Leadership and organizational culture transformation in professional sport.

Author:Frontiera, Joe
Position:Company overview


Organizational culture has long been recognized as a critical component that can facilitate high performance in business (Balthazard, Cooke, & Potter, 2006). The purpose of this qualitative study was to examine the phenomena of organizational culture change in professional sport (NBA, MLB, and NFL). Six owners or general managers who had successfully brought their organizations through organizational culture change, as evidenced by their team's performance, agreed to an in-person interview. Five primary themes emerged (Symptoms of a Dysfunctional Culture, My Way, Walk the Talk, Embedding New Culture, and Our Way) which together formed an initial model for organizational culture change in professional sport: the Culture Change Cycle. Each theme is discussed in depth, and differences across sport and role are explained.


Organizational culture, culture change, leadership, performance


Seven games into the 2008 NFL season, management within the San Francisco 49ers fired head coach Mike Nolan after he accrued an overall record of 18-37. Similarly, seventeen games into the 2008 NBA season, the Toronto Raptors fired Sam Mitchell as their head coach.

Mitchell had led his team to the playoffs in each of the two previous seasons, and won the NBA Coach of the Year for the 2006-2007 campaign. Rightly or wrongly, this has become standard practice in the United States. When a sport organization underperforms the blame usually falls on the coach.

However, it is possible and even likely that a poor-performing sport organizations' issues extend deeper than the coach. In fact, some personnel changes are often prefaced with a statement that suggests "a culture change is needed". For example, when Rick Sund was hired as the new general manager for the Atlanta Hawks, it was reported that in his efforts to build a sustainable, winning team, his primary task was to "try to usher in a culture change in an organization that has been somewhat resistant to outside influence" (p. 1; Smith, 2008).

The purpose of this qualitative study was to explore how accomplished leaders in professional sport have been able to alter the culture of their respective organizations to improve on-field or on-court performance. In an effort to further examine the potential relationship between organizational culture and performance in professional sport, it is first necessary to understand both of the archetypal definitions of organizational culture as well as the multiple approaches to cultural research.

Organizational Culture & Performance

Organizational culture, in laymen's terms, is often described as "the way we do things around here" or the values that hold an organization together, yet academics have struggled to find consensus on a precise definition of culture. Ideational definitions emphasize cognitive aspects of culture, such as 'meanings' and 'understandings' (Martin, 2002). For example, Louis (1985) defined culture as a set of "meanings shared by a group of people" (p. 74). Researchers relying on an ideational approach, for example, would examine the meaning organizational members attribute to common myths or stories within the organization. Other definitions of culture are primarily materialistic, and focus on the material manifestation of ideations. Mills (1988) suggested that culture is the "manifestations of a process of ideational development located within a context of definite material conditions" (p. 366). A researcher relying on the materialistic approach would examine dress, workplace environment, hierarchy, and job descriptions. Subjectively, the researcher must determine what each materialistic item means.

Along with multiple approaches to defining culture, there are diverse methods to approaching cultural research: integration, differentiation, and fragmentation (Meyerson & Martin, 1987). Studies from the integration perspective assume that all members in an organization share one consensus of culture, and there is clarity surrounding this consensus. In contrast, research grounded in the differentiation approach suggests that elements of culture can be inconsistent. Although consensus of meaning may exist with smaller subgroups of an organization, agreement may not exist across subgroups or throughout the entire organization. Furthermore, there may be ambiguities within the smaller groups, as evidenced by leaders who say one thing and do the exact opposite. Finally, the fragmentation approach takes differentiation one step further to suggest that ambiguity is the 'essence' of organizational culture. Consensus depends wholly upon the issue in question and can never exist across an organization (Martin, 1992). Schein (1992) provides a definition of organizational culture that integrates both the ideational and materialist components of culture and is general enough in its wording to allow for elements of differentiation:

A pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to these problems. (p. 12) Schein (1990, 1992) goes on to define the three levels of organizational culture: artifacts, values and underlying assumptions. The first, or outer, level is composed of the artifacts that an organization makes public: for example, a vision statement, company slogan, statues, or even the way cubicles are arranged can provide indications of the deeper levels of a culture. Values, the second level of culture, are reflected in how members interact with one another, how members interact with their environment, and what constructs, such as honesty, integrity or profitability, members share (Schein, 1992). The third and deepest level of organizational culture consists of the underlying assumptions. In healthy organizations, these assumptions provide the basis for the values. For example, if integrity is valued, the underlying assumption may be that only honesty can lead to success.

After defining organizational culture and its tenets, researchers began to examine the relationship between organizational culture and performance. Kotter and Heskett (1992) have made a compelling case that culture does impact performance. More specifically, these authors outline three general types of culture (strong, strategically appropriate, and adaptive) and the way each of these cultures impact performance. A strong culture is one in which the organization has an evident, notable style. A strategically appropriate culture is one that appropriately fits within its current internal and external environment. Finally, an adaptive culture is one that assists members anticipate and adapt to environmental change.

Although Kotter and Heskett (1992) identified positive correlations between performance and both strong cultures and strategically appropriate cultures, they found that the best performing organizations were those with an adaptive culture, where the culture encourages continuous change internally and externally. This change-embracing culture must come from leadership, and while the adaptive culture must value leadership, the leadership, reciprocally, must value the core constituencies of the organization (e.g., customers, stockholders and employees; Kotter, 1990). They found that individuals within higher-performing firms placed a significantly higher value on excellent leadership than those individuals within lower-performing firms. Furthermore, those in higher performing firms valued their customers, employees and stockholders significantly more than those in lower performing firms.

Previous research seems to suggest a relationship between the types of organizational culture and performance (Kotter & Heskett, 1992). More recent research has investigated other mediators of the relationship between an organization's culture and its performance. Specifically, Balthazard, Cooke and Potter (2006) suggested that behavioral norms within an organization are reflective of that organization's culture, or its values and assumptions, and may have a heavy impact on an organizations performance. The authors surveyed over 60,000 participants using the Organizational Culture Inventory (OCI), an instrument that assesses twelve different behavioral norms that, either consciously or unconsciously, may be required for members to fit in and meet an organization's expectations (Cooke & Lafferty, 1989). Balthazard and colleagues (2006) found that each of the four behavioral norms classified as "constructive" was positively correlated with role clarity, communication quality, "fit" with organization and job satisfaction, and negatively correlated with behavioral conformity. Furthermore, these constructive norms were also positively correlated with performance drivers, such as quality of products/services, quality of customer service, adaptability, and quality of workplace, while negatively correlated with turnover.

More recently, Smerek and Denison (2007) used archived data measuring four components of organizational culture--involvement, consistency, adaptability and mission--from 102 publicly traded companies. In essence, these four components measure both the nature of relationships between organizational members as well as the socially constructed meanings and values of an organization (Denison & Mishra, 1989). Involvement refers to team-orientation, capability development and empowerment. Ostensibly, high involvement would lead to increased responsibility and commitment that, in turn, would facilitate prolonged or extended efforts from organizational members. Consistency alludes to both the level of agreement across the organization, as well as the strength of the primary organizational values. An organization scoring high in consistency would have increased performance due to its improved...

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