Build or burn?

Organisational culture

I used to find the term culture difficult to grasp, at least as it is applied to organisations, until I read the story about the five monkeys and a banana:

Five monkeys are in a cage with a banana suspended from a rope.  The banana is out of reach unless the monkeys climb a set of stepladders placed underneath the banana.  As soon as any of the monkeys starts to climb the step ladders the cage is sprayed with freezing water.  Pretty soon the monkeys learn to avoid climbing the stepladder.  A new monkey joins the cage.  He looks at the banana and wonders why no one is climbing for it.  As he goes towards the stepladders, one of the monkeys blocks his way and stops him.  When the new monkey asks why, he’s told ‘That’s not how we do things around here’.

Culture is behaviour.  We create a corporate culture through our own habits, rules, and preferences.  And the culture is reinforced by peer pressure, rewards and penalties, cause and effect.

Individual behaviours can quickly become embedded but patterns of behaviour can also accrete over many years.  In the monkey example, it wouldn’t take long after introducing a lot of new monkeys for the cohort of monkeys to have largely forgotten why no one touches the stepladders but the behaviour nevertheless to persist.  I once worked in an organisation where everyone sat at the same seat in the canteen during lunch.  The behaviour was so entrenched that if you tried sitting in someone else’s seat the ‘owner’ would arrive with their lunch and stand next to you waiting for you to leave, even if there are empty seats elsewhere.

Understanding how culture works is important if you want to change it.  The very first thing to realise is that words will not change culture.  New behaviour is the only thing that will change it.  This means that all those executives standing in front of a crowd explaining some change that is planned are fooling themselves if they think exhortation alone will do the trick.  Actions alone are what matter when it comes to culture.  If someone says they are going to get tougher on, say, people arriving late to work, and they don’t take consistent action with late-comers, you can be sure people will continue to arrive late.

Disciplinary action is the fastest way I know to change a culture.  Find someone displaying a bad behaviour you want to change and tell them they will be sacked if they continue, and then sack them if they continue.  Apply this consistently and it will not take long to break even the most established behaviour.

This illustrates two other features of how culture works.  The first is that the leader of a team, by virtue of being in charge, has a disproportionate ability to make and change the culture of their teams.   They set the rules and people watch their actions more closely than those of anyone else.  The second aspect is that culture is transmitted by story-telling.  One of the first things anyone told me about the organisation with the canteen seat problem was that everyone around here sits in the same seat, even though the story-tellers all thought the behaviour was bad.   In the example where we sacked the person displaying the bad behaviour we want to change, you would not need to make any announcement.  The story of the person’s sacking would spread quickly enough, especially if the person was prominent in the organisation.

Several times in my career I’ve encountered an organisational culture that was severely dysfunctional, displaying multiple poor behaviours and failings as a result.  I thought of these as an organisation or department with Sick Culture Syndrome.  I have often embarked on a programme of change, often with naïve optimism about my ability to change, or the speed with which I could achieve change.  I’ve learned that sick cultures are impossible to coax and persuade to change.  They won’t.  Their culture is too entrenched.  The people inside are too attached to their behaviours and have lost the ability to change, even if they recognise their culture is damaging.   There is only one way to deal with these situations.  To spell it out, the culture won’t change until key people leave.

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