Leading Organizations Through Transition: Communication and Cultural Change


Stanley A. Deetz, Sarah J. Tracy & Jennifer Lyn Simpson

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    Success in business or by any organization today cannot be achieved by formula. Positive outcomes result from luck and unpredictable changes in tastes and markets as well as from creativity, hard work, and good management. Frequently, the best we can hope for is to increase the chances of being at the right place at the right time and being ready to meet the challenges once there. Positive business leaders face up to these real uncertainties and the lack of guarantees by promoting high levels of competence and adaptive learning environments in their companies.

    The turbulent and unpredictable nature of the current business situation leads to increased concern with good communication skills. Making opportunities and making the most of opportunities requires developing high-performance workplaces filled with mutual responsibility, loyalty, and commitment to success. To succeed today requires less surveillance and supervision of employee behavior and more managing of hearts, minds, and souls—in short, managing culture.

    This volume explores the process of building a business by exploring the relationship of cultural management to the overall business strategy and discussing the role of communication in cultural management. The various chapters discuss the role of leader communication in the formation and redevelopment of culture as an organization works through various changes, challenges, and opportunities.

    Leadership and Cultural Management

    Leading by managing organizational culture has many benefits. More autonomy is experienced by individual employees and units. Creativity and feelings of ownership are increased. Important coordination and control can be achieved without direct managerial intervention. Not only are benefits clear, but as will become evident, in many workplaces today no other form of management is likely to succeed. High-performance workplaces have a character and a soul.

    Managing culture requires special communication skills. A technically proficient manager has acquired trade-relevant knowledge and learned how to gather financial information, read trends, and instruct employees. But few managers have learned to lead, to inspire, or to understand the basis for employees' internal motivation and resistance. The communication and work habits that have lead them to be selected as managers are often quite different from those that enable them to succeed as leaders. Directing employee work activities is quite different from enabling and inspiring appropriate self-initiative. Presenting one's point of view persuasively is quite different from having employees spontaneously see the situation in a particular way on their own.

    Cultural management, however, is not without potential downsides and controversies. IBM managers were praised in the early eighties for having produced a “strong culture” where employees were happy and committed and seemed to function as virtually one body. By the late eighties these same managers were criticized for a monolithic culture promoting groupthink and slow responses to a rapidly changing market.

    Cultural management also raises a host of ethical questions. The very concept of managing minds, hearts, and souls evokes images of 1984. The widely reported image of Microsoft employees happily giving up nights and weekends and family, community, and civic responsibilities to build Windows 95 may appear as a dream to some, but posed wider ethical and social responsibility issues. In an age of “spin doctors,” cynicism abounds and the ability to distinguish insightful, productive re-framing from politically opportunistic obscuring is an important skill.

    The promotion of communication activities that help manage culture has to be balanced with concern for responsibility and the dilemmas of “empowering” others. The materials in this volume are developed to maintain balance and promote useful discussions of the various dilemmas inherent in cultural management. Communication is considered in both its strategic and its participatory forms. Strategic communication functions to direct, inspire, and coordinate and arises from a leader's vision or overall plan. Participatory communication, in contrast, is the process through which we create, invent, and innovate together. Here the direction and best choices are not yet known. They are best produced through talk. The balance between strategic and participatory communication helps produce an adaptive, ethical, and vibrant culture and helps distinguish valuable from unproductive employee resistance to change.

    What This Book Does

    The primary purpose of this volume is to address the role of communication in organizational culture and cultural change efforts, especially during periods of transition, mergers, innovations, and globalization. The book is unabashedly normative and hopes to aid students and professionals in understanding and working with organizational cultural change.

    Despite 20 years of cultural studies in the field of communication and increasing numbers of communication professionals and academics being called to work with organizational cultural change efforts, no book in the field has addressed communication and change efforts as a central theme. And although trade books and management texts have focused on cultural change, they have tended to be slim and superficial in the treatment of communication. Additionally, the best of these books have become quite dated and do not reflect contemporary situations and understandings.

    The materials included in this book were initially developed as the electronic text for an online course in organizational culture and culture change as part of an executive master's program at Seton Hall University—SETONWORLDWIDE. The materials and course have been very successful with mid-level managers. The audience for the course, however, is greatly restricted. With the agreement and encouragement of SETONWORLDWIDE, we redeveloped the materials to work with a somewhat less sophisticated student and professional audience.

    The material in the volume proceeds from relatively general issues related to communication, culture, and cultural change to specific practical contexts where these concepts are of value. Each chapter begins with common questions that guide the development of the chapter. We suggest considering them on your own before you begin your reading. You may also find it useful to pose your own related questions.

    Case studies are used throughout to provide examples of organizational change efforts, highlight concerns raised in the text, and add the complexity of actual life choices. The cases are not meant simply to exemplify concepts but rather to pose issues for discussion with others. Additional cases are suggested at the end of several of the chapters.

    Overview of the Chapters

    Chapter 1 introduces the relation between the leader's building a successful business and the management of culture. It begins with a consideration of how managing the workplace culture relates to the overall strategic development of a business. The chapter shows why the concern with culture has been a major feature of business thinking during the past 20 years and why this trend is likely to continue. Basic concepts are introduced that are used for the remainder of the volume.

