Is it Possible to Change a Culture? If so, how?

Culture change is a term used in public policy making that emphasizes the influence of cultural capital on individual and community behavior. It has been sometimes called repositioning of culture, which means the reconstruction of the cultural concept of a society. It places stress on the social and cultural capital determinants of decision making and the manner in which these interact with other factors like the availability of information or the financial incentives facing individuals to drive behavior.

These cultural capital influences include the role of parenting, families and close associates; organizations such as schools and workplaces; communities and neighborhoods; and wider social influences such as the media. It is argued that this cultural capital manifests into specific values, attitudes or social norms which in turn guide the behavioral intentions that individuals adopt in regard to particular decisions or courses of action. These behavioral intentions interact with other factors driving behavior such as financial incentives, regulation and legislation, or levels of information, to drive actual behavior and ultimately feed back into underlying cultural capital.

In general, cultural stereotypes present great resistance to change and to their own redefinition. Culture, often appears fixed to the observer at any one point in time because cultural mutations occur incrementally. Cultural change is a long-term process. Policymakers need to make a great effort to improve some basics aspects of a society’s cultural traits.

The four main ways to influence culture

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In the centre of THE diagram is a cycle of four elements: behaviours; symbols; leadership; stories. I suspect these are the key “elements” that go to make up a culture. And therefore, if you want to change a culture you need to act on each of these elements. Let’s look at each in turn.

1. Behaviours

The behaviours I’m talking abut here are the “group norms” we see. What time do people get into work? Do they feel compelled to stay late? Is there an assumption that everyone has read an email five minutes after it’s been sent? Do people turn up to meetings on time – or is the culture such that you can come ten minutes late?

But I think they can also include such things as:

  • How we speak about people when they’re not there.
  • How we speak to people and treat them when they’ve done something wrong.
  • Whether we keep silent and do nothing when we see something happening that’s wrong.

Anyway, I suspect you get the idea. “Behaviours” is basically “the way we do things around here”.

So, if you want to change culture you need to start changing the “normed” behaviours. And that’s all about a critical mass of people, it’s about examples, it’s about doing things differently.

2. Symbols

Symbols are profoundly important in our modern life: even as we tell ourselves that we are post-Enlightenment humans and not susceptible to that stuff. (If you doubt me, just notice all the rich iconography in your local shopping mall next time you’re there).

Symbols are the things we see that mean something to us – either deliberate or unintentional. Years ago, I worked at a company that measured your status by the number of ceiling tiles in your office – a great symbol of a hierarchical culture.

Common symbols might include:

  • What does the client reception area of your office look like – what message is it trying to deliver?
  • What’s highlighted on your intranet site. Eg how easily can I find the values statements compared to how easily I can find this week’s sales report.

What happens to a good sales person if they’re found to breach compliance requirements?

3. Leadership

I almost chose to leave this one out – because I suspect leadership expresses itself in behaviours, stories and symbols. In short, it’s going to be hard to get culture change unless the leadership buys in.

4. Stories

The stories we tell ourselves profoundly influence the culture of our organisation. Those stories can be explicit or more implicit. Overarching stories help us make sense of our world – they can give us a “schema” into which to place things. As such they will help us explain events and make meaning. Helpfully, or unhelpfully.

For example, I wonder what the prevailing story is in traditional newspaper organisations right now? I suspect the story being told is one of industry decline and disruption. That would make for an interesting culture in most newsrooms.

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