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Corporate Culture as Myths, Stories, and Other Manifestations of Language

management, business, corporate culture, myths, stories, language

Organizational cultures and the stories that define them are said to be unique to their locations. An argument for uniqueness is that each organization differs from the rest, a fact manifested in the stories created in organizations. One set of research studies, however, shows that such stories may not be unique. Certain themes appear repeatedly in different organizations, and they seem to have a universal meaning.

Seven kinds of stories exist across a variety of kinds of organizations:

1. Stories that describe how organizations treat status considerations when rules are broken. Such stories tell about how a high-status person breaks a rule and is confronted by a lower-status person who attempts to enforce the rule. The high-status person may become angry, conform to the rule, disregard the low-status person, or take some other action.

2. Stories about whether the boss is human. Such stories include three events. The status credentials of the central character are established, the character is presented with an opportunity to perform a status-equalization act, and the character does or does not abrogate status temporarily, exhibiting (or not exhibiting) "human" qualities (e.g., Ray Kroc cleaning a bathroom).

3. Stories about whether a little person can rise to the top. These stories describe the match between abilities and position. The most famous of these is the Horatio Alger hero, who, through hard work, rose from rags to riches.

4. Stories about getting fired. These stories include employees who fear losing their jobs and employees who must make the decision to lay off or fire people. A reason for the layoff or firing is given, and the company's decision is announced along with justification for the decision.

5. Stories about whether the company will help an employee who has to move. Such stories are implicit or explicit about the hardship the move will cause and indicate whether the company helps or does nothing for the employee.

6. Stories about how the boss reacts to mistakes. These stories include an employee who makes a mistake and one or more higher-level persons who learn of it. The stories conclude with foregiveness or punishment.

7. Stories about how the organization deals with obstacles. These are the most commonly found kinds of organizational stories involving employees at any status level. Attempts are usually made to deal with obstacles, and the stories end when the obstacles are either vercome or it is clear they are insurmountable.

We have seen some of these story motifs in the McDonald's case. Ray Kroc is humanized by the "talk to Ray" program still available after his death, and stories about the rags-to-riches growth of the firm are imbedded in the story about the rain stopping and sales doubling.

What themes do these stories convey? First, they appear to express the tensions that arise from conflicts between organizational requirements and the values held by employees. Second, they are related to concerns about status inequality. We live in a society that values equality, but the hierarchical nature of organizations often conflicts with this value; these stories embody, and show resolution of, that conflict. Third, such stories deal with security versus insecurity: people want to ensure themselves of security, and yet organizations must retain the right to deprive them of that security. Finally, these stories deal with the clash between our desire for control and events that indicate our inability to exert such control.

In addition to conveying themes that reflect important individual and organizational concerns, organizational stories offer self-enhancing explanations for organizational events. Here again we see how organizations use retrospective explanations of events, a view we encountered in Chapter 1's discussion of goals and effectiveness. Because reputations and self-esteem are on the line, organizational stories pound home the righteousness of organizations and their key players and reflect the myths organizations have.
Published: 2007-04-21
Author: Martin Hahn

About the author or the publisher
Martin Hahn PhD has received his education and degrees in Europe in organizational/industrial sociology. He grew up in South-East Asia and moved to Europe to get his tertiary education and gain experience in the fields of scientific research, radio journalism, and management consulting.

After living in Europe for 12 years, he moved to South-East again and has worked for the last 12 years as a management consultant, university lecturer, corporate trainer, and international school administrator

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