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Which came first, the culture or the behaviour?

Updated: Jul 12, 2022

I have heard the phrase ‘we need to change the culture here’ so many times, that I have started to ask myself if I am seeing the same things others see.

I suspect that I am not. And thank goodness. The idea of changing a culture has so many things wrong with it, so many false assumptions, that I weigh my words very carefully before embarking on a discussion of the subject.

Wherever the setting, whatever the circumstances behind the notion of culture change, be it on the shopfloor, in a management team or across the entire company, I can understand why it is such an attractive concept.

Change the culture and the outcomes we so badly need to improve will magically correct themselves.

But it never happens. Never. Not because culture change doesn’t improve outcome. I’m sure it would, if it actually took place. It doesn’t happen because cultures don’t change.

Not as a direct result of deliberately acting on the 'culture', anyway.

Which is why, when people tell me they are involved in Culture Change (note the capital c’s), I resist the urge to roll my eyes and settle in for some serious dogma control.

How, exactly, do you change a culture?

Well, maybe we change processes. We might address the prevailing attitudes of the workforce through training and employee engagement schemes. We could implement lean initiatives, streamline the Value Stream, push 5S, carry out Kaizen events, or any number of ideas that, in themselves don’t address the culture.

They change behaviours.

I can get behind the concept of adjusting our behaviour. Just look at the behaviours that are causing problems and see what can be done to optimize them.

Ask the difficult questions, such as 'why is this behaviour taking place in the first place?'

Most people do most things for the right reasons, most of the time. To think otherwise is not just unfair, it is unrealistic. People are not inherently bad. Alfred Adler said that people are neither good nor bad, they just 'are'. So why would a ‘bad’ culture exist unless in reaction to a dysfunctional environment?

Looking at behaviour rather than culture requires us to accept the fact that we are ALL behaviour-driven. We are all the same, from the shopfloor to the boardroom; suffering the same cognitive biases, emotional and physical needs as the person standing next to us.

Thinking that the culture needs to be changed is a behaviour in itself. Is it the correct behaviour under the current circumstances? Does it pre-suppose the notion of superiority in the person suggesting the need for change? If so, that’s not an attitude I would be comfortable with.

Focusing on behaviour is egalitarian. Recognising the need to change behaviour is non-judgmental, based purely on the merits of one approach over another, and that in turn is outcome-oriented – what is best for the entire organisation.

So, could it be that, as a means of avoiding this trap of blaming a culture for the ills of the business - and remember, this is not a political treatise, we are talking simply about how best to deal with issues facing a company - when someone in our team suggests the need for culture change, we could ask ourselves, or even better, ask them ‘why?’ What will we change it to? And why is that better?

We would need to be prepared for some furrowed brows. Possibly even raised voices. It’s fascinating how this subject divides. But then we could talk about what behaviours need to be examined in order to facilitate a shift in the prevailing culture, if, indeed, that is what's needed.

If nothing else, it will open up new avenues of discussion and may, eventually, lead to the kind of change we were looking for in the first place.

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