The Impact of Organizational Culture on Coaching

Herb Stevenson, CEO

In recent years, executive coaching has taken on a behavioral focus with the idea that the client should stop behaving one way and start behaving a different way. Simple, but often not effective and frequently a set-up to fail, albeit unintentionally. In these situations, the coach is caught inbetween what seems to be two accurate perceptions that have no reconcilable solution. It can feel like a Gordian Knot1.

As I explored this problem with one client, I realized that the two individuals, executive-level and mid-level manger/field operators, were using the same words, but not conveying the same meaning. The dispute at hand was over how to mitigate the risks of an existing contract. On the one hand, there was pressure from the accountants and attorneys to settle the contractual dispute. On the other hand, there was evidence that the dispute might be more smoke screen that would evaporate if pushed towards litigation. Using paraphrasing or a list of agreed-upon points of action within each meeting often led to massive frustration on both sides. Both were convinced that the other did not honor the commitments made in the meeting.


Throughout the years, I often referred to the unwritten rules of how things get done by the client system as the critical aspects of whether or not I can be effective. Chris Argyris formalized these unwritten rules as the Public or Espoused Rules of how business is done versus the actual rules of how things get done. If one could find a way to reveal the gap between the two sets of rules (ways of doing business) as well as to get the client to discuss not only that there are two set of rules, but that the gap is causing some of the errant behavior within the system, it would likely be a successful intervention.

During this same time, Edgar Schein was developing his theory of culture. Whereas Argyris provided a framework for what I was finding, Schein added a depth to what I was observing and experiencing by and between the client and the system.

Definition of Culture

Schein defined culture in the following way:

The culture of a group defined as a pattern of shared basic assumptions learned by a group as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, which has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems.2

Though complex, this definition reveals that the corporate culture evolves from time-tested ways of basic survival, growth, and adaptation to an ever-changing and challenging environment. No wonder it is called the "unwritten rules of success" within an organization. Moreover, it is imperative to realize that these rules were derived from a process of internal integration, meaning that "how to get something done" was passed through the ranks from generation to generation. Each culture has a history of success that becomes unquestioned as the correct and only way to do "the work".

For example, in the client system where the senior executive and the field operator felt like they were dealing with insubordination on the one hand and arrogance and operational ignorance on the other, the genius of Schein's understanding of culture surfaces. Schein determined that each organization has three cultures: (1) the culture of CEO/C-Suite, (2) the culture of Engineers, and (3) the culture of Operators. Not only do they have different embedded assumptions about how to succeed/survive, they generally do not trust each other let alone use the same language.

The CEO/C-Suite Culture

The CEO/C-Suite culture is driven by financial performance and tends to rely on how to meet the needs of the board, investors, and capital markets. Complicating matters is that financial performance is also managed to ensure C-Suite maximum compensation. Nonetheless, the driving force behind all of these decisions surrounding financial performance is their culturally embedded assumptions of success/survival. One method to protect the culturally embedded decisions is by receiving constant information from trusted sources in the form of attorneys, accountants, and other members of the C-Suite. Information that support the culturally embedded decisions is seen as accurate. Information that contradicts or challenges the culturally embedded decisions is not only seen as inaccurate, it can be construed as threatening the authority and integrity of the cultural group. (See Figure 1.)

The cultural insight for the coaching client began to surface when it was realized that the C-Suite executive was willing to rely only on the accountants and lawyers when reviewing the risks of the situation at hand. The distrust for the operator's hands-on, in-the field, experience and information was perceived as tainted with exaggerations even though the operator had an extensive history of successfully managing similar risks. As the volleys of communications turned into heated arguments and vehement debates, each side became entrenched in their positions and began to question the credibility and competency of the other. Tempers flared and positional authority began to be paired with insinuations of moral turpitude. Both sides began to see evil intentions in the other and therefore were unable to see each other as employees of the same company. Any sense of engagement beyond the conflict was lost. It became nearly impossible to have any conversation without resorting to raging combat.

Figure 1: Assumptions of the Executive Subculture. (Global Community)

1. Financial Focus

  • Without financial survival and growth, there are no returns to shareholders or to society.
  • Financial survival is equivalent to perpetual war with competitors.

2 .Self image: The embattled lone hero. The economic environment is perpetually competitive and potentially hostile; "in a war you cannot trust anyone."

  • Therefore, the CEO/C-Suite must be "the lone hero," isolated and alone, yet appearing to be omniscient, in total control, and feeling indispensable.
  • You cannot get reliable data from below because subordinates will tell you what they think you want to hear; therefore, the CEO/C-Suite must trust his or her own judgment more and more (i.e., lack of accurate feedback increases the leader's sense of rightness and omniscience).
  • Organization and management are intrinsically hierarchical; the hierarchy is the measure of status and success and the primary means of maintaining control.
  • Though people are necessary, they are a necessary evil not an intrinsic value; people are a resource like other resources to be acquired and managed, not ends in themselves.
  • The well-oiled machine organization does not need whole people, only the activities they are contracted for.

Schein, Edgar H. (2010-07-16). Organizational Culture and Leadership (The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series) (Kindle Locations 1361-1373). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

The Engineering/Design Culture

The Engineering/Design culture of an organization evolves from having a common education, work experience, and set of job requirements. In basic terms, it is the group that understands the technology that drives the organization, whether it be industry understanding, manufacturing processes, equipment, etc. This culture would design the core technology surrounding its purpose, capability, limitations, and proper uses. They have an appreciation for the system that created the technology but not necessarily the people who will not understand it or how to properly use it. For example, engineers within any field would fit into this category; however, it would also apply to accountants who've established an accounting system or to a general counsel that has established logical policies and procedures for legal compliance. In some cases, leaders that have come through the ranks are able to bridge the gap between the two cultures by being able to rely on the their cultural understanding of both the C-Suite and the engineering cultures . (See Figure 2.)

