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Organizational culture in public
Promoting change through training and leading
Troy University-Montgomery Campus and
Thomas Walter Center for Technology Management, Auburn University,
Montgomery, Alabama, USA
Rachel S. Tears
Center for Government and Public Affairs, Auburn University at Montgomery,
Montgomery, Alabama, USA, and
Mark H. Jordan
Air Command and Staff College, Maxwell Air Force Base, Colorado Springs,
Purpose – To provide two possible approaches for enhancing organizational culture awareness and
promote cultural change in public sector organization. These approaches include training and leading
Design/methodology/approach – Literature outlining fundamental aspects of organizational
culture is summarized, serving as a foundation for reviewing the potential value of training as a
method for enhancing public managers’ awareness of organizational culture. This is followed by an
illustrated example of how the culture was changed in major department of a public organization
through leading by example.
Findings – Training and leading by example can serve as effective methodologies for promoting
culture awareness and brining about culture change in organizations.
Practical implications – The article highlights some interesting similarities and differences
between cultures in public organizations and cultures in private sector organizations. The differences,
in particular, reinforce the importance of training and leading by example to guide public sector
employees through the complex dynamics often embodied within culture transformations in
Originality/value – While there are some important similarities between cultures of private sector
and public sector organizations, the differences existing in public sector organization cultures create
unique challenges for managers trying to evoke change. The article provides a unique perspective on
applying training and leading by example to the context of public sector organizational culture.
Keywords Organizational culture, Public sector, organizations, Leadership, Training
Paper type Case study
Organizational leaders, managers, and academic researchers are demonstrating an
increased interest in understanding the concept of organizational culture (Denhardt,
1991; Jreisat, 1997; Zamanou and Glaser, 1994). While speciﬁc reasons for this
increased interest vary, it is likely that the primary reason for the growing interest
The Emerald Research Register for this journal is available at The current issue and full text archive of this journal is available at
Received July 2004
Revised November 2004
Accepted December 2004
Leadership & Organization
Vol. 26 No. 6, 2005
qEmerald Group Publishing Limited
resides in the recognition that organizational culture is an important factor in
organizational effectiveness (Denison, 1990). Consequently, “Given that corporate
culture is crucial to organizational effectiveness, it follows that a key task of managers
is to understand, monitor, and actively manage the culture of their organization”
(Davies and Philp, 1994, p. 69). Understanding an organization’s culture can also
provide insight into the history of the organization, as well as key events that may
have helped shape the identity of the organization (Trice and Beyer, 1993). Indeed,
increased knowledge about organizational culture can provide leaders, managers, and
researchers with special insight regarding fundamental characteristics of an
organization (Schein, 1985), that will, in turn, help in managing or changing the
culture. Further, it is important to note that managing an organization’s culture can be
one of the most daunting tasks faced by leaders (Schulz, 2001), while monitoring an
organization’s culture to ensure that it remains aligned with the external environment
is essential to the perpetuity of that organization (Valle, 1999).
These factors reinforce the value of examining organizational culture in private
organizations and public organizations. Undeniably, recent pressures to improve the
efﬁciency of government to run more like private entities, coupled with increased public
scrutiny of government organizations fortify the need for fundamental change within
these organizations – change at the most fundamental level which will likely lead to
changes in the culture of public sector organizations (Valle, 1999). Prior to examining
the speciﬁc nuances associated with culture and cultural change within public sector
organizations, fundamental aspects of organizational culture are discussed.
Organizational culture: background
The culture of an organization is often a difﬁcult characteristic to deﬁne since many
aspects of culture are intangible and cannot be seen (Jreisat, 1997). Despite this difﬁculty,
most authors seem to agree that organizational culture is central to the functioning of an
organization. Hofstede et al. (1990) also acknowledge agreement among researchers that
organizational culture is holistic, soft, difﬁcult to change, has a historical basis, and is
socially constructed. The following deﬁnition offers one perspective on the topic:
Organizational culture tends to be unique to a particular organization, composed of an
objective and subjective dimension, and concerned with tradition and the nature of shared
beliefs and expectations about organizational life. It is a powerful determinant of individual
and group behavior. Organizational culture affects practically all aspects of organizational
life from the way in which people interact with each other, perform their work and dress, to
the types of decisions made in a ﬁrm, its organizational policies and procedures, and strategy
considerations (Buono et al., 1985, p. 482).
Gordon (1991, p. 404) suggests that:
[...] culture formation is neither a random event nor an action dependent solely on the
personalities of founders or current leaders, but it is, to a signiﬁcant degree, an internal
reaction to external imperatives.
