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Different types of workplace culture – which one is right for your startup?

Workplace culture is a unique sociological construct. While it may work in much the same way as any other type of culture does in a community (say, ethnic or religious culture), it differs in one major respect: it is inherently multi-cultural.

In South Africa this is particularly true, with the average workplace containing employees of all races, genders, religions, political affiliations and many other differentiating factors. This makes the creation and maintenance of a positive and unifying workplace culture all the more difficult – and all the more important.

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There are manifold ways a strong company culture contributes towards business success. It makes the workplace more appealing to potential employees and helps to retain the best talent. This makes the hiring process more successful and also reduces staff turnover. When you factor in the costs of hiring, training and disrupting the productivity of your team, it makes perfect sense to create a workplace environment that people will less likely want to leave.

A strong culture also contributes greatly towards a company’s brand by aligning their employees’ perceptions from the inside with their customers’ perceptions from the outside, solidifying a positive public view of the company as a whole. Happy employees make the best brand ambassadors, and in this age of social media, both employees and customers alike broadcast their experiences for all to see.

No two workplace cultures are ever quite alike, because no two organisations are the same. To a certain extent, the industry in which it operates will dictate the company culture. In a law firm, for example, a strongly hierarchical structure, a certain sense of decorum and formal dress-code come standard, but cultural similarities in workplace organisations do reveal cultural patterns common to most companies. This provides a useful framework for managers who want to assess or alter their organisational culture for the better.

Charles Handy, Irish philosopher and a world-leading figure in organisational culture, identified four overarching types of workplace culture.

Power Culture

In some organisations, power is held in the hands of very few trusted and authorised decision-makers. These people enjoy special privileges in the workplace and delegate responsibility to the rest of the company. Employees in these types of environments are expected to follow their superiors’ instructions to the letter and do not have the liberty to express alternative viewpoints. Such cultures often suffer in the long run, falling victim to high staff dissatisfaction at the lower hierarchical levels.

Task Culture

In a task culture, solving problems and achieving the targets of the company are at the heart of the team’s interactions. In these types of companies, small teams (generally four to five people) with similar interests and specialisations are grouped and expected to contribute equally to the task at hand. These employees tend to remain stimulated and content, and are given the room to innovate and think creatively.

Person Culture

In these organisations, the wellbeing of the company takes a backseat to the personal importance of each employee – and eventually suffers for it. When employees place too much emphasis on their own concerns in the absence of a strong sense of teamwork or common goal, productivity, staff satisfaction and loyalty all tend to be low.

Role Culture

In a role culture, every employee is given responsibilities based on their delegated role and their professional specialisation, as well as their educational background and even their personal preference. This is all done in the interest of extracting the best performance out of each individual. In these cultures, power and responsibility are the results of hard work and proven performance, and employee motivation as well as work performance tend to be higher than average.

It may seem like a clear-cut group of categories, but in reality, most companies are hybrids of more than one, or even all four of these cultural archetypes. All have their pros and cons, and all are suited to different industries, companies of varying sizes, different sociocultural contexts, and different points in the company’s development. Managers are encouraged to be open-minded and take a hard look at the values of their organisations before deciding which cultural model fits them best, looking for opportunities to weave them into the fabric of the company’s daily operations.

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