Fostering a Performance-Driven Culture in the Public Sector: Culture Is Key in Managing Organizations, and Specific Practices Make Performance a Cultural Priority

By Risher, Howard | The Public Manager, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Fostering a Performance-Driven Culture in the Public Sector: Culture Is Key in Managing Organizations, and Specific Practices Make Performance a Cultural Priority


Risher, Howard, The Public Manager


Organizational culture is a concept widely understood on the surface. The focus of several books, it's a construct like weather and social status, which has been invented by people who want to study or discuss it. In the not-too-distant past, the subject was only explored in arcane social science journals; now it is frequently discussed by senior executives.

Researchers tend to break it down into dimensions (such as the level of comfort with risk and uncertainty) and use interviews, focus groups, or surveys to assess each of them. Thus far, however, they do not agree on the relevant dimensions, and each book seems to rely on a different definition. Nevertheless, the literature agrees that this culture is central to our understanding of organizations.

The current public-sector focus is on "performance culture," a term largely ignored in corporate studies, but coined in government a few years ago to describe a culture where performance is a recognized priority. A recent Google search on the phrase resulted in more than 10 million hits, almost all tied to government-related (or consultant) Web sites.

This article looks at the role of culture in managing organizations and at the management practices that contribute to or reinforce the importance of performance as a cultural priority. It also describes a method for identifying actions to increase the emphasis on good performance.

Understanding Organizational Culture

The simplest and most practical definition of organizational culture is T E. Deal's "the way things get done around here." Charles Hill's definition is more academic, but still practical:

   ... the collection of values and norms that are shared by
   people and groups in an organization and that control the
   way they interact with each other and with contacts outside
   the organization. The culture dictates the beliefs and
   ideas about what kinds of goals members of an organization
   should pursue and ideas about the appropriate kinds
   or standards of behavior organizational members should
   use to achieve these goals. From organizational values develop
   the norms, guidelines or expectations that prescribe
   appropriate kinds of behavior by employees in particular
   situations and control the behavior of organizational
   members towards one another.

Hill's words offer us a clear understanding of how important culture is in determining employee behavior and focus.

People working in an organization behave in ways that are heavily influenced by the culture. The culture governs the way they react to change and new ideas. It also governs the way they react to and interact with outsiders, such as customers. The culture influences the way people think and the way they expect to be treated. Different offices or locations usually exhibit subtle differences in culture. The culture is always an important consideration, often the most important, in gaining acceptance for new policies and work management practices like pay for performance.

In an organization with a strong performance culture, employees know what they are expected to accomplish and are emotionally committed to organizational success. They believe in the mission and goals and are quick to put their energy into a task without being asked or monitored. Informal conversations with coworkers frequently focus on performance problems and recent organization results. They tend to celebrate successes as a team or group. The commitment to performance is a way of life in the organization.

Performance has not been an explicit focus of corporate studies because it is an issue in every company. The intensity of the commitment may vary across an organization, but a company cannot survive if it is not a concern. Companies do study and concentrate on improving the culture as it relates to more specific issues such as customer service or attention to quality. …

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