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Leading Organizations Through Transition

Communication and Cultural Change

Stanley A. Deetz, Sarah J. Tracy, and Jennifer Lyn Simpson (2000), Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications


Book review by Christopher Deal


Chapter 1: Managing Hearts, Minds, and Souls

The first chapter lays out the basic idea of organizational culture. After defining culture quite accurately and comprehensively, the chapter examines the role culture plays in organizations as well as the different levels of culture that interact to form organizational culture. The chapter also discusses how leaders must manage culture to lead effectively. One starts with a strategic plan and then cultivates the appropriate cultural conditions in which the plan can be realized without control or coercion, but with increased commitment, autonomy, and motivation. The first chapter’s most significant features to me personally are that it 1) avoids dualism, talks about pros and cons of strong culture as well as the idea of managing hearts, minds, and souls 2) claims that employees work best when they are emotionally invested in their work 3) talks about the implications of the fact that much of culture is subconscious.

Chapter 2: Assessing and Changing Organizational Culture


This chapter provides a general overview of changing culture. It first addresses the reasons why a cultural change may be necessary or desirable. The first reason listed is the “bottom line,” or the competitive advantage (which reminds me that this book is written for managers--participants in the online executive master’s program at Seton Hall). Next, human resources issues are addressed, including employee commitment, identification, motivation, and satisfaction. Another reason for cultural change is cultural integration as a result of merger or acquisition. A final reason is to develop or maintain a particular corporate identity and image. The remainder of the chapter outlines in general terms some ways of assessing culture and the need for change (pointing out the difficult nature of such work) and talks about how cultural change can be led, including specific steps.

Chapter 3: Vision and Cultural Development

The authors differentiate between a strategic plan, a mission, and a vision. A vision helps to achieve the mission and strategic plan, but it can also inspire, motivate, and provide a sense of purpose and importance. An “identified” employee is one who identifies with the core values and vision of an organization. Such an employee is likely to be motivated and satisfied. Although this material is certainly helpful, the authors do not provide any unique insights on this subject. They do provide a number of useful examples from actual organizations.

Chapter 4: Guiding Interpretations and the Art of Framing

They provide effective examples of how the words used and the meaning may not correspond exactly. They suggest framing as a way of being conscious of the meaning that may be interpreted from the words or actions of leaders. Language is identified as the central tool of a leader. Among the uses of language and framing available to leaders, metaphor and stories are emphasized, and rituals are explained with detailed examples. In discussing the dangers of framing, they talk about how myths may be inaccurate and go unquestioned, but they ignore the danger of such communication efforts appearing fake, imposed, or leaders being perceived as “posers.”

Chapter 5: Employee Participation and Cultural Change

In contrast to the ideas in Chapter 4, this chapter acknowledges the situations in which the actions of leaders are less important than those of employees. A comparison is made of hierarchical control on the one hand and participation on the other, and situations in which participation is crucial are identified. Next, empowerment is discussed as a necessary phenomenon. Their conception of empowerment is much more conservative than that of the critical approach. It could be thought of as managers giving some of their power to employees in terms of decision-making and participation in other functions of the organization than their primary profession. In terms of change, one interesting point they made was the value of collaborative problem solving. I see this as a cultural change in the U.S., as a very individualistic culture begins to recognize the value of collectivistic ideas and practices in certain situations.

Chapter 6: The Ethics of Cultural Control and Organizational Change

The authors identify those elements of culture which are susceptible to unethical behavior. Most interestingly, they discuss the idea that the unconscious nature of culture makes it potentially oppressive. That is, people cannot choose what they are not aware of. They discuss ways of overcoming this problem, such as allowing for employee voice in cultural control programs. This chapter also provides relatively extensive instructions for creating an ethics program.

Chapter 7: Culture and Technological Change

This chapter first identifies the relationship between technology, technological change, and culture. Organizational culture is shaped by the way technology is used in communication, including the ways people receive and store information and the way they perform their job duties. An interesting dichotomy is that between (information technology) IT people and non-IT people’s ideas of what counts as information. The authors urge managers to consider the ramifications of technological change on organizational culture. They also demonstrate through questions ways of determining these ramifications as a way of deciding whether they are useful.

Chapter 8: Managing Culture Through Transition Periods

The title of this chapter is roughly the same as the title of the book, and the chapter title would more accurately be called “Managing Culture Through Major Transition Periods,” since much of the rest of the book is about managing gradual changes. In this chapter, they discuss some specific major changes, such as the passing of a founder or leader, and specific steps to cope with such a loss. They identify several other external factors, such as deregulation and globalization, very briefly, but do not offer ideas on ways of managing such change. The authors include a section about corporate reorganizations, and provide fairly detailed and I think helpful ideas on how to manage such changes.

Chapter 9: Managing Culture in Multinational Organizations

I feel that their approach to national culture is unfortunately one of grudging tolerance for the sake of business rather than a true appreciation and respect, and I was quite disappointed in this chapter. Acknowledgement is made of the need for intercultural skill, and brief suggestions are made as to how this can be ensured. However, their very cursory coverage of strategies for preparing for intercultural changes leaves much to be desired. For the most part, they are too general and vague; no examples are cited in this section. Much more could be said about each of the sub-points they mention.

Chapter 10: Putting a Change Process Together

From the title of the chapter, it would appear to be specific suggestions, but it is instead a review-like conclusion and case study. The chapter touts the use of case studies in assessing organizational culture and gives specific suggestions on writing case studies, which seem to be an effective method of analysis. The case study presented was not analyzed by the authors, but was left to the reader to answer the questions at the end of the chapter.

Overall Assessment

This book does an excellent job providing the historical background for the topic, including discussion of seminal works that have influenced the way the business world thinks about organizations. Each chapter provides strategically placed questions, called exercises, which involve the reader by asking him or her to consider specifics he or she has experienced. Review questions and discussion questions at the end of each chapter are also useful in engaging the reader, and give the sense that this is a textbook. The book frequently cites and quotes others’ work, demonstrating its theoretical grounding and thorough literature review, adding credibility, and providing the reader with sources for further study. Numerous examples are provided to illustrate points, but in some chapters (most notably chapter 9) there is a definite lack of sufficient examples.

At times, the book appears to cover basic information that seems to be rehashed from other materials. It also has a tendency to oversimplify concepts by providing a list which apparently purports to be exhaustive without acknowledging that other ways or other ideas exist. I believe one of the book’s main strengths is its organizing and synthesizing existing knowledge on the topic (Ch. 1). Some chapters provide unique insight and ideas (Ch. 2, 4, 5, 6, 8) while others provide basic information that could be obtained elsewhere, sometimes seeming like a cookbook, or a list of steps to follow, without the depth of analysis that is required for rigorous academic work (probably also because it is for managers) (Ch. 3, 7, 9, 10).

Another weakness is that although it does make reference to differences in national culture, it is written from within a U.S. culture-perspective. This makes it harder to understand for international students as well as less marketable outside the U.S. Occasionally it makes reference to culture-specific information that requires some explanation, but none is provided. Examples of this are the “OJ verdict” and a “Jim Carrey liar sequence,” both of which required only a few words of explanation, which were not included.

A final criticism of this book is that, for the most part, it does not provide an internal critique. Occasionally it makes reference to the complexity of the issues it is addressing. However, much of the time the authors do not state the exceptions or the possible disadvantages to their way of conceptualizing organizational change. One notable exception to the last statement is that their list of discursive framing tools includes potential pitfalls. Coming from a normative perspective, they do not acknowledge other perspectives or how such perspectives may differ from their own.


© 2001 Christopher Deal.