Creating Culture is Simple

By Chris Chittenden

"Learning to take hold of one's life is very difficult in a culture that values property over life."

… Haki Madhubuti (b.1942) US poet &writer

Have you ever wondered why attempts to create a constructive culture generally fail. If you have been reading our newsletter for any amount of time, no doubt you will know that I have thought about this a good deal.

After all, creating culture is simple. All you have to do is put a group of people together and wait. You do not even have to add water! In no time at all they will develop patterns of behaviour and relating and a culture is born. People who come into the group at later stage will tend to take on the culture of the group and so a culture can persist long after the original members of the group have departed.

However, what many organisational leaders seek is to create a desired culture, one that enhances the effectiveness of their organisation. If they are to be successful in achieving this then they need an understanding of what underpins culture. Clearly there are many different ideas out there defining culture. I find it useful to think of culture as a group's shared habitual patterns of thinking and acting. Therefore a shift in culture is a process of creating new habits of thinking and acting for the group. Understanding how we create habits is then critical if developing a desired culture is going to work. It is also useful to recognise that, although I am talking about shared habits, ultimately this involves individuals creating habits.

The process of creating a new habit is also simple, however clearly not easy! Habits are something we do without thinking about what we do, so the starting point in creating a new habit is to seek to establish awareness points when that habit is likely to play out in the future. Let us look at this in terms of a culture's foundations.

Any culture is built on values and we can deduce the values of a group of people by observing how they behave. For example, if the group acts in competition with each other, we can assume that "winning" is an important value for them. More often than not, these values are unspoken. They just are and they operate in the background. In our work, we distinguish between "espoused values", which are those people declare to be their values, and "values in practice", which are the values we deduce by observing people's actions.

This is also why creating a desired culture is simple but not easy. To begin with the group must espouse values that cover the spectrum of the culture they wish to create. If we use the constructive styles defined by Human Synergistics as a the basis for building a constructive culture then it makes sense to create a value for each of their constructive styles - Achievement, Self-Actualising, Humanistic-Encouraging and Affiliative. Most organisations do not do this in such a structured way. Rather certain people come together, create values from their conversations about their values but do not overtly connect them to the culture they wish to create.

The next key is to bring those values to life. This is where leadership comes into it. If an organisation's leader wants to create a desirable culture they must be accountable to hold the values at front of mind and hold others to account for them as well. They must do this again and again and again.

The most successful organisational cultural rebuilding comes when the head of the organisation understands their role and is completely committed to that process. If he or she is not then the chances of developing a desired culture is greatly undermined.

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© 2013 Chris Chittenden