You Own the Culture

Do people change culture, or does culture change people? When I meet with a group of leaders, I often begin with this question. It’s a fun question for groups to wrestle with, and inevitably, they find their way to the same answer: it’s both. People can change the culture through their behavior, which can then influence the behavior of others.

Although this seems like a reasonable enough notion, most leaders typically find themselves vexed or surprised by the culture of their organization. More often than not, the organization’s culture is cited as a barrier to growth or progress, or worse, as a contributing factor in malfeasance or incidents. Occasionally, the culture of a successful organization is held up as a shining example of how things ought to be done—that is until the next big company comes along.

Just about anything you read about organizations today puts tremendous emphasis on culture as a key determinant of success or failure. A cursory review of articles in popular publications, books, and lectures will reveal multiple references to the importance of culture whether it be on business performance, sustainability, social impact, safety, or retention, etc. What is often missing is a working definition of what is meant by “culture.” Typically the term is loosely defined and you are left guessing how an individual can impact something that seems as large and unwieldy as “organizational culture” or “our company DNA.”

At ADI, we introduce clients to a behavioral definition that captures the essence of culture in a functional and practical way. We define culture as: Patterns of behavior that are reinforced or punished, by people and systems over time. One of the reasons I am fond of this definition is that it is scalable—it allows you to deal with culture at a very macro level (e.g., regions, corporations, divisions) and at a micro level (e.g., shifts, teams, pairs and trios).

When you are able to view culture this way, you are also able to realize something far more important: YOU, as a leader, have the power to influence the culture very directly. As a leader, you are in a position to influence the behavior of others around you, and those with whom you have regular contact. You influence behavior thousands of times every day and thereby do your part in contributing to and defining the culture. In fact, it can truly be said that as a leader you own the culture in your part of the organization.

What we know from over 100 years of research in behavioral science is that individual people define the acceptable and unacceptable patterns of behavior every day by how they respond or choose not to respond; what they attend to and what they ignore; and by the questions they ask, the details they focus on. Doing this thousands of times per day adds up to—culture. This is also true whether you realize you are doing it or not. Your everyday behavior influences the actions of others. Oftentimes we unintentionally reinforce behaviors we wish would stop, and discourage or ignore behaviors that we want to occur, but take for granted.

The very first lesson of culture change on ANY scale is this: You own the culture. Understanding how to apply the science of human behavior is the key to owning that culture and intentionally shaping it to reflect the values, goals, ideals, and standards, or your organization.

Posted by Tim Nolan, Ph.D.

Tim Nolan is a trusted advisor to business and organizational leaders, partnering with his clients to achieve the outcomes they seek for themselves and for their businesses.