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Influences of Organisational Culture on Social Care

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Explain How Different Aspects of Organisational Culture, Including Communication and Leadership, Influence Service Provision in Social Care

Organisational culture, a theoretical model of business practice, may also used to understand the systems and behaviour of other organisations, in particular the application of organisational culture theory to the understanding of social work practice. This model of business attempts to understand the positive and negative development of an organisation, through conscious and unconscious processes, and how these elements assist or limit the people within the organisation. Applying the principles of organisational culture theory to an environment which is essentially client-focussed is not straightforward, but provides social care theorists with both a way to understand barriers and limitations within the system, and the way that the principles of the organisation is applied to service provision; it may also offer a key to implementing practice reforms and changing the structure of social service organisation from within. By interpreting the social care system through this business model, it is possible to avoid the limitations which hinder better practice within social work.

As this essay is based upon the terminology of Organisational Culture Theory, it is necessary to begin with a brief introduction to the theory, highlighting its concerns, and considering how this term relates to current understanding of organisational models. After this explanation, the essay will then consider each of the most important terms within organisational culture theory, including leadership, communication, and motivation. These terms will then be used to describe the aspects of organisational culture as they affect the provision of services within social care. A conclusion will discuss the relevance of organisational culture theory to social work, finishing with the consideration of how this business model is being used to alter the way in which social services are practiced, and the values which are utilised by social care.

Organisational culture, the “set of beliefs, values and meanings that are shared by members of an organization” (Austin and Claassen, 2008, 349), is most often understood to refer to the practices and behaviours of a business organization. The term “Organisational culture” is not easily defined, despite its frequent usage, and theorists have therefore tended to outline the term according to their own interests. Attempts to clarify the meaning of ‘organisational culture” began in 1954: “The culture of industrial groups...from class origins, occupational and technical sources, the atmosphere of the factory which forms their background and finally from the specific experiences of the small informal group” (J. Brown, quoted in Anderson-Wallace and Blantern, page 3). This term highlights the importance of social bonding in creation of an organisational culture, which serves to unite a company around a common world view. Andrew Brown is one of many authors who have noted that the same organisation can have different organisational cultures in different countries, reflecting a difference in the social cultures of those companies: “These differences are most striking when they were detected in the subsidiary companies of the same multinational organisation, because they seemed to suggest that national cultural differences may help shape organisational design and behaviour at a local level” (Brown, 1995, page 2). Later, organisational culture would be more extensively defined by both Brown and Edgar Schein: these two works will be the basis of the remainder of this essay. It is important to note the essential elements of organisational culture theory: that this culture consists of social and localised beliefs about the operation of the business; these beliefs, or mythology, may bind a company together to the extent that it becomes isolated from outside ‘reality’: Brown uses the example of Philips Electronics: “Philips’ cultural inclination to define truth and reality according to its technological bias has led critics to charge that it is complacent, lethargic, inward-looking and risk adverse” (Brown, page 29). He also notes that critics considered the internal culture a definite factor in the economic failure of the business.

Brown’s work is a general guide to organisational culture, and offers three main sources of culture within a business: “The societal or national culture within which an organisation is physically situated” – which might be one reason why multinationals operating in many countries often have a number of organisational cultures; “The vision, management style and personality of an organisation’s founder or other dominant leader” – leadership and the mythology of prominent leaders being an important influence on the culture of a business; and “the type of business an organisation conducts and the nature of its business environment” – one would not expect social care to develop the same organisational culture as a company such as Shell or Cadburys (two businesses mentioned by Brown).

Schein’s work describes similar factors in a rather more abstract manner. He uses the terms ‘artifacts’, ‘expressed values’, and ‘basic assumptions’ to describe organisational culture. Schein sees artifacts as including all the tangible aspects of a culture – language, surroundings, technology and “The visible behavior of the group and the organizational processes into which such behavior is made routine” (Schein, 1992, page 17). These are the aspects most observable to outside researcher, although Schein notes that “It is especially dangerous to try to infer the deeper assumptions from artifacts alone because one’s interpretations will inevitably be projections of one’s own feelings and reactions” (Schein, page 18). Espoused values may help the researcher to better understand the culture; some of these values later become assumptions: “Only values that are susceptible to physical or social validation and that continue to work reliably...will become transferred into assumptions” (Schein, page 20). Consciously espoused values may provide a clue to the basic assumptions of a group; alternatively, they may not: “One must discriminate carefully between those that are congruent with underlying assumptions and those that are, in effect, either rationalizations or only aspirations” (Schein, page 21). Basic Assumptions are, in essence, what lies beneath; these assumptions are those held subconsciously by an organisation: “If a basic assumption is strongly held in a group, members will find behavior based on any other premise inconceivable...[they] actually guide behavior...tell group members how to perceive, think about, and feel about things” (Schein, page 22).

