Updated: Dec 9, 2022
Culture is a hotchpotch of things like behaviours, beliefs and values – summed up by the phrase ‘the way we do things around here’. It isn’t a tangible entity in itself, so if we want to change it we need to delve into its underlying structure so that we can intervene with its components to get the change we want.
This article is a heavily condensed version of “Culture modification: talk is cheap” which provides more extensive explanations and examples and can be downloaded here:
It can be tempting to dismiss the first component, behaviours, because we know that deeper values and beliefs are the drivers of culture. The problem is that, lobotomy aside, we can’t modify beliefs and values directly: ironically the primary tools available are also behaviours – but behaviours that have genuine leverage. To understand how these work, let’s dig a little deeper into beliefs and values.
Beliefs are personal ‘truths’: we act as if they were true - whether or not they are proven facts. Some people believe that all dogs are lovable, and others act as if they all bite. Some people believe that workers are lazy, while others act on the assumption that they work hard. Whether or not a belief is factually true is irrelevant: it drives decisions and acti
ons without the need for conscious intervention. The cause/effect link between beliefs and behaviours is so strong that when we observe a distinct behaviour, we can use it as evidence to deduce the beliefs that underpin it: “what must be true for this person to act in that way?”.
Values, the things that are important to us, drive many of our beliefs as well as our decisions and behaviours. The trap with values is that when we talk about them, we only mention those that are socially acceptable: values like achieving, collaborating, caring and respect. But whether we like it or not the values that we are not proud of, and the values that are invisible to us, are just as important in driving our behaviour: values like greed, lust, power and dominance.
The same dynamic applies to corporate culture: lists of corporate values only ever contain virtuous elements despite evidence of behaviours that scream values like greed, control, power and sexism. If we want to change culture, we need to cope with all the values that are operating including those hidden – especially since the latter will usually be at the root of any culture ‘problem’.
So culture is fundamentally an emotional issue, not an intellectual one: a management problem that doesn’t obey rational rules is a challenge. Given the power of beliefs and values to establish a culture, how can they change?
Values change as our experiences evolve. The Covid-19 pandemic has been a trigger for many to develop stronger values around relationships and the greater good. A crisis can change values instantly: a person who has just had a heart attack regresses rapidly from valuing ambition and comfort to valuing survival above all. The values of a large proportion of the world were suddenly challenged by the gut-wrenching evidence of the death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.
Beliefs and values of others can also be changed by profound leadership actions.
The common thread of powerful acts of leadership is the willingness of the leader to expose themselves to criticism and loss in the pursuit of a higher cause. The subliminal, but authentic, message is “this issue is more important to me than my selfish needs”. These acts carried a massive emotional charge that changed the world.
If you want to change culture, you need to make a personal emotional commitment to the change you want. Your organisation is a system over which senior leadership has the greatest influence: expecting the whole system to change without changing yourself (while you unconsciously maintain the existing system) cannot possibly work. If your actions are not congruent with the words that come out of your mouth your influence will be restric
ted to your capacity to punish rather than your capacity to inspire.
Second, be consistent in applying punishments to unacceptable behaviours and rewards to those that you want. If we don’t do this, no amount of executive speechifying or other corporate communication will work: our audience isn’t that gullible, and empty messages reduce our credibility even more.
Third, it helps to adopt the belief that people will consistently behave in a way that is right for them – determined by their values. Unless someone believes at a visceral level that they’ll benefit from a change, they will maintain their behaviour - even if th
is appears to be irrational.
Although culture is an emotional subject, it needs to be handled pragmatically so that the organisation and the people within it are better suited to fit the needs and demands of society. The pandemic has led us all to be aware of, and question, some of our values so the climate is ripe for businesses to become more congruent with wider expectations. Culture change is difficult, but it can be done – and it needs to be done if a business is to survive in a constantly changing world.