Everyone talks about it – but few know what it means or how to influence it.
In this piece (extract from the Leadership & Performance Director syllabus) I give you an outline of the model I have used to explain what culture is and how we identify our own team culture and improve it.
How do we define culture?
There have been many discussions and debates on culture and it’s been the topic of a great number of books and writings too, the most recent being Daniel Coyle’s ‘The Culture Code’. Variously defined as customs, social institutions, and achievements of a particular or social behavior and norms found in human societies, in business, military and sport, culture embodies the environment, interaction and behaviors of the organization.
What exactly is culture and how do we affect it?
The Culture Iceberg
In organizations, culture is something like an iceberg, what you see (behaviors and artifacts) and what you don’t (beliefs, values, attitude). All of these can be influenced to differing degrees, but some such as beliefs are more difficult to affect.
The Foundation – Your Belief System
To understand culture, one must first understand people and their belief systems. One key way that a culture — or team — defines and distinguishes itself is through a set of ideas that are held in common. But we all think differently, we all have different belief systems – I’ve seen this first hand working with teams and people all around the world. Although shared beliefs can drive the thoughts and actions of an organization’s members in the same direction, one’s beliefs also provide a moral compass that guides everyone to make the best decisions as they see fit.
The Secret to Sustaining Success in Teams – Values
Values are the common language we connect on. In other words, people from different backgrounds and belief systems can connect and agree on common values. In relationships, casual or personal this is the most important factor for success. Think of your own personal relationships, we can be comfortable around many different people and types of people, but we are most comfortable with those whose values we admire or are most similar to ours. Sports teams such a Munster Rugby, Canterbury Crusaders or Liverpool football club all have strong cultural values. Values fundamentally dictate our attitudes and our behaviors, and those whose behaviors we admire are those whose who we wish to be with. However, if you are in a relationship where values are not similar this eventually leads to discontent, mistrust and at best uneasiness.
Values are not fixed in stone and in many organizations, we need to reinforce and encourage the values we’ve agreed on. Following are the four main ways values can be affected:
“Do as I say”—giving verbal instruction, such as, “You must treat each other with respect.” Moralizing can get quick results among those who welcome structure and respect authority, but it usually fails to win over those who like to think for themselves.
This is how many of use inherit values, we pick them up from family and friends who act in a certain way. This is a major method of influence on young players when they join a locker room, a cadet joins a military unit or any group – good or bad, people are influenced by the actions of others.
“You figure it out”—laissez-faire leadership, in which several concepts are introduced and then people are left to go their own way. Exploratory learners gravitate to this style.
“We’re going to meet to talk about our values.” This approach reiterates what the leaders believe and what the organization stands for. Clarifying can be combined with the previous three styles to great effect. Unlike with moralizing, here the group together explores and investigates what the values of the team mean to each person.
How personal culture affects your thinking – Attitudes
If beliefs help determine values, then values influence and inform attitude. If the belief that caring for others is important this elevates the value of humility, which fosters an attitude of cooperation and helpfulness. Attitude is the spirit in which members of the organization perform their tasks and interact with each other every day.
Who people see – Behavior
When you visit any family, organization or group, you’ll usually form an opinion about its culture based on two things. First is the behavior and actions of the people you meet and how they treat you. Behavior is the combination of beliefs, values, and attitude put into action. Good coaches who are strong leader’s like Scott Johnson, Sam Allardyce, Greg Popovich, Bill Belichick or Lisa Alexander all lead behavior by their example.
There are four main techniques that leaders use to mold the behavior of those they work with:
“I’m in charge, and this is how we do things.” This authoritarian technique is effective with rule followers and those who respect or even crave discipline. It’s not so effective with creative personality types and it’s short termed. Rarely effective for sustained success.
“These are the special things we do here.” Ceremonies can be a useful way to create togetherness and reinforce an “it’s us against the world” mentality, which can lead to improved effort. In great teams they elaborate on these ceremonies making them personal and unique.
“If you do this, then you’ll be rewarded.” This is an effective motivational approach for those who are extrinsically motivated, like salespeople who enjoy the challenge of chasing a quarterly bonus. However, intrinsically motivated individuals won’t need or respond well to this kind of incentive-based method.
“This is why we should behave like this, and these are the benefits.” This final tactic appeals to those who continually seek to learn more and are never satisfied with their most recent achievements.
The second thing that impacts how you perceive an organization’s culture is the artifacts you encounter. These are tangible and visual things, like the appearance of the team facilities, the uniforms of the players and staff, and the cleanliness of the locker rooms.
Bill Shankly Quote at Melwood, Liverpool FC’s Training Ground – Artifacts & Values
Risk of Undervaluing Artifacts
This area is often overlooked by teams and organizations, yet it has an important impact on a person’s perception of culture. Most of us know exactly what it means to walk into a restaurant or hotel and get a sense of the type of place it is, a feeling of what is essentially its culture. That sense comes from a com- bination of the attitude and behavior of the staff and the artifacts (the building and the items in it). Think of a time when you were eating at a restaurant where staff are rude or abrupt, perhaps not even to you but to other customers. What kind of culture did that suggest? Or what about eating somewhere where the cutlery and chairs were untidy and dirty? Again, your understanding of the culture can be influenced by moments and experiences like these.
Values & Organizational Happiness
Many people struggle in organizations or they struggle in groups or relationships for reasons they can’t simply identify, and this is put down to failure to ‘fit in’. In many instances this unhappiness is because there is a disagreement on the fundamental level of values. Remember, everyone has different belief systems, these are incredibly hard to change fully in people, but values are where good organizations find common ground and build on for sustained success and happiness. Start with values for solid and transparent relationships and these will help lead to better attitudes and behaviors for your organization.