The 4 Types of Workplace Culture, Explained

Alison Anderson  |  Jul 18, 2022

A tool that measures the values, expectations and leadership styles of different workplace cultures can help leaders enact positive cultural change.

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There’s been a lot of discussion around losing workplace culture as employees enter flexible work arrangements and new hires are increasingly able to work from anywhere. But a classic two-by-two business model, the Competing Values Framework, can help leaders “diagnose” a current organisational culture, and take actions to shift it for positive cultural change.

What Is the Competing Values Framework?

In 1981, when Professors Robert Quinn and John Rohrbaugh researched how individuals categorised criteria of organisational effectiveness, two factors kept emerging. The first: the degree of flexibility in an organisation versus stability. The second: an inward focus versus an external orientation. In 1982, Professor Kim Cameron took this a step further and studied how these could predict performance and describe an organisation's culture.

When plotted on a 2x2 matrix, you get a classic four-box model. Each quadrant represents a set of organisational values that is the reverse of the one diagonally opposite. This was called the Competing Values Framework.

Since then, it has been applied to many topics within the business field, such as leadership, communication and company culture. Professors Quinn and Cameron are considered the leading authorities on the framework, which has been used as a diagnostic and teaching tool worldwide.

What Are the Four Organisational Cultures?

Which Organisational Culture Is Best?

There’s no ‘one approach suits all’ with workplace culture. A startup, for example, might be considered successful only if it’s agile, whereas a courier service might be judged effective because of its dependable processes and employees.

That said, modern businesses are operating in “permanent white water”, Professor Quinn points out – conditions of tremendous, continuing change. Flexiworks’ Future of Flexible Work report, which investigated Australians’ attitudes to work close to two years after the COVID-19 pandemic hit, found that, of the 1000 employees surveyed, 74 per cent work from home outside standard hours; and 62 per cent said they wouldn’t consider working for a business that didn’t offer a flexible working policy.

“Organisations need to focus on their highest purpose, collaborate, learn and adapt,” says Quinn, regarded as an authority in change management. “This means moving away from the red quadrant, hierarchy, and moving to the green quadrant, adhocracy. This shift challenges the compliance culture that dominates most organisations.” SEE ALSO: The Eight Commandments of Good Leadership in 2022

So Is Adhocracy the Best Organisational Culture?

“The different culture types are competing; they are not exclusive,” explains Professor Cameron, co-founder of the Center for Positive Organizations at the University of Michigan. “People sometimes assume organisations cannot have simultaneously opposite or competing culture types [but] all organisations have elements of all four quadrants, and some manage the tensions very well.”

It’s rare for an organisation to stay in one quadrant. Think of Apple, started by the visionary Steve Jobs and rule-breakers like Steve Wozniak, who’d been expelled from university for hacking into the computer network and sending prank messages (Adhocracy). Apple’s success bred a strong, logo-wearing team culture – the Apple family (Clan) – but even more success and emerging competitors pushed Apple to sack its founder and install CEO John Sculley to focus on standards, policies and branding (Hierarchy and Market). But by the late 1990s, immersed in red and blue quadrants, the tech company was no longer innovating; it brought back Jobs and, as a result, elements of Clan and Adhocracy. Apple mixed its organisational cultures.

Are Some Organisational Cultures Outdated?

Wherever organisations need structure, smooth assembly, and goods or services of a predictable quality, there’s space for complete control and inward attention. “Hierarchy gets a bad name by being equated with red tape and bureaucracy,” says Cameron. “But it is a very important culture that produces high trust, reliability, clarity and consistency.”

It’s similarly unfair to paint Market culture as a dog-eat-dog, guaranteed source of burnout. Cameron, whose research in recent decades has focused on links between virtuous behaviour and organisations’ performance, says employees thrive wherever positive energy is demonstrated by leaders, when they are recognised for their endeavours “and when their work and its outcomes have a high degree of meaning and profound purpose”.

A Market culture requires inspiring leaders and can invigorate those who love staying connected to industry shifts and greater trends. “A Market culture is not equated with a sweatshop,” says Cameron. “Burnout occurs when employees feel out-of-control, overwhelmed by expectations and unable to perform at their own level of satisfaction. None of these are inherent in a Market culture.”

See also: How to Help Overcome Burnout

How Can You Change Workplace Culture When Your Team Is Remote?

Leaders who want a Clan or Adhocracy culture are looking for ways to shape team culture or encourage innovation in a hybrid working arrangement. With staff working from anywhere, there are understandable fears around lost “water-cooler moments”.

Cameron acknowledges that meeting in-person enhances people’s ability to innovate but then recalls renowned ‘lone innovator’ Thomas Edison. "Much experimentation occurs as solitary activity,” he says. “Recognising contributions, creating psychological safety for out-of-the-box ideas and providing space for experimentation are classic ways an Adhocracy culture can be reinforced, and this can happen synchronously or asynchronously.”

Quinn points out it’s difficult maintaining a Clan culture, even in person. “Naturally it is even more difficult when people are in distant places,” says the professor emeritus. “But this does not mean it’s impossible. Just as some long-distance marriages can be vibrant, so it is with a team.”

Cameron believes there’s no substitute for face-to-face interactions if you want to build a Clan culture – “No-one dates his or her spouse solely online” – but that the organisations that best maintain a Clan culture with a hybrid workforce are those that personally share their outside-of-work activities, have online ‘happy hours’ and create events where a variety of people must work together to organise the event. “I can still feel valued by others, even when looking at a screen,” he says.

See Also: How to Mentor Employees in a Work From Anywhere World