Organizational Culture & Aviation

Organizational culture has been highlighted in a number of substantive aviation mishaps. Canada’s Institute of Corporate Directors’ Mary Jordan recently explained, “when culture doesn’t support strategy, bad things happen. Boeing’s 737 Max 8 disaster [is, to some,] an example of a cultural misfit that led to significant reputational damage, and worse, loss of life in the case of Boeing.” Robert L. Sumwalt adds to the evidence, claiming “NASA’s organizational culture and structure had as much to do with [the 2003 disintegration of the Space Shuttle Columbia] as the External Tank foam (CAIB, 2003, p. 177).”

Organizational Culture – How it Forms

factory1“Leaders create culture, when they create the organization.” (Edgar Schein)

“There is no such thing as a good and bad culture – there’s only a culture that supports your strategy or doesn’t.” ICD Board Oversight of Culture Committee member, Mary Jordan

To Marvin Bower (1903-2003), author of The Will to Manage (1966), organizational culture is just “…the way…we do things around here”. Bower spoke in terms of the organization’s “philosophy,” believing workers take a stand when deciding how to perform tasks. In Authority (1980), Richard Sennett explored worker behaviour, saying “…it is easier to see the emotional commitments made in a family, than in a factory, [but] the emotional life in [the factory] is equally real”. Edgar Schein ( Organizational Culture and Leadership (2010) ) argued the processes of external adaptation and internal integration helped explain what Sennett and Bower revealed, and all three were probably inspired by Elliott Jaques who, in The Changing Culture of a Factory: A study of Authority and Participation in an Industrial Setting (1951) described three main organizational processes which seem to give form to what workers do: 1) the sanctioning of authority; 2) the operation of authority (the executive system); and, 3) social adaptation. Jaques emphasized, “the general suspicion and anxieties, of individuals and groups, are liable to become attached to particular practical issues and difficulties, so much so that the resolution, of these practical and, maybe, trivial difficulties, is thereby seriously obstructed.” Sennett’s reference to emotions seems to  illuminate the challenges leaders face in terms of change management and their responsibilities vis-a-vis innovation.