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Organizational Culture: The Context For Employment Disputes

Employment disputes often start with someone saying something like, “It just turned out not to be a good fit.” Or maybe, “I don’t understand how such a good hire turned into such a bit fit, but it did.”

The question is, What is the employee supposed to fit into?

Usually comments about bad fit mean that the employee hasn’t fit well into the organizational culture, so understanding the culture will give you an idea of what generated the dispute. If you are mediating an employment dispute, helping the parties understand the dynamics of the dispute may help them be more conciliatory and reach agreement with less hostility once they understand what really happened. If you are a coach, understanding the bad fit will give you a way of explaining it to both parties and of helping them understand each other. I have saved several jobs using this approach.

Recognizing two dimensions of organizational culture will give you quick insight into the context of the dispute and how the complaint might have been generated.

The first dimension is the structure of the organization and its degree of formality. Is the organization very hierarchical and formally structured, something like your local government agency, or is it more loosely structured and egalitarian? People with very flexible approaches will be a bad fit if they are hired into a very highly structured department or position, something like a compliance officer who seems to be not all that concerned about process. The employee may be faulted for not meeting deadlines or for not following procedures. Another complaint may be that the employee oversteps the boundaries of his or her authority, taking action or making decisions that are legitimately someone else’s. Highly structured organizations have clear boundaries of authority, and crossing them is not welcomed. These behaviors will be seen as performance issues, not cultural issues, and the dispute will escalate.

In other organizations, the opposite is true. A loosely structured organization welcomes everyone pitching in and crossing hierarchical boundaries or contributing to decision-making. Structural power, that is, power that comes from one’s position or title, may be less important in an egalitarian organization than the power that comes from personal qualities such as integrity, experience, and dedication to the mission. Employees who prefer clear lines of authority may not fit well into an organization that is loosely structured. And the compliance officer who wants to change an organization and “tighten it up” is not going to be successful at all.

The second dimension of organizational culture is the strength of the focus on people or work. In many organizations the task is everything. People are not as important as the work; relationships change as the work or the team changes, and deadlines and output are all-important. The competition among stock brokers, for example, does not foster warm and long-standing relationships.

On the other hand, organizations that focus on people, both employees and clients, have a very different atmosphere and set of priorities. Relationships and the success of individuals is paramount, procedures are less important than people, and the organization is flexible to meet the changing needs. Social service nonprofits will often fall into this category because of the focus on the success of the individual. An employee who focuses on process and procedure will be seen as inflexible, unable to respond to the changing needs and circumstances of people.

The third dimension to consider is the communications style that works best in each type of organization. Having a highly competitive or argumentative style, one that focuses on the rules and procedures for making decisions, is not going to fit well in an organization that is loosely structured and where procedures are flexible. If relationships are important in the organization, then styles that support relationship-building like collaboration, compromise, and accommodation will create a good fit. Avoiding is also quite functional in these situations.

In an organization that is competitive such as one that is project-based, fast-paced, and defines success by measuring outcomes, not being competitive may make an employee look weak. That employee might be seen as someone who isn’t persuasive, who can’t argue forcefully for a position or contribute to the discussion, who compromises or accommodates too easily and is not “strong.” Being competitive gets employees recognized in these organizations. Being weak gets them fired.

The next time the disputants talk about a bad fit, try to determine what aspect of the employee’s work or communications style and what dimension of the culture were in conflict. It is often not the people that are in conflict, but their styles or approaches. Helping the parties understand how the disagreement was generated and how small changes in their behavior can reduce the conflict might generate an agreement to try a new approach rather than move toward termination. In addition, the resolution process might also identify the need for management training on appropriate communications styles and on more helpful new-hire training so that the problem is not repeated.

Note: For a more expansive analysis of organizational culture, see Riding the Waves of Culture by Trompenaars and Hampden-Turner.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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