Organisational culture is crucial to improving social care management

Curriculum vitae

Name: Trish Hafford-Letchfield.
Job: Chair of board of trustees in her local Age Concern and senior lecturer social work; author of Management and Organisations in Social Work, Learning Matters, 2006.
Qualifications: BA Social Science, MA Social Policy, PG awards in management and teaching, CQSW, SRN, diploma in music.
Last job: Staff learning and development manager in a local authority.
First job: Cashier for a bookmaker.

In the first in a short series on challenges to social care management, Trish Hafford-Letchfield argues that the role of organisational culture is crucial to deliver effective change

Everybody is currently preoccupied with restructuring and reforming themselves to improve service delivery. In turn, it is hoped these changes will bring improvements in quality and performance.

Growing interest in organisational culture as one aspect of any reform begs the question as to how much of an active interest is taken in this phenomenon while massive changes go on around us. Increasingly, organisational culture is recognised as important in contributing to the effectiveness of any organisation, yet it is an area we tend to overlook, busying ourselves instead with reviewing structures.

There have been numerous high-profile inquiries into public service failures which feed a culture of blame accompanied by a constant stream of new structures, legislation and organisational policies and procedures to try to put this right.

Tapping the potential for change by also studying organisational culture can provide a less mechanistic and more flexible or imaginative approach to understanding how our organisations work and the impact of relationships within them. These also have a huge impact on how services are delivered and received.

Giving equal attention to “people management” requires a different way of thinking and recognises how organisational culture can act as a potential lever to improve the daily working lives of staff. For me, actively trying to understand, monitor and influence the culture in your organisation is time well spent by any manager.

In times of change – and when the pressure is on – bunker mentality gets in the way at precisely the time when a collective approach is vital. This needs confronting rather than sweeping under the carpet and just asking people to get on with it.

So what exactly do we mean by “culture”? While many aspects of an organisation’s culture are intangible, there is no doubt that it has a powerful effect on individual and group behaviour.

Culture affects practically all aspects of organisational life from the way in which people interact with each other to how they go about their work and the way decisions are made. It serves as a powerful force drawing people together and creating a sense of cohesion or division, defining what values and behaviour are acceptable and unconsciously telling people “how things are done around here”.

Rumours and gossip, for example, are reliable indicators of culture. There are few studies that shed light on how to achieve cultural change (which takes years rather than months) but approaches generally fall into two camps: first, how you challenge the unquestioned routines that exist day to day and, second, the importance of leadership.

Managerial practices in the organisation are probably the most potent ways in which its culture is transmitted and reinforced.

Anyone who wants to improve organisational culture needs first to recognise that their personal actions and behaviour are likely to evoke strong emotional reactions from staff. Setting an example by deliberate role modelling, teaching and coaching can have a profound effect on the willingness of staff to support or resist change and whether they participate or buy into it.

Regardless of the approach taken, leaders should look for congruency between what your organisation claims to be and what is practised. Combined with good communication, this plays a powerful role in establishing and maintaining a healthy work culture.

Honest discussion with staff about shared problems, responsibilities and potential solutions is a starting point for improving culture at work. Failure to focus on the organisational culture can wreck even the best managed reorganisation and has to be tackled if the different agencies and professionals are to share a common purpose and the means to achieve it.

Despite beliefs to the contrary, managers cannot control or manipulate culture but as good leaders they can certainly initiate, influence and shape the direction as this emerges. Therefore, the role of leadership at all levels in achieving cultural change is almost indisputable and is a vital aspect of management development. CC


  • In unfamiliar situations, hold on to your values and principles.
  • Find out what motivates staff and encourage them to take part.
  • React positively to negative feedback: listen, learn and act.


  • Rely on the fact that if people don’t like change they can put up or shut up.
  • Manipulate and impose the culture using more detailed policies and procedures.

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