Simply stated, Gordon (1991) observes that an organization’s culture is a product of
successfully adapting to the environment and will, as a result, resist change. He further
notes that a change in the environment might necessitate a change in the culture, going
so far as arguing that these changes, which include new learning, can also involve the
need for new people.
Organizational culture: the people perspective
The culture of an organization has a profound inﬂuence on the behavior of individuals
within the organization (Barney, 1986; Trice and Beyer, 1993). According to Barney
(1986, p. 660):
[...] ﬁrms that are successful at obtaining productivity through their people generally have
an organizational culture that supports and values the worth of the employee.
Some researchers argue that culture is to an organization what personality is to an
individual (e.g. Cartwright and Cooper, 1993). As such, they suggest that culture serves
as a force drawing organizational members together, creating a sense of cohesion. More
importantly, the culture of an organization can serve as an informal control mechanism
helping to deﬁne acceptable behavior within an organization (Chatman and Barsade,
In addition to providing employees with information that is necessary for them to
function within an organization (Jreisat, 1997), an awareness of the organization’s
culture also provides guidance allowing employees to be more supportive of the
organization’s mission (Schulz, 2001). Schulz further contends that organizations with
strong cultures, where employees share common values, enjoy distinct performance
advantages over those ﬁrms that have weak cultures. Organizations in the service
industry, for example, may beneﬁt from strong cultures where values are shared and
supported throughout the organization (Chatman and Jehn, 1994). This is an important
feature to note given the fact that most public sector organizations are technically
classiﬁed as “service industry” organizations. Congruence between organizational and
individual values (i.e., a strong culture) is also associated with more positive employee
attitudes such as organizational commitment and job satisfaction (O’Reilly et al., 1991).
Idiosyncrasies of organizational culture in public sector organizations
In a general sense, obvious differences exist between private organizations and public
sector organizations (Denhardt, 1991). These differences are largely due to the
uniqueness of external environment characteristics shaping the boundaries and
expectations of these organizations. Recognizing differences in the external
environments is important since ample evidence supports the notion that differences
in industrial characteristics impact the norms of an organization (Chatman and Jehn,
1994; Gordon, 1991). Speciﬁcally, Gordon (1991, p. 404) regards the formation of
organizational culture as “... an internal reaction to external imperatives”. Today,
more than ever, public sector organizations are facing tremendous pressure to adapt to
signiﬁcant changes in the external environment (Valle, 1999). Valle (1999) suggests
that managers in public sector organizations must help their employees understand
these environmental changes and the urgent need for their organizational adaptation.
Indeed, failure to modify the culture of public sector organizations to more closely
match environmental exigencies could lead to a continuation or increase in
management turnover within these organizations (Valle, 1999). Failure to change
may also lead to inertia that could erode public and private conﬁdence in these
organizations. This is particularly important at a time when the environment of public
sector organizations is becoming more like the environment of private organizations
(Valle, 1999). This could, perhaps, explain why public organizations are facing
pressures to adopt management techniques utilized by private organizations (Bradley
and Parker, 2001). Despite the growing similarities between the environments of public
and private sector organizations, there are still a variety of speciﬁc, fundamental
differences at the operational and cultural levels of these organizations. Some of these
differences are summarized in Table I.
So, what can managers do given these differences and the profound challenges
faced by public sector organizations to adjust to new pressures? The following two
sections offer possible alternatives for promoting cultural change in public sector
organizations. The ﬁrst section discusses the use of training as a possible strategy for
instigating cultural change in public sector organizations. The ﬁnal section describes
how leading by example was utilized to bring about cultural change in a department
within a public sector organization.
Enhancing cultural awareness and promoting change through the use of
An organization’s culture can vary dramatically from the culture idealized by leaders
of the organization (Bradley and Parker, 2001) or the culture that is necessary for the
organization to remain properly aligned with the external environment (e.g., industry
demands, global competition, regulatory mechanisms, etc.). Training and the use of
symbolism can play important roles in bringing about changes in an organization’s
culture (Valle, 1999). Evidence supporting the value of training in the context of
promoting cultural change can be found in a variety of sources. Speciﬁcally, training is
essential to the success of initiatives such as total quality management (TQM) (Jreisat,
1997) which necessitates changes in the norms, values, and certain structures within
the organization. This is important to consider since, “Training programs, for example,
assist employees in accepting the new values and designs” (Jreisat, 1997, p. 181).
Given the ambiguous nature of organizational culture, training programs aimed at
enhancing awareness and promoting cultural change should focus, at a minimum, on
topics such as those summarized in Table II.
