NBS logo

Organizational Culture Shapes Environmental Initiatives

What motivates managers to look beyond regulatory requirements to improve their company’s environmental practices? It may be a matter of perspective. This paper argues that the relationships among an organization’s subcultures shape how managers interpret and act on environmental issues. Organizational culture influences how team members define problems and how they choose the strategies they use to solve problems. Drawing from a nine-month study of a high-tech manufacturer, the author finds that the presence of multiple subcultures can lead a company to explore divergent strategies.


Differences between how members of company subcultures understand and process issues can shape how an organization addresses environmental issues. The paper explores two main subcultures within a firm: Tech, a group of 1,500 engineers and managers, and EnviroTech, a smaller, newer team drawn from the firm’s Environment, Health and Safety group or Facilities/Materials group. The authors examine how both groups respond to two environmental projects.


  • Differences across the organization’s subcultures and the relationships among subcultures can influence the attention paid to environmental issues and the resultant actions and outcomes.

  • A subculture with more power (e.g. one that is central to work flow) does not necessarily enjoy a monopoly on the analysis of problems. But, its strategies may trump others when it comes to taking action.

  • Environmental commitment may comprise a large part of the organization’s strategy and identity, but a “business as usual” mindset that reinforces certain firm-wide strategies and actions and excludes proactive environmental practices is also possible. For instance, the strategies used within Tech epitomized those widely shared across the firm, and there was significant pressure for EnviroTech to conform.

Implications for Managers

  • The firm is not a “black box” where external factors – regulation, science, public pressure, new technology and economics – are the sole drivers of environmental practice. Internal factors also guide decisions.

  • Understand what motivates your subcultures. Every problem (and solution) is a matter of perspective. See your organization through the eyes of each subculture – each will define and respond to problems differently.

  • Know your people. Attend explicitly to your firm’s current culture and subcultures, not to what you envision them being. By engaging key subcultures, you can build a complex picture of the motivators and drivers of corporate environmental management approaches.

  • Divergent subcultures allow managers to tailor solutions to demands of different stakeholders; but, incoherent, piecemeal and diluted responses can also result. Managers should be concerned with overall organizational consistency.

Implications for Researchers

This study relies on an analysis of two subcultures within a single organization, so the ability to generalize findings to other organizations is limited. New research can explore the broad findings that subcultures shape interpretations and actions on environmental issues, and that differentiation between subcultures and power may create new patterns of interpretations and actions.


The author conducted nine months of full-time observation at one of the world’s largest semiconductor manufacturers. She used an inductive approach to understand how environmental issues surfaced, were articulated, and acted on. Research was gathered through daily field notes, team member interviews, and document reviews. The author’s role as a participant within one of the subculture groups, and not merely an observer, provides unique insights into both the tacit and explicit aspects of the company’s culture and subcultures.

Howard-Grenville, Jennifer A. (2006). Inside the ‘Black Box’: How Organizational Culture and Subcultures Inform Interpretations and Actions on Environmental Issues. Organization & Environment. 19(1), 46-73.

Share this post:


Share on activity feed

Powered by WP LinkPress

Add a Comment

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.

This site uses User Verification plugin to reduce spam. See how your comment data is processed.

Join the Conversation


Related Articles

Partner with NBS to grow our impact

Skip to content