The ambidextrous manager: What role does culture play?

Purpose We know from research that the right context can help managers develop an ambidextrous approach. But just as few of us are naturally ambidextrous, many managers fail to balance conformity and change during strategy implementation. We investigate why. Design/methodology/approach Through a qualitative study of managers of an international airline we examine a series of cultural barriers that constrain managers’ agile decision-making and stop managerial ambidexterity. Findings We identify 6 culturally-ingrained practices that block managerial ambidexterity: Top management’s unwavering emphasis on cost-control when survival hinges on fresh investments; Little or no scanning of the environment for new areas of opportunity; Intensive planning oriented toward efficiency issues; Functional structures characterized by extensive division of labor; Centralized control; Formal hierarchical communication channels. Research implications Managers find it difficult to put into practice new initiatives, particularly when the proposed initiatives counter the underlying cultural world of the organization. We suggest that this dark-side of culture can pose tough barriers for ambidextrous action. Practical implications There is an urgent need for organizations to be aware of the possible misalignments between ambidextrous pursuits and the cultural forces that actually drive action. A deep understanding of their organization’s cultural universe is a crucial first step for managers aspiring to better engage with ambidexterity and outwit and outperform competitors. Originality Different strategic approaches need not be viewed as irreconcilable. If cultural elements don’t block it, managerial ambidexterity can showcase innovative approaches to reconciling trade-offs in strategic decision-making.