Organisational Culture

Organisational Culture

This article is based on information provided in ICAO SMM Doc 9859.


Organisational Culture - a culture set by the characteristics and value systems of particular organisations.


Organisational performance is subject to cultural influences at every level and the organisational culture consists of shared beliefs, practices and attitudes.

According to ICAO Doc 9859 - Safety management manual the following three levels of culture, have relevance to safety management initiatives, since the three levels are determinants of organisational performance:

Figure 1. Three distinct culture types. Source: ICAO Doc 9859.

National culture differentiates the national characteristics and value systems of particular nations. People of different nationalities differ, for example, in their response to authority, how they deal with uncertainty and ambiguity, and how they express their individuality. People are not all attuned to the collective needs of the group (team or organisation) in the same way. In collectivist cultures, for example, there is acceptance of unequal status and deference to leaders. This may affect the possibility of questioning decisions or actions by elders — an important consideration in teamwork for example. Work assignments that mix national cultures may thus affect team performance by creating misunderstandings.

Professional culture differentiates the characteristics and value systems of particular professional groups (the typical behaviour of pilots vis-à-vis that of air traffic controllers, or maintenance engineers). Through personnel selection, education and training, on-the-job experience, peer pressure, etc., professionals (physicians, lawyers, pilots, controllers) tend to adopt the value system and develop behaviour patterns consistent with their peers; they learn to “walk and talk” alike. They generally share a pride in their profession and are motivated to excel in it. On the other hand, they may adopt value systems that lead to developing a sense of personal invulnerability, a feeling that performance is not affected by personal problems, or that errors will not be made in situations of high stress.

Organisational culture differentiates the characteristics and value systems of particular organisations (the behaviour of members of one company versus that of another company, or government versus private sector behaviour). Organisations provide a shell for national and professional cultures. For example, in an airline, pilots may come from different professional backgrounds (military versus civilian experience, bush or commuter operations versus development within a large carrier). They may also come from different organisational cultures due to corporate mergers or layoffs.

The three cultural sets interact in specific operational settings. These interactions could be described through the following patterns, for example how:

  • juniors will relate to their seniors;
  • information is shared;
  • personnel will react under demanding operational conditions;
  • particular technologies will be embraced;
  • authority will be acted upon and how organisations react to operational errors (punish offenders or learn from experience);
  • automation is used;
  • procedures (Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs)) are developed;
  • documentation is prepared, presented and received;
  • training is developed and delivered;
  • work assignments are made;
  • different work groups (pilots, ATC, maintenance personnel, cabin crew) will relate; and
  • management and unions will relate.

Operational personnel in aviation are influenced in their day-to-day behaviour by the value system of their organisation. Thus, the organisation is a major determinant of the behaviour employees will engage in while performing operational activities that support the delivery of services for which the organization is in business. Organisational culture sets the boundaries for accepted operational performance in the workplace by establishing the norms and limits.

Provisions in ICAO doc 9859, also specify that one of the most influential aspects of an organisational culture in terms of the management of safety is that it shapes safety reporting procedures and practices by operational personnel.

The tone for an effective, generative organisational culture is set and nurtured by the words and actions of senior management. Organisational culture is also the atmosphere created by senior management which shapes workers’ attitudes towards, among others, safety practices. Organisational culture is affected by such factors as:

  • policies and procedures;
  • supervisory practices;
  • safety planning and goals;
  • actions in response to unsafe behaviour;
  • employee training and motivation; and
  • employee involvement or “buy-in”.

Organisational Characteristics

Organisational literature proposes three types of organisations, depending on how they respond to information on hazards and safety information management:

  • pathological — hide the information;
  • bureaucratic — restrain the information; and
  • generative — value the information.

Figure 2 presents the characteristics of three possible organisational cultures.

Figure 2. Organisational culture examples. Source: ICAO Doc 9859

According to ICAO SMM, an effective way to promote safe operations is to ensure that an operator has developed an operational environment where all staff feel responsible for and consider the impact of safety on everything they do. This way of thinking must be so deep-rooted in their activities that it truly becomes ‘the way we do business around here’. All decisions, whether by the board of directors, a driver on the ramp, or an engineer, need to consider the implications on safety.

Such an operational environment must be generated ‘top down’ and relies on a high degree of trust and respect between workers and management. Workers must believe that they will be supported in any decisions made in the interest of safety. They must also understand that intentional breaches of safety that jeopardize the operation will not be tolerated.


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Royal Aeronautical Society (Montreal Branch)


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