Culture made easy

Culture would arguably be the most discussed, least understood topic on the planet. There’s no disputing it’s a hot topic in workplaces right now.

With literally thousands of books on the subject, each suggesting their own take on workplace cultures, it’s understandable how it has become a hard to concept to define.

But let’s make it really simple. Rather than look at culture the sum of many things - which it most certainly is - let’s look at culture in it’s most basic form to gain an understanding.

A culture is a consistent set of behaviours in a given context.

Pretty simple eh? So let’s go further. How about we break this definition down into it’s two key elements.

A consistent set of behaviours

Behaviours are things you can directly observe. They aren't things like integrity, respect and accountability. Those are traits. Traits are a singular word, phrase or label to describe a combined set of behaviours. Consider the following to see the difference between these terms;

Integrity (trait) - delivering a completed project on the due date (behaviour)

Respect (trait) - speaking to all levels of employees the same way (behaviour)

Accountability (trait) - providing a detailed reconciliation statement of expenses (behaviour)

Although we’ve just identified one behaviour that might be present within a particular trait, there is likely to be many behaviours - dozens or possibly hundreds within each trait. So why the distinction between traits and behaviours? We actually can’t observe a trait in action, only the behaviours. And a universal truth across all cultures; we judge each other on our behaviours rather than our intent. Behaviours are king when it comes to building culture.

Cultures are only strong when people understand the consistent behaviours required to belong. The problem? Too many workplaces have a set of traits on the wall, yet have a different set of behaviours on the floor.

In a given context 

We all act differently in different situations. For example we act and talk quite differently when we play with our kids versus when we sit down for a cup of tea with our 90 year old Grandmother. It’s not being inauthentic, it’s being human.

Establishing context is vitally important to marry the behaviours. Perhaps you want your staff to argue like crazy in the planning room to drive an innovation culture, but then ‘keep it in house’ and present a united front when in a pitch meeting to a prospective client? Most likely. Imagine how your prospective client would feel if two of your team got into a robust disagreement in front of them! Two different contexts; they require two different sets of behaviours.

Now at this point you might be questioning, ‘but isn’t this culture stuff simply the latest fad? Isn’t it going to die off soon?’. Quite simply, no it isn’t.

Corporate anthropologist Michael Henderson in his latest book Above the Line suggests culture isn’t the latest business trend, business is simply the latest culture trend. Remember culture has been around since the dawn of mankind. A trip into our nation’s Top End will show you representations of an ancient culture unbroken and carried on for approximately 50,000 years. Modern business on the other hand has only really been around for the past couple of centuries. The discussion about workplace culture isn’t going to die off anytime soon.

So if you are looking to drive a certain culture in your workplace, it’s really simple in it’s design, but requires effort in the application.

1.  Define the behaviours that will be encouraged and celebrated.

2.  Establish the no-go behaviours (we call them the non-negotiables) people should never do.

3.  Attach these behaviours to the context in which it occurs.

4. Lead the way by ensuring you model this process.

By following these four straight forward, but effort-filled steps, you’ve started the process of steering a culture rather than having one exist as a default.