Behaviors – The Key to Culture & Bias

Behaviors – The Key to Culture & Bias

By Stephanie on November 1, 2019 in Behaviors, Culture, Education, People

Culture & Behaviors

A few years ago, another consultant and I were discussing the use of the word “culture” to explain, describe or define workplaces, probably in the context of trying to change a culture. 

I think he said you can’t change culture and I said you can.  To others it may have sounded like we were disagreeing (and for a while we may not have been sure ourselves).  But as we continued the conversation over email, it was clear we were basically in agreement, just using words differently.  The key words were “culture” and “behaviors.” 

So let’s maybe start with definitions:

Culture – the best definition I’ve found, that is particularly helpful here, is from Clifford Geertz, an anthropologist

Culture is “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves.”

And from

Behaviors are actions, activities or processes which can be observed or measured.

When I was talking with him, I was working from my past research that culture is unconscious and it works at the implicit level.

Here’s a personal story.  In a former job, I was working on a major initiative – lots of change was happening and it was well designed and the right thing for the company.  I was assigned to the project as the organizational change consultant and my coworkers (who would be more impacted by the change than I) were telling stories about how it was not going to work, based on past experiences.  In listening to the stories, it became clear that there were behaviors underlying the stories.  So we identified and worked on changing those behaviors as part of the “change management.”  The change was still really challenging and slower to succeed than we wanted, but at least we narrowed it down to something observable and more manageable.  From my experience, plus some research I did at the time, the strategy to change a culture needs to start by making what is unconscious and implicit (culture) more conscious and explicit (behaviors). 

My fellow consultant was saying the same thing, but he was so frustrated by people not understanding that culture change is really being about behavior that he shut down a bit when I started talking about culture.  We were both right.

Here’s another perspective from the NYT, Sunday Business section, October 29, 2017, Adam Bryant, How to Be The Big Boss, this time talking about values and culture.  First, Michel Feaster, the chief of Usermind (a tech firm):    

“The best cultural lists are the behaviors you want to cultivate,” she said. “The problem with values like respect and courage is that everybody interprets them differently. They’re too ambiguous and open to interpretation. Instead of uniting us, they can create friction.”

Next, from Tae Hea Nahm, managing director of Storm Ventures (a venture capital firm): 

“No matter what people say about culture, it’s all tied to who gets promoted, who gets raises and who gets fired,” he said. “You can have your stated culture, but the real culture is defined by compensation, promotions and terminations. Basically, people seeing who succeeds and fails in the company defines culture. The people who succeed become role models for what’s valued in the organization, and that defines culture.”

And it turns out, this is kind of related to Cognitive Behavioral Therapy where people work to understand the thoughts and feelings that influence behaviors.

At work, we focus on the behaviors – they are visible. Behaviors are how culture “shows up.” So if you can change the behaviors, you can change the culture. And then maybe their thoughts and feelings will change too.

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