The engineering culture provided another insight to the client situation. In the middle of the conflict between the senior executive and the employee was a VP of manufacturing who had 30 years of industry experience. The individual had extensive field experience as well as senior leadership experience. This VP was responsible for building a global infrastructure to support a major initiative. The contract in dispute was directly related to this initiative. The VP reported to the C-Suite executive and supervised the operator. The VP's experience provided an understanding of both sides of the issue though not necessarily the capability to build the needed bridge between the warring individuals. Each foray to bring some form of resolution often resulted in further separation between the conflicting parties and several scars for the VP.

Figure 2. Assumptions of the Engineering/Design Subculture. (Global Community)

  • The ideal world is one of elegant machines and processes working in perfect precision and harmony without human intervention.

  • People are the problem—they make mistakes and therefore should be designed out of the system wherever possible.

  • Nature can and should be mastered: "That which is possible should be done" (proactively optimistic).

  • Solutions must be based on science, industry standards, and available technology including GAAP, and government regulations.

  • Real work is to solve puzzles and overcome problems.

Schein, Edgar H. (2010-07-16). Organizational Culture and Leadership (The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series) (Kindle Locations 1312-1318). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

The Operator Culture

The operator culture is based on the "hard hats" and "hard heads" that on a day-to-day basis attempt to do the intended work that will produce a profit for the company. Their frustration is that great engineering does not make a workable situation. Frustration rises when the finished product does not meet client specification as well as when the decision and directives made in the C-Suite do not often match the day-to-day work situations in the field. (See Figure 3.)

The operator culture provided another insight in that the employee in conflict relied on first-hand experience of how to assess and mitigate the risks in question. With massive global experience including similar contract disputes with the organization in question, the operator was convinced that to settle was not only a costly decision, it was the wrong decision. The operator was caught in a moral dilemma between supporting the senior executive and his time-tested experience in similar situations. The conflict became up-close and quite personal. There was no room for discussion between who or what was right or wrong.

Figure 3: Assumptions of the Operator Subculture

  • The action of any organization is ultimately the action of people. We are the critical resource; we run the place.

  • The success of the enterprise therefore depends on our knowledge, skill, learning ability, and commitment.

  • The knowledge and skills required are "local" and are based on the organization's core technology and our specific experience.

  • No matter how carefully engineered the production process is or how carefully rules and routines are specified, we know that we will have to deal with unpredictable contingencies.

  • Therefore, we have to have the capacity to learn, to innovate, and to deal with surprises.

  • Most operations involve interdependencies between separate elements of the process, so we must be able to work as a collaborative team in which communication, openness, mutual trust, and commitment are highly valued.

  • We depend on management to give us the proper resources, training, and support to get our jobs done.

Schein, Edgar H. (2010-07-16). Organizational Culture and Leadership (The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series) (Kindle Locations 1270-1280). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

Coachable Moments

With the deeper understanding that there were three culturally embedded perceptions within the conflict, the first attempt was to create awareness of the different cultural perceptions. This failed miserably. The battle lines had been etched so deeply that bringing new information that might require rethinking was an impossibility especially for all three people being in the same room at the same time.

The secondary approach was to bring awareness to the individuals. Some inroads were made. Tempers simmered for a bit; however, there was little interest in learning how it could have been handled differently. The conflict had become a personal defense of the integrity of each individual. Unable to see beyond their beliefs of what was right and wrong, the senior executive closed the conversation and made the decision.

A few months later, another clash evolved. As soon as a decision was required that involved the differing (cultural) perceptions, the heated debates started all over again. Fortunately, the VP recognized that getting between the other two was fruitless and as a result took a seat on the sidelines. As you might guess, this was a conflict that could only end in departures. The VP wisely left for another firm and the field operator was escorted out the door.

My Learning

My primary learning was that cultural dynamics need to be understood at the outset of the coaching arrangement, especially if the coaching process involves multi-level conflicts. Understanding each level of the organization's "unwritten rules" for making meaning for critical decisions is imperative. Otherwise, any basic behavioral changes will likely be built on a weak foundation of complying with the executive suite requirements. If compliance with senior executives becomes the coaching intervention, the only choice is to determine if the client can live within the leadership requirements. If not, departure is imminent.

My second learning was that the individuals and the organization must be capable of stepping outside of their particular perceptions and to expand into both/and thinking. Both/and thinking is the capacity to hold two opposing perceptions grounded in time-tested experience and education in the search for a respectful and best solution for the organization. Most of my clients would say that they already do both/and thinking. However, when tested during major conflicts, it can be lost in the heat of the moment.

My third learning was to apply the I-Boundary Contact model to each coachee (provided in the February issue). In this instance, the intervention occurred long before I formalized the model to understand the interaction between vulnerability and presence. Organization's "unwritten rules for being successful" trigger increased vulnerability because core assumptions about success/survival within the organization are challenged. Once these challenges occur, defensiveness and other aggressive response are likely. Once the defensiveness sets in, the fear of embarrassment can lead to drawing battle lines. Therein, coaching will be difficult at best.


1 Wikipedia, The Gordian Knot is a legend of Phrygian Gordium associated with Alexander the Great. It is often used as a metaphor for an intractable problem (disentangling an "impossible" knot) solved easily by "thinking outside the box" ("cutting the Gordian knot")

2 Schein, Edgar H. (2010-07-16). Organizational Culture and Leadership (The Jossey-Bass Business & Management Series) (Kindle Locations 589-592). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

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