The Business Improvement Network

Psychological fitness: The secret bedrock of organisational culture

By Dr Alan Beggs

Organisational culture is a very slippery concept, and there as many models of organisational culture as there are consultants. What we do know is that the usual glib definition ‘the way we do things around here’ is completely inadequate, and describing an organisation as having a ’blame culture’ tells us nothing about the causes of that behaviour. We need to drill down much deeper to find the truth; culture is much more than skin-deep. But what will we find when we drill down?What lies beyond the reception desk?

Some important research by Peter Cooke identifies three very different organisational cultures. His verbatim descriptions of the three kinds of culture he found are both vivid and recognisable; I have simply applied different labels to them.


  • Organizations with Dynamic cultures “encourage members to work to their full potential, resulting in high levels of motivation, satisfaction, teamwork, service quality, and sales growth. Quality is valued over quantity, creativity is valued over conformity, and cooperation is believed to lead to better results than competition”. As Louis Gerstner understood, a Dynamic culture is the engine which powers a high-performing organisation.
  • In organizations with Dispiriting cultures, “members feel pressured to think and behave in ways that are inconsistent with the way they believe they should in order to be effective. People are expected to please others (particularly superiors) and avoid interpersonal conflict. Rules, procedures, and orders are more important than personal beliefs, ideas, and judgment”. Is it any surprise that people get turned off?
  • Organizations with Destructive cultures “encourage or require members to appear competent, controlled, and superior. Members who seek assistance, admit shortcomings, or concede their position are viewed as incompetent or weak. These organizations emphasize finding errors, weeding out “mistakes,” and encouraging members to compete against each other rather than competitors”. You may feel that you, too, would begin to kick against this kind of working environment.

The link between psychological fitness and the three cultures we have described is pretty obvious. Psychological fitness sits right at the core of a Dynamic culture, with psychologically fit leaders, followers and team members all playing their parts in creating the positive, constructive culture in which they work. They are ‘can do’, proactive, confident, committed and passionate, and are engaged with their work. People come to work because they want to, and give of their best whilst they are there, and the organisation performs extremely well.

Sadly, many peoples’ working context seems to encourage the use of dysfunctional tools, as people adapt to it as best they can. The culprits are dysfunctional leadership and management practices which erode any sense of personal control in the workplace. As a consequence, some people will tend to slip into Helplessness and a ‘can’t do’ mindset. Collectively, this leads to over-compliance, fatalism, and passive disengagement. You might expect them to create a Dispirited culture.

Others may develop Defensiveness and a ‘won’t do’ mindset. The outcome will be a very destructive group of cynical, negative, people; they will be rigid and awkward, bully, blame, and often sabotage the genuine efforts of their engaged co-workers. Put a few of these people together, and they will soon develop a toxic, Destructive culture.

The solution? Experience shows that leaders, followers and team members at work can learn to understand themselves better, and make some personal changes which will make them more psychologically fit so that they can contribute positively to the culture in which they work.

This is the kind of thing so easily dismissed as ‘training’. However, the truth is that if an organisation wants to perform well, it must ensure it is the kind of place where its people have the capacity to deliver. And if that means they have to be developed by ‘training’ – so be it!

About the author

Dr Alan Beggs, head of, has spent almost twenty-five years in the groves of academe, with a highly successful research career and over fifty publications to his name, and as an Olympic sport psychologist had an impact on the number of medals the GB Olympic team won in Sydney.

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