With this understanding of basic organisational culture theory, it is now possible to consider in greater detail a number of subjects which are influenced by this culture: motivation, leadership, and communication.

Motivation: Business theory is greatly concerned with the motivation of employees, and a strong organisational culture is considered essential to this. “Most organisations make strenuous attempts to motivate their employees...an appropriate and cohesive culture can offer employees a focus of identification and loyalty” (Brown, page 90). A positive organisational culture has a beneficial effect upon the motivation of the workforce, encouraging staff retention, high performance, and the intake of recent graduates; employees may also experience a better quality of life, or at least working life, avoiding stress-related illness. By contrast, a negative culture may result in loss of motivation, high staff turnaround, workers entering employment with fewer skills or qualifications, and low performance.

Leadership: Leadership, particularly charismatic leaders and company founders, have a profound impact upon the organisational culture of a business. Founders, of course, by creating the business, “usually have a major impact on how the group initially defines and solves its external adaptation and internal integration problems...Founders...typically have strong assumptions about the nature of the world, the role that organizations play in that world, the nature of human nature and relationships... [and] how truth is arrived at” (Schein, page 213). The creation of the company is usually the beginning of its organisational culture and basic assumptions; and while the espoused values may change, the unconscious basic assumptions may extend back to the foundation of the business. Founders and later leaders are often charismatic, and their decisions may not be challenged directly: “The emerging culture will then reflect not only the leader’s assumptions but the complex internal accommodations created by subordinates” (Schein, 230). The charismatic leader’s personal style will also lead to the development of a mythology. These stories are vitally important in the maintenance of an organisational culture.

Communication: The effective communication of ideas is essential in organisations, and often progress can be hampered through poor communication; Schein describes the development of production engineering: “Without it, engineering often designs things that cannot be built or are too expensive...Engineering is likely to perceive production as lazy and unimaginative, while production perceives engineering to be unrealistic” (Schein, 258). Organisational culture can affect communication, for example in hospitals, where “Most were discovered to suffer from a dearth of worthwhile formal communication channels” (Brown, 281). An organisational culture which avoids communicating new ideas will undoubtedly make profound mistakes and fail to co-operate.

It is possible to see these aspects in the influence of organisational culture upon social care, and particularly how the provision of care is directly affected by leadership, communication, and motivational ideas. As Anderson-Wallace and Blantern explain, the perception of the recipient of care has a basic assumption (unchallenged), as its base: “One cultural artefact is an emphasis on an assessment of the individual client within their wider social environment. This is underpinned by the espoused value of the importance of a dialogue between practitioner and client. The underlying assumption is of the independent nature of the client in active negotiation with the practitioner.” (Anderson-Wallace and Blantern, page 8.) The basic assumption also reveals that the emphasis is upon the client, rather than upon the care worker. In such circumstances, it would not be surprising to see care workers being de-motivated; active participation is limited to the client, lessening the need for effective communication, and also the possibility of blaming the client for errors; against this latter lays the practice of holding social services responsible for all errors in service provision.

Motivation is a major problem in social service, revealed through high turnover, poor quality of working life, and work-related illnesses such as stress: “stress is more common amongst social workers than either the general population or health care workers, due to the sensitivity and responsiveness to the difficult problems presented by clients which their work requires” (Ramon and Morris, 2004, page 7). As noted above, lack of motivation provision within organisational culture not only results in all the complications described here, but is also connected to low job performance. Here, the organisational culture influences service provision in a negative manner, by creating a culture of de-motivation, where the care worker feels impotent: “The statements indicate the relationships between experiencing stress, level of control, autonomy and flexibility within their job or role” (Ramon and Morris, page 8). There are also conflicting social cultures within the wider environment which contribute to this absence of motivation: the western world generally emphasises self-help and chastises those who are dependent upon government assistance: “A further layer was poor morale, associated with an inquiry on child protection (a feature shared with a number of similar departments), and the experience of a culture which tended to view stress as reflecting individual weakness” (Ramon and Morris, 7, but also visible in the wider media).

There is in fact very little evidence for leadership as part of organisational culture within the social services, although some research has suggested that leadership culture within social care may be negative: “This vindication of the pessimistic view of the team leaders group highlights the defensiveness of some senior managers of social services departments who view constructive criticism as an affront” (Ramon and Morris, 19). The account of leadership culture within the social care department suggests an organisation that emphasises leadership above productivity and worker satisfaction – other parts of the essay note staff complaining about impolite and inconsiderate leadership styles. Despite an espoused value of worker importance, the basic assumption appears to be that leadership is most valued, and criticism by lower staff members is not acceptable.

