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Stop Blaming Your Culture

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To understand your culture, you need to pay close attention to its quiet, sometimes hidden, manifestations, such as the side conversations in the hallways, the informal consultations behind closed doors, and the incisive guidance that people get when they ask one another for advice. It is also evident in the formal lines of the organization chart and the ways in which directives are worded. Cultures can be diagnosed best by the work behaviors they promote. Do people collaborate easily? Do they make decisions individually or in groups? Are they open with their information? Do they reflect on successes and failures and learn from them?

The Power of Behavior Change

The notion that behavior change leads to attitude change can be traced back to the 1950s, to psychologist Leon Festinger and his theory of cognitive dissonance. Festinger argued that when people are induced to act in new ways, even if those new behaviors feel unfamiliar or wrong at first, their need for consistency will gradually affect the way they think and feel. They will seek out reasons to justify their new actions — both rationally and emotionally.

Behavior change affects attitudes most powerfully when it is supported by empirical evidence and real-life observation of better results. Direct experience trumps the old beliefs of an established culture. If that experience is reinforced by a group of people, then it is far easier to change a culture than most people believe. But you must focus on changing the behavior rather than engaging with the culture directly.

In emphasizing behavior, you are looking for those few actions, conducted again and again, that will lead to better values (and thus to better results). Make clear the distinctions among the values you want to develop, the one-time actions you are changing, and the recurring behaviors you hope to instill. A commitment to service, for example, is a value. When a retail salesperson expresses that value by helping a customer exchange a purchase, that’s an action. When the salesperson does this routinely, knowing that over time it will help solidify customer loyalty to the store, it’s a behavior. Similarly, frugality in government is a value. When a prime minister flies on a commercial airline once (as U.K. leader David Cameron did to the U.S. in July 2010, shortly after his election), that’s an action. When the prime minister does this consistently, as Singapore leader Lee Hsien Loong does, that’s a behavior — and it is likely to have much more cultural impact.

Thus, if you are seeking more accountability, identify the types of ongoing behavior that embody that value. You might have to be specific: “I expect you to read, record, and respond to every customer complaint — and I will reward or penalize you accordingly.”

These new behaviors can be startlingly simple. Years ago, Shell Oil Company (a subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell PLC) had a reliability problem in the global refinery system. It was traced back to the safety and quality control processes, which were designed at the central office but not followed consistently at the refineries. Instead of launching a broad accountability initiative, a peer group of managers convinced the executive leaders to institute one new behavior. Before initiating any new process, central office managers had to ask local people how they could best introduce it. That simple behavior change, conducted by just a handful of corporate executives, ensured consistent implementation of the new process.

Repeated behaviors have cultural impact because they are contagious. People unconsciously imitate what they see others do. This is particularly true among respected colleagues; mutual respect is a powerful source of influence. Even small changes in behavior, if they are picked up by more than one individual, can ripple through an organization as others see their value and begin to act accordingly.

In moving people to change behaviors, you will need to rely on both rational arguments and emotional appeal. On the rational side, you need to make a case for change: Here’s why this particular behavior is needed. Help people recognize, for example, how the new behaviors will support the firm’s business strategy, will improve customer retention rates, or will be received by Wall Street analysts.

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