In a recent series, I reviewed what I have learned about paradigm management and the role it plays in facilitating transformational change. A critical subset of the paradigm model I shared dealt with the interrelationship between “mindsets, behaviours, and systems.”
- Mindsets—conscious and unconscious understandings and expectations around what people hold to be true about themselves, others, and their work
- Behaviours—observable actions
- Systems—the interaction of mindsets and behaviours that have the aim of achieving an organization’s purpose
Expressed or unexpressed mindsets are reflected in particular behaviours. When they are configured and applied in a consistent manner they form systems. There are informal systems (the grapevine) and formal systems (the annual budgeting process).When these three elements of organizational life are focused on, it sheds light on a close cousin to paradigms…culture
Though there are some important distinctions, paradigm and culture are two terms with much in common—not the least of which is the fact that both have been misused, if not abused, by our profession. Like “paradigm leap,” most references to “cultural change” are misapplied in the sense that far fewer actual cultural shifts take place than our rhetoric would suggest.
Also, similar to paradigm leaps, cultural change is an important part of our profession’s conceptual foundation and nomenclature. As such, we need to protect the concept/wording and ensure it is used in the right way and under the right circumstances. We are most likely to accomplish this if we are clear ourselves about what it represents.
There isn’t one perspective on what organizational culture is or how it can be changed so I invite others to share their viewpoints. What follows are some of the lessons I’ve learned from working with clients seeking to ensure realization of key initiatives by making significant modifications in their company’s culture.
Corporate culture is an organizational self-concept similar to an individual’s personality. It develops over a long period of time, although the basic elements typically form early in an organization’s life. A company’s culture includes not only what is done, but why.
Corporate culture is typically multi-faceted and complex because it’s actually a combination of subcultures.
The culture of an organization affects the organization’s ability to change. We need to understand three characteristics of culture to see the relationship between culture and change:
- Culture is made up of mindsets and behaviours
- Culture is shared
- Culture is self-reinforcing
The Dynamics of Culture
Culture’s Two Components: Mindsets and Behaviours
An organization’s culture is lived through the mindsets and behaviours of its employees. The prevailing mindsets and behaviours of an organization help people understand what actions are considered appropriate or inappropriate. This affects daily business operations on two levels:
- On a conscious level, culture has an observable, intentional, and direct influence on things like goals, policies, procedure manuals, and corporate philosophy statements. Because they are visible, these influences may be easier to change than those that are invisible, or unconscious.
- On an unconscious level, culture has hidden, unintentional, and indirect influence on such things as informal ground rules, unofficial guidelines, or the way things actually are done vs. the formal processes. These influences are difficult to change because they lie below the surface of our awareness and/or we may be reluctant to discuss them openly.
For the most part, organizational cultures evolve unconsciously. They are generally unplanned, and they react to short-term demands, rather than according to a long-term view. Over time, mindsets and behaviours develop to meet current challenges; subsequently, the successful ones become reinforced. If, for example, a behaviour pattern of “lay low; this change will pass” is demonstrated and numerous change efforts fail to deliver on their promises, a culture of passive resistance is likely to become embedded. Eventually, mindsets and behaviours are taken for granted and become unconscious. Once this occurs, these now-familiar mindsets and behaviours are no longer questioned, becoming business as usual.
Cognitive models, values, beliefs, preferences, and attitudes combine to form mindsets—the mental and emotional structures that guide perceptions, interpretations, and actions. The fact that actions are driven by mindsets places them at the root of culture change, and explains why a focus on actions alone leads to unsustainable change.
There are two key elements of a mindset:
- Frame of reference—the way an individual makes sense of situations
- Priorities—the relative importance and value of various options
Frame of Reference
Each individual has a unique way of comprehending the world. Some people, for instance, are optimists, and focus primarily on the positive aspects of situations. Others are pessimists, and focus primarily on the negative. A person’s professional background, past experience, education, etc. all influence the way he or she views circumstances. The combination of all the various parts of an individual’s understanding of the world makes up his or her frame of reference. In organizations, consistent patterns of interpretation, supported by organizational communication, rewards, etc., lead to shared frames of reference—the basis for organizational culture.
When people encounter situations, their priorities guide what they pay attention to, what they value, and ultimately, what actions they take. People face a variety of choices as they go through their day: Should I eat lunch or exercise? Return this phone call or send an email? Take the time—or risk—to raise this issue or let it slide? The pattern of choices people make are reflections of the things they place the highest value on—the things they see as most important. The pattern of shared priorities within an organization, and, therefore, the pattern of choices made about how to spend time and energy, is another important part of the culture.
Mindsets, as interpreted through frames of reference and priorities, drive behaviours within the organization. Behaviours are observable actions that constitute the way people actually operate on a daily basis. Whereas mindsets reflect intentions that are often difficult to discern, behaviours can be verified in a more objective manner (e.g., Where do people park? Who do they talk to? How do they dress? How do they make decisions? How do they manage conflict?).
So, to summarize, mindsets are shared frames of reference that lead to shared priorities. Within an organization, they serve (along with behaviours) as foundations for understanding and influencing culture. Behaviours provide significant information, but without addressing mindsets as well, a complete understanding of the culture is impossible.
Culture Is Shared
Although the combination of these conscious and unconscious elements can be blatant or subtle, culture is always part of organizational life. It’s possible to be unclear about what a culture reinforces, but it is impossible for an organization not to have one. It provides the cohesiveness people need to function together and is conveyed through a number of practices, including the following:
- Oral and written communications, such as presentations and email
- Organizational structure, as reflected by line and staff relationships
- The way power and status are defined, both formally and informally
- What is measured and controlled, such as time, productivity, safety, and quality
- Formal policies and procedures found in employee manuals and official communications
- Reward systems, such as compensation plans and supervisory techniques
- Stories, legends, myths, rituals, and symbols, such as company heroes, award banquets, and corporate logos
- The design and use of physical facilities, including how space is allocated and furnished
While culture is shared, it is not the same across all parts of the organization—a close look will always uncover a series of subcultures. Ideally, these are consistent with one another, and with the overall organizational culture. For example, if the sales force focuses on building long-term relationships, Customer Service should not approach customer interactions as purely transactional. At the same time, in well-functioning cultures, each subculture reveals its own mindsets and behaviours that allow its members to function together, and to relate to other areas of the organization. The sales force may invest in significant face-to-face meetings with their clients in order to propose specific solutions to their needs. Customer Service, on the other hand, may work remotely to solve specific problems as expeditiously as possible.
Culture Is Self-Reinforcing
Whether the influence is unstated or overt in nature, a corporation’s cultural mindsets and behaviours serve as a powerful means for defining, justifying, and reinforcing ongoing business operations. This self-reinforcing cycle is depicted in the graphic.
Culture provides ways for people to understand important decisions. Based on this understanding, expectations develop that limit possible responses. Those responses cause people to make certain decisions and behave in accordance with those expectations, confirming and reinforcing the culture’s original patterns. This process bolsters a strong corporate identity. However, it can also restrict the introduction of new mindsets and behaviours that may contribute to success in a changing environment.