Poor communication culture lies at the heart of social care training. Ramon and Morris note “Improved communication between management and staff” as one of the goals of their research (Ramon and Morris, page 10), suggesting at the very least that the organisation culture of the social services is one of negligence towards communications, other sections of their essay suggest that communication is exceedingly poor “Poor communication and consultation within the organisational culture was identified as the major cause for stress,. As noted above, this can seriously affect performance, in this instance service provision” (Ramon and Morris, 19). In the following example, the necessary NVQ was preceded by a questionnaire upon the values of the workers involved; these reveal quite different values from those of the NVQ modules – an emphasis upon personal quality of life offered by the workers is altered to education on health care and understanding of resident’s social issues. “Almost without exception, role development was identified as impor­tant; most viewed this to be within the care sector at a higher grade or entering nurse training. Significantly, male staff perceived their role pro­gression to be to that of care home manager or owner” (Winter and Meehan, 2004, page 6) While most of the workers described personal lives as more important or as important as work, and valued honesty and equal opportunities for staff, instead, emphasis was placed upon NVQs with modules such as “Fostering people’s equality, diversity and rights”, where the focus was upon the residents’ needs rather than staff equality. Training within the NVQ did not cater for male staff’s ambitions, or for personal quality of life. Here we can see Social Care with a series Espoused Values (care and motivation of staff; better staff retention; valuing employees) which contradict the actions of the area, with its emphasis upon residential equality and the gaining of IT skills, suggesting that the Basic Assumptions do not match – the basic assumptions might be “care of the residents is more important than staff satisfaction” and “IT training will improve motivation and help retention”, or even “training will improve the care given”. It is worth noting that, while 92% of staff thought the NVQ training would improve motivation, only 50% thought it would improve staff retention – one of the stated aims of the training. Emphasis upon training therefore appears to bear little correlation to workers’ performance; it also does not appear to have improved the motivation or turnover of care staff.

The purpose of this essay has been to consider how organisational culture influences the provision of services within social care. One thing that has become clear from this research is that the organisational culture of social services relies heavily upon charismatic leadership to develop the stated values of the department. However, the culture also places limitations upon staff criticisms of leaders, meaning that desirable change may be limited or even prevented: for instance, Michelle Johnson and Michael Austin have suggested that the organization culture of local social services contained barriers to the creation of evidence-based practice, including the fact that there was “Little history, culture or expectation that evidence is routinely and systematically used to underpin practice” (Austin and Johnson, 87). This problem is undoubtedly one of leadership culture preventing better evidence-based practice from being developed. A secondary problem is that of communications – as Ramon and Morris noted, official communication was resented, being seen as an imposition from above (page 19), and there was limited value placed within the culture for cross-company consultation.

These details may seem to relate only to staff members, but clearly they have a role in the outcome of service provision to clients or residents. The lack of motivation experienced by staff members, including stress and feelings of impotence, impact the service they offer to clients, particularly when the unconscious assumption is that these clients are both ‘independent’ of the care provider, and under the control of that same provider. Leadership issues prevent the adequate solving of problems – the basic assumptions of the group meaning that challenges to senior management are dismissed, or regarded as an affront to the leadership. This assumption has prevented the adoption of beneficial policies within the workplace, and has probably limited schemes which would also have aided service provision. Communication between departments within the social services has been justly criticised in the past, and it is clear that a problematic relationship with senior management is also indicative of problems in communication, data being rejected by staff members if it appears to come from management. All of these actions reveal the unconscious assumptions of social workers, both towards colleagues and towards their clients.

The application of organisational culture theory to social care offers an opportunity to better understand the role that basic assumptions and values take in the provision of services to clients. Attempts to create a more evidence-based practice have emphasised the importance of a corresponding change in the culture of social work, offering an alternative to the problematic assumptions which can be found in the current organisation’s culture and practice.

Works Cited

Anderson-Wallace, Murray, and Chris Blantern (2005) “Working with Culture” in Organisational Development in Healthcare Peck, Edward (ed) Radcliffe Publishing, 2005.

Austin, Michael J, and Jennette Claassen (2008) “Impact of organizational culture: implications for introducing evidence-based practice” Journal of Evidence-Based Social Work Volume 5 no 1-2 (2008) pp. 321-359

Austin, Michael J, and Michelle Johnson (2006) “Evidence-based practice in the Social Services: Implications for Organizational Change” Administration in Social Work Volume 30, no 3 (2006) pp 75-104

Brown, Andrew (1998) Organisational Culture Essex, Pearson Education Ltd

Schein, Edgar H (1992) Organisational Culture and Leadership San Francisco, Jossey-Bass Publishers.

Ramon, Shulamit and Lana Morris (2004) “Responding to perceived stress in a social services department: applying a participative strategy” retrieved 13/09/2008 from http://www.britsoc.co.uk/user_doc/Morris.pdf

Winter, Jane, and Lyn Meehan (2004) “The value of integrated workforce planning across the local health and social care economy: a case study” Clinical Governance Bulletin Volume 5, no. 2 Jul 2004 pp 6-8


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