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3 Simple Questions to set Team Culture

"Culture eats strategy for breakfast"

I am certain that you have all heard these famous words before. There is little doubt that teams with a great culture outperform teams with a poor or dysfunctional culture.

Research from Kotter and Professor James Heskett, published in their book Corporate Culture and Performance clearly demonstrated the benefits of a focus on culture across a broad range of fiscal and non-fiscal categories.

Source: Forbes Article: Does corporate culture drive financial performance? by Kotter

These statements are often then qualified with complaints about how difficult it is to change or shift an organisation's culture. I recall with explicit detail the conversation I had with one executive that said she would prefer to try to shift the Sydney Harbour Bridge than to try to shift the culture of her organisation.

In today's article I will be exploring why changing culture is so difficult and will pose the question about whether we are making it more difficult than it needs to be.

Why culture is difficult to shift

At the root of the problem are our needs as human beings. As illustrated in William Glasser's Choice Theory humans have 5 fundamental needs:

  1. Survival - which stimulates our Fight; Flight or Freeze thinking and drives an element of tribalism. The thought process with tribalism comes from our belief that we have a greater chance of survival in numbers.

  2. Love & Belonging - this desire for love & belonging will often lead to high levels of social conformity and for people to do things that may be incongruent to their beliefs (more on this below)

  3. Power - this term can be misconstrued but when you read Glasser's full text it can be best explained as the need to be seen and the need to matter.

  4. Fun - we humans do have a need for fun and our brain rewards us with the release of dopamine to encourage to do more of this (note: sometimes we forget this)

  5. Freedom - Glasser equates freedom to be both freedom of choice AND freedom from oppression. We like to have our hands on the steering wheel of our lives. Even when we do follow a leader or a group we like to believe that we made our own choice to do so. Freedom from oppression tells us that we just plain don't like being told what to do.

If we ignore these fundamental human needs, any attempt to change the culture and behaviours of our teams and organisations will be doomed to failure.

Let's start with this need for survival, with tribalism and with the need for love and belonging. Multiple studies have shown the power of social conformity. The famous Asch experiment illustrates this perfectly. In this experiment 6 individuals are asked a simple question where they are shown lines on a piece of cardboard and asked to identify which line is the same length as the reference line. In each case the correct answer is obvious. The setup of the experiment has 5 of the 6 participants being actors and only 1 participant being the subject of the experiment. Initially, the actors give the correct answer. After a few cycles all of the actors start giving a blatantly wrong answer, but in uniformity. The subject then proceeds to also give the blatantly wrong answer at a surprisingly high frequency. The takeaway from this experiment is that we should never underestimate the power of this need for love and belonging. In many cases, a person's need for love & belonging and to not be the odd one out may outweigh their need to be right.

Another example is a social experiment conducted by Brain Games in an eye doctor's waiting room. In this case there is a room of 10 patients where 1 is the subject of the experiment and 9 are actors. An audible beep is played in the room and 9 actors commence to stand up. Within 3 beeps, the subject also starts to stand up on the beep without ever questioning why. As the experiment continues all of the actors leave the room one by one until the subject is the only one remaining. Sure enough, on the next beep the subject is still standing up with no understanding why they are doing it. This further compounds in the next stage. New subjects are introduced into the doctor's waiting room with the original subject. 1 by 1, new subjects also start standing up on the beep and following the example of the original subject.

Consider these 2 experiments in light of changing the culture in your organisation and you will begin to see the difficulty. Here, we have seemingly intelligent people that are finding it more important to "fit in" than to be "right" (Asch) or to "ask why they are doing something" (brain games). In your own organisations how many times do you see people that are just doing things because that is the "way we do it around here" but have no living memory as to why? Do you see examples where people just go along with the crowd and not speak up because they don't want to be the one that rocks the boat?

Decide what culture you want

Before we explore how we might break that chain of social conformity we first should consider what kind of culture we would like. A good resource for this is to start with Hofstede's 5 Basic Dilemmas. Where on the spectrum do we want to be on the following contrasts?:

  1. Hierarchy vs Equality

  2. Individualism vs Collectivism

  3. Performance vs Caring

  4. Uncertainty avoidance vs Let it be

  5. Flexibility vs Discipline

You can replace these dimensions with other questions but you do need to make some clear decisions about your values and the type of culture you would like to create. There are no right or wrong answers per se, but you do need to choose. You may wish to create a "win at all cost" culture or you may wish to create a culture based on long term growth through the power of looking after your people. You may decide that psychological safety is the key tenet of the culture you want to create. The key here is to make some clear choices and then stick with them.

3 simple questions

The question I pose to you today is whether we are overthinking how challenging cultural change can be. To make it more effective do we actually need to simplify our approach.

My proposition is to break this down into 3 simple questions:

  1. What behaviour are we explicitly rewarding?

  2. What behaviour are we tolerating?

  3. What behaviour are we NOT tolerating?

Despite the phenomena of social conformity and the power described above, human beings are also adaptable and learn quickly. If they can see through evidence what behaviour is being rewarded in the organisation, and by the group they are so eager to have belonging with, they will soon start to adapt their behaviour to suit. Seeking out that reward and seeking out their need to continue to belong as the team evolves to this new reward. If you want to achieve a better work/life balance in your team, stop rewarding those that work all hours in crisis mode to get things done and start rewarding those that are uber-focused and productive and get their work done during "normal" hours. If you want to create psychological safety, reward and encourage those that speak up in a way that everyone else sees it.

People are equally watching what behaviour is tolerated. When a behaviour is tolerated it signals an implicit acceptance of that behaviour. If that behaviour is incongruent with the values you espouse most people will react in a binary way. One group will also accept this behaviour and start mimicking it themselves. The other groups will be appalled by that behaviour; be appalled that management did nothing about it; and will start heading for the door. By attrition, those that are "okay" with that behaviour will soon outnumber those that were appalled.

The counter-balance to what is tolerated is what is not tolerated. Make it crystal clear to the whole organisation the type of behaviour that is not tolerated. Then, in the event of a breach of that behaviour, stick true to your word and act. Being careful with both privacy and legal bounds, you may also benefit from ensuring everyone is aware that this breach occured and that it is not acceptable.


In summary, I would like to conclude that organisational change is not easy and that human nature and our fundamental need for survival and love & belonging are working against us. That we should never underestimate the power of social conformity. However, I am also proposing that we may be over-complicating the issue and that we may be able to get those same needs for survival and love & belonging to work for us instead of against us. That the simplest approach may be to pay careful attention to the behaviours we are rewarding, tolerating and not tolerating.

Would love to hear your thoughts.

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