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Culture – the by product of consistent behaviour

A friend of mine took up running during her lunch break. What’s strange about that you may ask? Getting some exercise is good for you as a general thing, and during the lunch break, could be a good way to give yourself more energy and vitality during the afternoon. Well, she’s not really the running type, and the reason she took it up? She hates her colleagues so much, she’d prefer running to get away from the office so she could spend less time with them.

My favourite definition of culture is that it is the by product of consistent behaviour.[1] So what is going on in that workplace, consistently, to make someone prefer to take up an exercise they wouldn’t ordinarily be motivated to do? And what is my friend’s behaviour, going out alone at lunchtime instead of socialising with colleagues, what is her behaviour saying to her peers and bosses? It’s likely she would have developed a better understanding of her colleagues, and they of her, if she’d invited them along; shared activities are one way to develop good workplace relationships.[2]

I’ve worked in offices where staff were managed through control and fear. I remember one manager who told me, with some pride in her voice, that everyone who she had assessed as underperforming at their annual appraisal had gone on to leave the organisation. It apparently didn’t occur to her to wonder why people who had previously been good at their jobs were now underperforming. Or consider whether she had some responsibility for that.

I worked for a manager who kept all the information to himself, only sharing what he thought was necessary, and expected tasks to be completed how he wanted them done. Unsurprisingly, staff waited for approval before doing anything, and rarely showed initiative.

Sports Direct have come in for a lot of flak over their employment practices, but I’d like to pick out just one. Staff at their warehouse in Derbyshire are reported to be expected to submit to searches before and after leaving work to make sure they aren’t stealing the stock.[3] Trust comes up regularly as a key to good leadership, but why would an employee trust a leader who clearly doesn’t trust them? And if you’re judged untrustworthy, what are the chances you’ll try to live up to that expectation? Oh, and you’re not paid for the time you spent waiting to be searched. How likely is that employee to put themselves out for an employer who treats them with such disregard?

There is some good news though, it is possible to make changes for the better. A care home in Essex was one of the subjects of the scandal exposed by a Panorama programme, a couple of years ago, where elderly residents were routinely treated with abuse. Some staff were dismissed and prosecuted, but the new owners faced a major task to stamp out such behaviour. By adopting behaviours that model what good care is: the acronym KCR, meaning kindness, comfort and respect, was introduced in July 2014, the culture at the home has been transformed. “We said if we’re going to get everybody working in the same way and we’re going to really drive through … how we do things around here, unite everybody, we need to call it something,” “And it’s not just about how we treat the residents, it’s about how we treat each other as well.”[4]

But change is tricky. How do we change our consistent behaviour? Habits are hard to change. Research shows that it takes about two months to embed a new behaviour, and it’s best to only change one thing at a time. So what’s our motivation for making the effort?

There’s a growing awareness of the importance of workplace culture. There’s tons of research that shows people are more productive when they’re happy. When they’re not stressed. When they eat healthy food and get some exercise. When they see the bigger purpose of their work. When they have some mastery and autonomy over what they do. Not only are they more productive, but they are off sick less often, they are more likely to stay in their job.

So sure, change is tricky, but if you want your business to thrive, or even to survive, you will need to embrace it.

I’ll leave you with one final question – how is your behaviour impacting on your workplace, and is that creating the kind of culture you want?

Leave me a comment below, what changes do you think you could make?



[1] Fried, Jason and Hansson, David Heinemeier. 2010. Rework. Random House Group Limited, Chatham

[2] Friedman, Ron PhD, 2014. The Best Place to Work. The Art and Science of Creating an Extraordinary Workplace. Perigree, Penguin Group, New York

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/business/2015/dec/09/how-sports-direct-effectively-pays-below-minimum-wage-pay

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2016/jun/09/care-home-tv-investigation-panorama-turned-around

About the Author Lindsay Milner

Lindsay is the owner of Silvern Training. Before that she had a very varied working life, doing everything from admin, volunteering, sales, teaching, training, fundraising, management and chairing a board of charity trustees. Now wants to change the world of work by improving workplace cultures so that people can look forward to Monday mornings. Also likes to support individuals to speak up, be better listeners and to take action.

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2 comments
Tori Ryan says 26th September 2016

Very well written and succinct article. I really like the examples used as they clearly demonstrate lots of different behaviours that all impact on the work place culture in a negative way and the positive example of the care home is uplifting.
I struggle with the changing of culture though. Here it says that to change a culture the same positive behaviour will need to be displayed for two months to embed it. Is this really the responsibility of the individual if they are a lone voice? If you have a team you are unhappy with and a management structure you are unhappy with can you really change a culture as an individual.
Is it the responsibility of the management, organisation or team to change the culture? If so how do you help people recognise that the culture needs changing as generally it is feed down to the work force. If management is resistant to change as that culture is what they want it is difficult to break down these barriers.
However recognising that all of our behaviours impact on the culture, as this article suggests, does make you feel more empowered to be able to either change the culture or at the very least to not dance to the tune of a bad culture. Recogising how your own coping mechanisms can impact further on an already questionable culture can help guide how you behave.

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Lindsay Milner says 30th September 2016

Hi Tori

Thanks for your comments, it’s interesting to get another perspective and you raise some important questions.

You ask if it the responsibility of management, the organisation or team, and rightly question whether an individual, a lone voice, can really change a culture.

I’m not trying to suggest that any of this is easy, it’s incredibly difficult. And if you are a lone voice with no power or authority within a toxic work environment, then no, realistically, you’re not going to make a significant difference. You do then have to come up with strategies to deal with it, and perhaps I’ll give this some consideration in a future post.

It definitely helps if the drivers for change come from top of the organisation. If, as in the case of Sports Direct, it seems that the ethos of the whole organisation needs to change, then yes, everyone from the board and the CEO need to lead this change. In other places, it may be that it is just one department or team, or one manager, then again it is better if the driver is the leader of that department, team, or the individual manager. However, as we’ve recognised, change is difficult, so that leader will most likely need some support to implement those changes. That may be from within the organisation, or perhaps outside support, for example executive coaching. It is also possible that with correct handling, a team member or group of staff can effect change.

Ultimately, we can only change ourselves, which is why I like to focus on what we can do as individuals. However, if we can motivate our managers and leaders to want change too, by helping them to realise that their current behaviour is not achieving the best results for their organisation, whether that is private, public or voluntary sector, then I count that as a great result.

Which brings me to your question – how do you do that? Well, that’s another tricky one! It’s all about communication. Finding a way to bring it to their attention, finding a way to their motivation. I’m not even going to pretend I can answer that question in a short comment, because what will work for one person, won’t work for another. We use the DISC and other assessment tools to work that out when we work with an organisation.

Thanks again for your thoughts on this subject. I will come back soon with a post on coping strategies for team members working in poor cultures where there doesn’t seem to be a willingness to change, as you’ve identified a key issue.

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