A rant can be as good as a rest

Unpopular Culture
November 12, 2004

John Weeks, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology-trained organisational sociologist, alludes to the underlying thesis of his book with the quotes at the beginning of each chapter, such as "The dog barks but the caravan moves on" (Arabic proverb) and "Everyone talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it" (Mark Twain).

The title sums up what it is about: unpopular culture - that is, "what happens, and what does not happen when an organisation does not like its culture".

The book presents an ethnographic case study of a major UK bank. This reveals that although its employees deride its culture as being too bureaucratic, too competitive, too inflexible, too centralised and so on, it continues unchanged even after repeated "change programmes" and restructurings.

By unpopular culture, Weeks means two things: "The first is that people express an opinion about it. The second is that this opinion is not favourable" - which means that its employees "must have made public sense of it; they must have arrived at some idea (more or less shared) of what culture is and come to some characterisation of their culture in particular".

The author makes some interesting observations. First, that although a great deal of research has been done on the characteristics of successful cultures, researchers have not concentrated on why people in workplaces need to be negative about their cultures. Second, that even after repeated efforts, many organisations are unsuccessful in changing a culture because shared negativity fulfils a purpose "in the sharing" with fellow colleagues.

In fact, complaining about the boss or some other dysfunctional process allows people to bond more closely together, to share their perceptions about other aspects of the job. It is a good-natured safety valve for other discontents and a form of community gossip that makes the boredom of much organisational life tolerable. As Weeks suggests: "The consequence of raising awareness about organisational culture and presenting a model of what that culture should look like is less a creative tension that inspires change than it is the provision of a new cultural resource that people will appropriate for their own culturally specified uses."

I enjoyed this book immensely because of its social anthropological approach to the culture of a high-street bank, its politics, its relationships, its counter-culture, and the kind of organisational life we recognise in today's workplaces. It is one of the most revealing case studies of organisational culture I have come across and should interest not only many organisational change agents, but also human resource academics and professionals.

Weeks highlights the complex world of organisational existence and of work, in a modern-day academic version of Studs Terkel's Working, which summarised work as "a search for daily meaning as well as daily bread, for recognition as well as cash, for astonishment rather than torpor, in short, for a sort of life rather than a Monday through Friday sort of dying".

Cary L. Cooper is professor of organisational psychology and health, Lancaster University Management School.

Unpopular Culture: The Ritual of Complaint in a British Bank

Author - John Weeks
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 166
Price - £31.50 and £13.50
ISBN - 0 226 87811 2 and 87812 0

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