Table II reﬂects themes and major topics presented to public-sector employees
during management training sessions. These topics and themes represent a synthesis
of important topics outlined in relevant research (i.e. research cited throughout this
article) and the instructors’ judgment of best practices for introducing a conceptual
foundation for culture or culture change in public sector organizations. As such, the
table presents the topics in a somewhat sequential/progressive manner where topics
presented ﬁrst serve as a foundation for subsequent topics. For example, the ﬁrst topic
summarized in the table relates to organizational culture background. This particular
component provides deﬁnitions and the origin or culture attributes. This, then, serves
as a platform for discussing the impact of internal and external forces on the further
development of culture in organizations.
In addition to the topics in Table II, training to enhance awareness and promote
change can be facilitated by including practical extension questions and hypothetical
exercises that give participants an opportunity to apply or think critically about the
material covered in the training. For example, if an organization is preparing to
undergo signiﬁcant culture changes from a merit compensation system to an incentive
compensation system, training might be enhanced by asking participants to work
through a hypothetical exercise that is closely related to their speciﬁc situation. This
exercise could present a scenario where an organization is confronted with multiple
challenges including the need to increase productivity, the need for a more ﬂexible
compensation structure, and the need to recruit new talent that is accustomed to
Function Private organizations Public sector organizations
Decision making Depends on organization structure, but is becoming
more participatory/team oriented
Within department: often autocratic
legislative/policy level: democratic
General policies and communication Becoming less policy driven and more results driven Very structured and rules oriented
Personnel management Depends on organization structure with larger
organizations having certain functions centralized
and others decentralized
Hybrid of elected ofﬁcials, appointed ofﬁcials and
employees who are hired through traditional
Materials procurement Most successful organizations develop strong
relationships with suppliers to promote lower costs
and more efﬁcient delivery. Just-in-time supply
agreements are not uncommon
Bids and contracts which often take longer and do
not always result in the most efﬁcient outcome
Financial management Major functions are managed at corporate level with
appropriate authority to make ﬁnancial decisions
often delegated to division or function level
Method may vary based on department and
jurisdiction. Lack of consistency can create havoc in
Marketing Very competitive, prompting numerous
organizations to develop competitive intelligence
The presence of few or no competitors results in
sparse marketing efforts. However, public
organizations do have multiple stakeholders
between private and
incentive pay. Given the scenario, participants could work in groups to develop some
recommended alternatives for the organization. Better yet, participants could be told
that their groups represent the senior management of the organization in the scenario
who are being asked to prepare a recommendation for the board of directors. While not
fail-safe, this approach exposes participants to some of the thought processes, rationale
and challenges associated with the need for a similar cultural change in their own
organization. Ideally, this exposure would lead to a realization that the changes taking
place in their current organization are necessary for the long-term survival of the
company, thus evoking their buy-in or support. Further, these exercises reinforce that
there is more to culture than meets the eye. As a result, designing these exercises in a
way that encourages participants to think critically, beyond surface level assumptions,
can help prepare them for the realities associated with true culture change. Table III
contains an excerpt from an actual extension activity that was utilized in a recent
organizational culture training session for public-sector managers.
Enhancing employee awareness and promoting change through leading by
The actions of organizational leaders can also serve as triggers for changing an
organization’s culture (Gordon, 1991). According to Trice and Beyer (1993, p. 365):
Managerial practices are probably the most potent carriers of cultural meaning. As the
proverb says, actions speak louder than words.
The following summary is a true account of the efforts taken by a leader (henceforth
referred by the pseudonym “Randy”) to change the culture of a department in a public
sector organization. The summary is provided in a sequential, illustrative fashion to
Role of values, behaviors and norms
Role of symbols
Impact on organizational effectiveness
Differentiating styles of culture
Development of organizational culture Role of leadership and management
Impact of internal/external environment
Attributes of current organization culture Impact of subcultures
Introducing the need for cultural change Benchmarking with other organizations
Current competitive environment
Trends in customer feedback
Internal ﬁnancial trends
External pressure (regulatory, legislative)
Internal suggestions or needs
Realistic overview of anticipated implications
– Emphasize that culture is difﬁcult to change
– Highlight possible resistance from employees
– Anticipate impact on employees
– Discuss value of employee participation
Training topics to
enhance awareness and
promote cultural change
The following table contains a list of employee statements related to their workplace. Evaluate each statement to identify what the statement reveals
about the organization’s culture. List your assessment of the statement in the column next to each statement
What does this statement/scenario reveal about the
culture of this organization?