    Chapter 2 focuses on cultural assessment and change as a part of building a business and working in organizations. Included are discussions of what a positive culture accomplishes in the workplace, how one determines the appropriateness of the existing culture, and basic considerations in a change process.

    Chapter 3 considers how business concepts, visions, or mission statements relate to building a business and the development and transformation of culture. Included are discussions of the characteristics of powerful visions, how one launches a vision campaign, how the vision can be connected to other workplace activities, and how one achieves buy-in from key employees. Finally, the chapter investigates how individuals invest their identity in the organization and explores ways to reward such investments.

    Chapter 4 discusses the processes through which people develop their interpretations of events. Consideration is given to how a leader's values and perspective become embedded in the corporate culture. The discussion focuses on how language usage, stories, and ritual can shape, frame, or reframe employees' understandings of events.

    Chapter 5 considers the various processes leading to the collaborative development of visions. The process of empowerment is developed. Strategic conversation and dialogue projects are shown to be useful in creating alternative futures and opening the business to the wider collective learning process. Widespread participation is shown to aid innovation as well as loyalty and commitment.

    Chapter 6 explores a number of ethical issues in investigating and changing cultures. Cultural management raises a host of ethical questions. Are some cultures more ethical than others? How do cultural characteristics relate to the ethical behavior of members? What are the ethical issues related to cultural control and cultural assessment?

    Chapter 7 looks at the probable impacts of the implementation of new technologies, especially information technologies, on cultures. The chapter considers the information management systems (IMS) subculture and its relation to wider organizational cultures, how technological innovation influences power dynamics, how particular cultures resist technological innovation, and how others overly idealize it. Special attention is given to how one works with cultural issues during technological implementation.

    Chapter 8 looks at cultural changes and ways of managing culture during organizational transitions. Such transitions include the passing of the founder and other changes in top management, economic crises, and reengineering and reorganization activities as well as mergers and acquisition.

    Chapter 9 introduces issues related to the globalization of business and the relations among multiple cultures. The chapter encourages the recognition of the possibility of multiple positive cultures, the development of multiple cultural forms of leadership, and the translation of visions into multiple cultural contexts. Special attention is given to inter-cultural communication and the relation of different and at times competing cultures in international organizations.

    Chapter 10 provides a review and an extensive case focused on learning when to lead and when to manage, how to choose moments for intervention, and how to direct existing trends using the material developed in the book.


    As with any book, family and friends have provided critical help and support at many different stages. They each know how much we have appreciated it. A few we each credit specifically below. Furthermore, we want to acknowledge our students at CU-Boulder who listened patiently to ideas and provided several of the examples illustrated in this book. More specifically, Don McKenna of Seton Hall University initially solicited the materials for the SETONWORLDWIDE online course that became this book and provided valued comments on the materials. Patricia Sikora developed and allowed us to use the case study that forms the bulk of Chapter 10, as well as participated in useful discussions of change efforts. All the people at Sage Publications have made special efforts to bring this volume to a timely completion. Margaret Sea well in particular went well beyond the call of duty (and promised glue that lasts).

    From Jen: My Mom and Dad, Mike and Carol Simpson, deserve special thanks for providing exemplary models of leadership during my early life. My brother Rob has encouraged, uplifted, poked fun, and provoked me to success more times than I can count. Thanks, again.

    From Sarah: My parents, Malinda and Boyd, and my brother Van, as well as my religious faith, have sustained me throughout all my academic endeavors. For this I have the deepest gratitude. To Catherine, thank you for being a wonderful friend, and for telling me (sometimes not so gently) to “get back to work” whenever I procrastinate too long.

    From Stan: A special thanks to Alexander, who lived around my hectic work schedule and finds fun and beauty in whatever the world tosses his way (and likes to see his name in print).

    Stanley A.Deetz, Sarah J.Tracy, and Jennifer LynSimpson, Boulder, Colorado
  • About the Authors

    Stanley A. Deetz, Ph.D., is Professor of Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder, where he teaches courses in organizational theory, organizational communication, and communication theory. He is the author of Transforming Communication, Transforming Business: Building Responsive and Responsible Workplaces (1995) and Democracy in an Age of Corporate Colonization: Developments in Communication and the Politics of Everyday Life (1992), coauthor of Doing Critical Management Research (in press), and editor or author of 10 other books. He has published numerous essays in scholarly journals and books regarding stakeholder representation, decision making, culture, and communication in corporate organizations and has lectured widely in the United States and Europe. In 1994, he was a Senior Fulbright Scholar in the Företagsekonomiska Institutionen, Göteborgs Universitet, Sweden, lecturing and conducting research on managing knowledge-intensive work. He has served as a consultant on culture, diversity, and participatory decision making for several major corporations. He served as President of the International Communication Association, 1996–1997.

    Sarah J. Tracy is a doctoral candidate in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She has published essays in Human Communication Research and the Journal of Applied Communicationregarding discourse and emotional management in organizations. She also works as a consultant using performance and humor as change and training approaches.

    Jennifer Lyn Simpson is a doctoral student in the Department of Communication at the University of Colorado, Boulder. She is currently engaged in a major research project for the university studying its diversity programs focusing on the consequences of different discursive forms on decision making.

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