If you work with a group of people, any group of people, you will find yourself immersed in a culture. Although many people might tell you otherwise, it cannot be any other way. Creating a culture is actually relatively simple. All you have to do is put a group of people together and wait. In no time at all they will develop patterns of behaviour and relating and hey presto, a culture is born. People who come into the group at a later stage will tend to take on the culture of the group and so a culture can persist long after the original members of the group have departed.
This is alright for a while until it comes time to doing things a little differently, (which let’s face it, is almost every minute of the day in our current times). And that’s where leaders are faced with a level of resistance. The typical response to this resistance is to endeavour to ‘spice things up’ by developing a more desirable culture through a series of outside-in change management techniques to support the direction that the organisation wishes to take. However, as many leaders discover, the challenge is not simply about introducing a new ‘bolt-on’ way of operating; it involves overcoming entrenched, systemic and habitual ways of thinking and behaving which create incredible inertia across the system.
There are many definitions of organizational culture that have been put forward by management theorists over time which generally speak to the psychology, attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values (personal and cultural values) of an organisation. An organisation is simply a community of people formed to deliver a specific outcome in a given context, which we call culture. Think about this for a moment: Whilst an organisation has strategies, goals, systems, processes, policies and machinery, they are all designed, and operated, by people. Whatever an organisation’s vision or purpose may be, nothing gets done in any situation without a conversation, either verbally or in writing between individuals. The quality of the conversation impacts on the quality of the relationship and ultimately creates patterns of thinking, emoting and behaving which either enhance or exacerbate performance. Given that people generally don’t spend a great deal of time, if any, reflecting on how they think and feel, particularly in an organisational context, these patterns are typically habitual.
Let’s put this into context. “Why did you do that?” is a commonly heard question. Although it seems innocuous enough in itself, this question presupposes something. It presupposes that the behaviour in question was intentional. Is this a valid assumption to make? The short answer is no it isn’t. Most of our behaviour is habitual and is born of instinct and past experience. Our predispositions for action live in our ‘structure’ and wait to be triggered. Rather than acting with intent, we act to take care of our concerns such as safety, status, certainty, security, approval and control. When we take care of our concerns we are attracted to those situations that will enhance what is important to us and defend ourselves from those which we assess may harm us. Without intervention, our habitual responses to a given situation will simply play out time and again. Anger will lead to an aggressive response; fear will lead us to avoidance and so on.
These habitual ways of behaving are one of the key linchpins of culture. If we want to evolve culture, it is not enough to be exposed to a series of techniques for behaviour improvement; we have to go through a process of conscious habit creation. The key to building new habits is to identify what they might be and then find ways of creating awareness – choice points – when old habits might kick in such that we can choose a different path. If a habit-building process is linked and aligned with a process of building a cultural narrative then there is a real chance for cultural evolution.
Understanding how we create these habits is critical if developing a context for performance and a deliberate culture is going to work. A shift in culture is a process of creating new habits of thinking and acting within the group. Although we are referring to shared habits in this context, ultimately this involves the habits of individuals.
Human beings, by nature, use their emotions and language to develop interpretations about what is happening so they can make sense of their world. They then share some of their interpretations with others. We define these interpretations as ‘stories’ and ‘narratives’ and organisations are full of them. We use these stories to determine what is going to be good or bad for the future, both long term and short term, and to make decisions as to what action to take, or not take in any given situation. Those stories ultimately become the unwritten rules of the organisation and ‘the way we do things around here’. Of course, how these stories came into existence is often long forgotten but they continue to manifest as a pattern of action and behaviour that we experience as a culture. The creation of a new culture is fundamentally about the creation of new stories and habits that are aligned with how a community wants to relate to each other.
Understanding the habitual ways of behaving and the stories across the organisation is critical as a first step in constructing and intentional culture.