Our staff meetings usually start about 15 minutes late. Once they get started, there is
usually a lot of emotional debate and defensive interaction. If people disagree with
something being said, they are quick to interrupt the speaker
The last Friday of every month, our department has a BBQ or luncheon for employees that
is paid for by our company. Supervisors usually make a special dessert and serve us
I was trying to ﬁnish up an important year end report. Because of delays in getting
information, I was way behind. My supervisor and three other co-workers volunteered to
stay late and help me get the report done
When a customer calls with a complaint, we put them on hold for a while and hope they
hang up. If they call back, we listen politely but rarely do anything else to take care of their
I recently started working for a new department. During my ﬁrst week, our supervisor
gave our work group a critical assignment that needed to be completed by the end of the
week. As a result, I made arrangements to work late each afternoon to get the project
completed. However, I noticed that all of my co-workers came in at 7 a.m. and left at 4 p.m.
each day, as usual
Note: This activity was developed for exclusive use by the Alabama Certiﬁed Public Manager Program and is the property of Auburn University at
Montgomery’s Center for Government
assessment of culture
provide the reader with insight regarding the context within which the cultural
changes were made.
The origins of inertia: the culture of the department and an overview of the
When the new supervisor (Randy) joined the department, morale and work ethic of the
department were poor. This was manifested in curriculum that had not been
signiﬁcantly changed in three years, members of the department bypassing the chain
of command, individuals expressing a desire to leave the department, and a dearth of
volunteers offering to help teach the year-long course as adjunct faculty. Randy’s
opinion was that there was no vision from the leadership, and no mutual trust
relationship between leadership and members of the department, nor among the
department members. During his ﬁrst seven months as a member of the department,
Randy’s goals were to exhibit an aggressive work ethic, constantly display a positive
attitude, and show enthusiasm for the mission of the department. Additionally, he
spent much time building a good working relationship with the leadership in the
department and his co-workers.
The genesis of change: a summary of the process
As a function of being promoted to the leadership role of the department, Randy
consciously used Schein’s (1992) culture embedding mechanisms to try to change the
culture and climate of the department, these are summarized below:
(1) What leaders pay attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis.
(2) How leaders react to critical incidents and organizational crises.
(3) Observed criteria by which leaders allocate scarce resources.
(4) Deliberate role modeling, teaching, and coaching.
(5) Observed criteria by which leaders allocate rewards and status.
(6) Observed criteria by which leaders recruit, select, promote, retire, and
excommunicate organizational members.
By focusing on change using the culture embedding mechanisms, Randy was not only
able to change the artifacts, or the visible organizational structures and processes
(Schein, 1992) in the organization (i.e. pictures on the walls, ofﬁce setup, ceremonies,
etc.), but was also able to affect the underlying values (strategies, goals, philosophies),
which represent a deeper part of an organization’s culture. According to the personal
account of one department member, Randy’s goal was to ﬁrst change some of the
artifacts in the organization so the members could see visible improvement. In order to
have maximum impact with the members of the organization, the artifact changes had
to be backed up with the espoused values (embedding mechanisms) of the leader (i.e.
Randy). Several examples are instructive.
The ﬁrst step in culture change was a departmental meeting in which Randy spent
approximately one hour with the department members expressing his leadership
philosophy and highlighting his personal belief in the importance of teamwork, while
also emphasizing the advantage and value of developing into a “high-performing
team”. As part of Randy’s leadership philosophy presentation, he adopted a name for
the department – “TeamOne.” The meaning of TeamOne was twofold: ﬁrst, whether
the team succeeded or failed, it succeeded and failed as a team. If someone from the
team discussed anything with someone outside the department, they were speaking for
the team – the team would exercise the chain of command. Second, team members had
to believe that the curriculum was the most important curriculum the students would
be taught. Randy used embedding mechanisms to back up these artifact changes. For
instance, Randy developed the TeamOne Contributor Award (Eagle Statue) that was
presented (embedding mechanism number 5 above) each week to the person who
advanced TeamOne in some signiﬁcant way during that week. In addition to receiving
the rotating statue, the winner was also given the privilege of using Randy’s parking
space – a highly coveted space in front of the ofﬁce building.
For culture change to be successful, one must not only change the artifacts, but also
live the changes in the things he/she does. For instance, instituting the TeamOne
Contributor Award (artifact) had to be followed with day-to-day actions. One of the
evaluation criteria Randy used to rate the members of the department was what they,
as individuals, did to improve and build the team during the rating period. This aspect
of team member ratings was also discussed in initial and mid-term (six-month)
feedback. Randy, by using teamwork as an evaluation criterion, made clear to the
department members what he thought was important.
