lenses, we can see that an LMS (artifact) does not make a learning organization (espoused values). A performance appraisal process (espoused value) does not make for a fair compensation structure (basic underlying assumption), and mobility applications (artifacts) do not make an organization agile (espoused value). However, they can give us clues on how to potentially make it better.

Years ago, I was working is a midsized organization looking to revamp their performance appraisal process. Their thought was that by instituting a new performance appraisal process, they could drive change into the organization. There is some merit to this thinking if the espoused values and underlying assumptions line up.

When investigating their current state, I saw an existing performance appraisal process that included the necessary forms and other assets (artifact). Sure, it could use some improvement, what performance appraisal process couldn't use some help? However, when I dug deeper, the sentiment was that performance appraisals were a chore. They barely had them yearly, and the managers that did not do them were put on the dreaded "list." We all know the "list" (espoused value leading to an underlying assumption, being on the list is bad): The one that goes out to everyone and your boss depicting your insubordination towards the appraisal process (okay, a bit dramatic, but you get the idea). This motivation drove many to do the appraisal motivated by not being on the list as opposed to the benefits of having a productive discussion with your subordinates (espoused value).

There were also unintended consequences to the process. Given that managers did not want to spend any more time than they needed to, all of the assessments of employees landed in the middle of the scale because it was easier and faster than giving specific feedback. The consequence? High performers were not recognized; low performers were given a bye. High performers left as they did not feel valued and low performers stayed and continued to perform the same way since their performance endorsed a standard practice. Okay, how do we fix this?

We need to reframe what we value. In this case, the organization wanted to value talent, and losing talent was a bad thing. So, perhaps connecting the "list," an espoused value, to losing talent and not to executing on an appraisal process might be a good start. At first, this appears to be a negative approach. However, we’re undergoing a cultural "you're missing a thesis statement" here. A thesis statement tells the reader what you're going to say, as well as helps them navigate through the transformation; these steps are just that, steps, and temporal at that, they are not forever. We need to transform the culture one step at a time. Once people do not want to be on the list for losing talent, they will then start to adopt practices that inhibit the loss of good talent like practicing good performance appraisal processes, a consequential benefit.

Three Steps to Adjusting your Organizational Personality

  • Identify your Organizational Personality and Associated Behaviors – Go through the exercise earlier in the post. What is one word that describes your organizational personality? What behaviors do you see that would give this impression? Are they the policies, procedures and practices themselves, or the unintended consequences from these?
  • Map these behaviors to the three levels of organizational culture – Some of these behaviors will map to artifacts such as people leaving early (or late). Others will map to espoused values, such as staying off "the list." Lastly, some of these behaviors are underlying assumptions, such as getting a raise less than 5 percent means I’m not valued.
  • Work backward and change your assumptions – Many times we start with artifacts, such as purchase an LMS, and assume we will all become great employees. We need to understand the basic underlying assumptions and reframe them so we can transform our culture.

Examine your organizational personality. Can you make it better? You sure can. Let me know via Twitter @DrTomTonkin with the hashtag #OrganizationalPersonality.

Linstead, S., & Höpfl, H. (2000). The aesthetics of organization. London ; Thousand Oaks, Calif.: SAGE Publications.
Schein, E. H. (2010). Organizational culture and leadership (4th ed.). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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