Why Culture Matters

The definition of culture in the Merriam-Webster dictionary is: the beliefs, customs, arts, etc., of a particular society, group, place, or time. Although accurate, I find this definition lacking, as it does not begin to reveal the scope of its importance or influence on those within it. My definition of culture would be something like this: The powerful and often unseen deterministic force that drives the behavior of those within it.

Whether we like it or not, the cultures we inhabit tend to have a greater influence on what we do, like, and become than we realize. We all like to think of ourselves as individuals governed by our own thoughts and desires, but the truth is, outside forces are impacting us every minute of everyday, and usually outside of our own conscious awareness.

We like to think ‘we are who we are’ and that we can predict how we would behave in any set of circumstances with reasonable certainty. If I asked you if you would cheat on a test where you are paid one dollar for each correct answer, you would likely be pretty certain that the answer you gave to that question (whether you would cheat or not) would be true. This is because you have complete control over whether you decide to cheat or not, right?

The truth is there are several subtle things I could do that would make you more or less likely to cheat, regardless of how you answered the question. If you were sure of the answer you gave to my question, you probably think I’m wrong in asserting this premise. You would probably be even more certain I am ‘off my rocker’ in asserting this if I told you all of the things I would do to change your behavior (cheating or not cheating) would be completely out of your conscious awareness.

Let me give you one example of how little it would take to begin to influence your behavior: I could dramatically increase or decrease the level of cheating by changing something that we all take for granted; by simply adjusting the brightness of the lights in the room.

Since our mind and bodies respond to subtle things in our environment that are completely beyond our conscious awareness, the results are predictable. In one study at a major university the students in the slightly more dimly lit (but more than adequately lighted) room inflated their scores by 50 percent to those of the students in the more brightly lit room. Perhaps former Supreme Court justice Louis Brandeis was right when he said “Sunlight is the best of disinfectants.”

If changing the brightness of the lights in a room can dramatically change people’s behavior, just imagine how the culture of your team or business, not only affects all of its members, but will also determine its success or failure. We often see teams and businesses change leadership and these leaders bring with them new initiatives in hope of changing their fortunes. Problems arise when the new initiatives clash with the existing culture.

Few organizations take the time to go to the lengths necessary to change their team’s or business’s culture. It’s easy to bring in new leadership and ideas and feel like you are on the right track. It’s difficult to go through a change of culture because it must be modeled from the top to be effective, and most leaders are too lazy to put in the effort necessary to lead a culture change.

Without a leader who is seen leading the change by example, any attempt at culture change is doomed to failure. At the first sign of not living up to the stated ideals of the new culture, people will begin to go back to their old comfortable ways.

Conversely, if you have a leader who takes pride in leading by example and follows up his or her idealistic words with actions that back them up, mountains can be moved, championships can be won and fortunes will be made.

The question then becomes: Do you have the single-mindedness required to implement a culture change and see it through to fruition?


You can follow Sam on Twitter @SuperTaoInc



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