By Michel Hogan
In the laboratory, scientists take a rigorous approach to growing cultures. Aware the environment around them has many species that can pollute early efforts, they maintain sterile equipment and scrupulously clean workspaces. They use the right media to optimise growth (plates, test tube or liquid), ensure the ideal temperature to promote incubation and regularly feed their culture to establish it.
These essential tools of cultivation are also valid for an organisation’s culture.
Early on, the group filters out external influences they don’t want and starts to choose the tone and structure for the organisation — socially conscious, bullish, collaborative or command and control driven. Beliefs and behaviours become visible. And as time passes and the group grows, those things are reinforced and rewarded and become further embedded.
Enter the fantastic struggle many organisations face: how to shift an entrenched culture? With so-called problem cultures back on the front pages, it’s a timely question.
In Robert Greene’s mammoth undertaking The Laws of Human Nature (pages 416-417), he cautions:
“Better to be aware and realise that the larger the group and the more established the culture over time, the more likely it will control you than the other way around.”
A sobering reality, especially for leaders who step into a group expecting to exert their will and install a new way of being. Green further notes: “Leaders who enter a group will often find themselves completely absorbed by this culture, even though they might think of altering it.”
Anyone working with and around organisations for decades will recognise this pattern. The new person arrives and talks about how they want to do things, and early on it might seem like change is afoot. Then before long, the pull of the group has exerted itself, and the new person is sucked into the swirl of how we do things around here.
There is an unwritten code in play, and no matter what people say, things feel and work differently. Green suggests: “Don’t pay too much attention to what the group says about itself, but rather examine its actions and the emotional tone that prevails within.”
Culture grows the way you feed it. If the way things are done, if what people value and how that makes them feel is constantly reinforced and rewarded (fed), then the culture will continue to grow that way.
I’ve often described culture as the visible face of the brand. Brand is a result, and the elements which deliver it are shaped by culture. The promises you make and keep are an outcome of your culture. The experience people have with your organisation is an outcome of your culture.
Thinking you can achieve a different result without considering your culture and how you’re feeding it is like the scientist in the lab ignoring the basic tools of cultivation. And all the strategy, planning and good intentions will fail if they aren’t supported by ‘how people do things around here’.
Can you even change a culture? Evidence suggests it is an uphill battle at best, but thinking about what you feed it is a good place to start.
How are you feeding your culture?
First published on SmartCompany on Feb 5, 2019.
Michel Hogan is an Independent Brand Counsel advising organisations on the risk to their purpose and values of making promises they can’t keep.