Culture – This Is How We Do Things

Part 4 in our Change Management Considerations series

See Part 1 – Change Management – What Is It?

See Part 2 – The Nature of People – How Does It Affect What We Do?

See Part 3 – Perceptions – The Unreal Truths

Culture – the rules regarding what we should do and how we should do it. 

Culture serves a valuable purpose. It is a pillar of human society. As such, it creates a framework within which human beings exist and interact. It establishes the guidelines and parameters that allow us to survive and succeed.

When we change what we are doing and/or how we are doing it, we are changing the culture.  People that work closely together, such as a project team, police the rules and chastise members who overtly change them to meet individual desires (hence, secret workarounds).  Likewise, larger groups, such as departments, also have their view of what is and is not acceptable.   In other words, people who share a similar or common objective will tend to band together and embrace common rules of engagement (some sociologists call this the ‘Tribe Syndrome’). But these rules that are being enforced are more than likely not exactly what was originally intended.

The more the rules prove inadequate for people to meet their accountabilities, the more frustrated they become. Small changes begin to emerge as adjustments are made to remove the frustrations (remember, from Part 1, Self-2 doesn’t like to be uncomfortable!). Acceptance grows within the team but is not usually made known to those outside the group. New members that join the team are frequently shocked after they bring their way of doing something into the group, and are told, without any discussion: “that’s not how we do things around here.”

The rules of engagement are what the people perceive them to be, not necessarily what was originally intended.

Adding to this interesting situation is that the rules of engagement are what the people perceive them to be, not necessarily what was originally intended. Bringing perceptions out for authentic discussion and potential modification of the rules is exceptionally difficult and very tricky. Face-to-face, group gropes, and directives don’t get it done. Expressing views that challenge the current rules upsets the equilibrium Self-2 expects!

When we believe there is nothing we can do about something, we put it on the back burner. It is what it is. We move ahead with those things we can influence. An organization’s culture tends to reside on one of those back burners. Goals are set, processes are implemented, roles are defined, directives are issued, controls are put into place – we are good to go. “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!”

We may or may not respond to changes in our perceptions based on what we see and hear.  This “on the surface” data is usually more a nuisance than anything critical. For the most part, culture management is on our back burner. 

But “under the surface,” escaping our awareness, there is a Beast in the Basement. The Beast is running rampant with a variety of changes to the ‘what’ and the ‘how’ –  creating a whole different “sub-culture.”

 Think about the last time you got reassigned. Was it anything like Bob?

Bob had enjoyed a lot of success in supporting the financial department during the implementation of a number of major changes. The distribution division of the company was in the process of implementing major changes to their system, but the outcomes so far were dismal. Bob had been reassigned to help improve the satisfaction of the distribution stakeholders with the expectation that he could work his magic there like he did with the finance people.

His first day with his new group was shocking. The team leader, Nick, seemed irritated that Bob had been transferred in and made it quite clear that he thought Bob was redundant. Nick told Bob that anything he wanted from the ‘customer’ (the Distribution Division) had to go through him. Bob was to have no direct contact without Nick’s approval.

The team members welcomed Bob – one warmly, a couple coolly, and three with a lot of body language and verbal tones that would stop a tank going downhill. 

Within seconds, Bob and his new team members had formulated strong perceptions (unreal truths) and beliefs (friend or threat) about each other.  Bob, being a newbie to the group, had considerable challenges to overcome before his skills and experiences would be fully accepted and appreciated.

Some thoughts to ponder about culture:

  • Culture is defined as “the behaviors, beliefs and characteristics of a particular social, ethnic or age group.” 
  • Our culture shapes what we think and how we think. Sometimes, it becomes difficult to separate what we think from what we are supposed to think. 
  • Our culture shapes what we value.
  • We do not see things as they are; we see things as we are. 
  • It is essential that we become more cognizant, more self-aware of our own perceptions and those of others.
  • “Cultural awareness” means not only being aware of other cultures, but our own as well. Being aware of others’ culture and customs is critical. But an equally important question to ask ourselves is, “How are our customs and practices different from those we are engaging?”

What we do and how we do it is affected by our behavior style. In Part 5 –  Behavior Styles, we look at how the culture gets contaminated and why it is viewed so differently by different people. 

Jim Stanton

Jim Stanton is the founder of Perception Management, Inc., and the creator of the Perception Analysis Methodology (PAM), a non-invasive process for the discovery and validation of the ‘ground truth’ in organizations. Jim has 51 years of experience in improving technology utilization, team building, and managing change. As COO of a $1.1B company, he reengineered global operations saving $45M annually driving internal growth revenues to $3.2B over 8 years. Jim founded 3 successful consulting firms and is an advisor to several CIOs, CEOs and start-up companies. His early career was as a physicist/mathematician developing guidance equations for the first moon landing that led to a strong focus on 'cause and effect' management approaches that work. He is certified in ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), CoBit (Control Objectives for Information and related Technology), Change Management (ODR), and Process Reengineering (CSC Index).