A Different Look at Culture

By Chris Chittenden

"Education is the methodical creation of the habit of thinking.”

… Ernest Dimnet (1866 - 1954) French cleric

Organisational culture is a subject that has been explored in great detail by a wide array of theorists over time. As a result, much thought has been put into a definition of 'organisational culture'. Generally culture is seen to be about behaviour and what defines acceptable behaviour within an organisation. As Human Synergistics speak about it in their white paper, 'What is Culture?'

"It is about behaviour. It is about behavioural norms. It is about the messages people take from their work context about how they should do their jobs and interact with each other. It is about the expectations for behaviour established through organisational structures, systems, technologies, communication processes and leadership practices."

Ultimately they come to a definition of culture as:

The shared values, norms and expectations that govern the way people approach their work and interact with each other."

Although I am in general agreement with how Human Synergistics defines culture, in my mind, there is one thing missing. And, I believe it is a critical thing. It is the idea that our behaviour is habitual.

"Why did you do that?" is a commonly heard question. Although it seems innocuous enough in itself, this question presupposes something. It presupposes that the behaviour in question was intentional. Is this a valid assumption to make? The short answer is that it is not. Most of our behaviour is habitual and is born of instinct and past experience. Our predispositions to action live in our structure and wait to be triggered. Rather than acting with intent we act to take care our concerns such as safety, status, certainty, autonomy, relationships and fairness. When we take care of our concerns we are attracted to those situations that will enhance what is important to us and defend ourselves from those which we assess may harm us. It is why we get angry or scared or feel joy. Without intervention our habitual responses to a given situation will simply play out. Anger will lead to an aggressive response, fear will lead us to avoidance and so on.

In my view this is one of the key planks of culture - our habitual ways of relating. It is not just about behavior but habitual behaviour. So if we want to evolve a culture, it is not enough to be exposed to better ways of behaving, we have to go through a process of habit creation. How do we do that?

The only thing that stands in the way of simply acting out habitual responses is our consciousness. Human consciousness is vast topic in itself but for the sake of keeping to the point, we can see human consciousness as awareness of something in language. Compared to what we perceive, very little of it finds its way in to our awareness. The key to building new habits is to identify what they might be and then find ways of creating awareness - choice points - when old habits might kick in such that we can choose a different path.

If a habit building process is linked and aligned with a process of building a cultural narrative then there is a real chance for a cultural evolution. All that is required to make this work is a fully engaged organisational leader, but that is another story for another time.

More articles on Culture

© 2016 Chris Chittenden