The second step was to change some of the artifacts in the department. The physical
location of the department was in the corner of the building, which also housed much of
the older ofﬁce furniture. The layout of the ofﬁces was incongruent with a professional
ofﬁce appearance. The ﬁrst leadership initiative undertaken was to convert one of the
larger ofﬁce areas into a comfortable and appealing conference room named the
TeamOne Conference Room. In addition, Randy converted one of the smaller rooms to
consolidate the copier and the snack area, also creating a reading area with a
leadership library (consisting of relevant books and videos). The department members
spent two full days cleaning and arranging the entire department with the goal of
making the department more organized, functional, and appealing. These changes
required a realignment of the department’s budget (embedding mechanism number 3 –
observed criteria by which leaders allocate scarce resources).
As another step in culture development and transformation, Randy took the
department to a “ropes” course (embedding mechanism number 1 – what leaders pay
attention to, measure, and control on a regular basis) for a day to participate in various
teambuilding tasks. This offsite enhancement activity had at least three beneﬁts:
(1) the opportunity to interact with fellow members outside the work environment;
(2) learning one anothers’ strengths and weaknesses; and
(3) starting to develop as a team.
It is important to note that Randy participated in all the tasks and led the way
(embedding mechanism number 4 – deliberate role modeling, teaching, and coaching).
An operational example also reinforces the value of leading by example. During the
administration of an examination an error was realized in the computer template the
students were using which could have led to inequalities among student papers. It
would have been easy to keep it quiet as few would likely notice and the students could
have been reprimanded for not making sure the template was correct. Instead, Randy
chose the more difﬁcult path, the path demonstrating integrity and the importance of
fairness for the students. No blame was placed on any member of the department;
instead the entire team launched into action to inform all 580 students of this error,
apologizing (embedding mechanism number 2 – how leaders react to critical incidents
and organizational crises) for the inconvenience.
As a ﬁnal example, each member of the department took a leadership assessment
instrument (as a preview of giving the instrument to the students). This was followed
by feedback from a consultant on the analysis of the leadership instrument. Randy
chose to allow his personal report to be used as a teaching tool. The goal of the
instrument was to get the students to open up and discuss their leadership strengths
and weaknesses with each other and with faculty. Randy’s example of allowing his
own strengths and weaknesses to be explored in detail by the departmental staff
established a precedent within the department for staff members to do the same with
their students (embedding mechanism number 4 – deliberate role modeling, teaching,
The effectiveness of the approach: the leader’s retrospective
According to Randy, the efforts to initiate cultural change through leading by example
have been a tremendous success. These efforts have motivated a group of individuals
to work as a team, search for opportunities to assist each other, and display enthusiasm
and a sense of pride in their department. One way in which success can be gauged, is
by the number of individuals requesting to work in, as well as adjunct for the
department. When Randy arrived, the departmental leadership was literally begging
people to work for the department. In a span of ten months, more individuals have
sought to work in Randy’s department than were positions available. Additionally, the
ratings from the students on courses have improved in eight of the ten rating areas and
the senior leadership publicly highlights the excellence in the department. While the
transformation experienced within this department is impressive, it is important to
note, however, that a deﬁnitive causal link between Randy’s actions and the changes in
the department cannot be established based simply on the information summarized in
this article. Indeed, there are certainly other plausible explanations that could be
explored and the fact that results summarized here are presented from Randy’s
perspective should be taken into consideration.
Public sector organizations are facing incredible pressures to adjust to the new, evolving
demands of their constituencies. These new demands will likely necessitate changes in
the cultures of these organizations. This article has discussed promoting change in
public sector organizations through training and through leading by example.
While the culture of an organization is constantly evolving (Trice and Beyer, 1993),
it is important to note that fundamentally changing an organization’s culture is a
long-term endeavor. To some extent, the lengthy nature of the cultural change process
could be a by-product of the resistance that might accompany some planned changes to
an organization’s culture (Barney, 1986). In fact, it is important for leaders to recognize
that changing an organization’s culture may evoke emotional reactions from
employees (Trice and Beyer, 1993). Providing employees with training should help
mitigate some of these reactions by laying a foundation to support changes in an
organization’s culture. In addition, the example(s) set by leaders within an organization
can have a profound impact on the willingness of employees to support or resist
cultural change. Also, as illustrated with the example of TeamOne, allowing employees
to participate and become involved in making the changes in the culture can have a
profound impact on their willingness to buy-in to the changes. Regardless of the
approach taken, leaders should remember that communication plays a powerful role in
changing an organization’s culture (Zamanou and Glaser, 1994).
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