What is culture? Of all corporate initiatives, culture change is commonly cited as one of the hardest to visualize, quantify, and track. Is culture change synonymous with people being nicer to each other; or, perhaps, a series of offsite team-building exercises?

Before attempting to change your organization’s culture, it is important to first understand what organizational culture means. I have seen many definitions of culture, all of which illuminate some aspects of organizational behavior. I prefer a simple definition: culture is the collective act of imitation and extrapolation.

Imitation refers to the way an individual mimics behaviors and patterns of thinking of those around them. If I see others wearing a tie to a wedding, I will do the same. Extrapolation refers to the manner in which people rely on their experiences to inform them of how to deal with new situations.

What this means for culture change

Viewed this way, we can see culture as a set of behaviors and patterns of thinking that people turn to, in order to get their job done. People’s actions, at least implicitly, establish and reinforce a standard, against which others imitate and extrapolate.

While it is true that the actions of an organization’s leadership are imitated most pervasively, people also rely on the actions of peers to guide their own behavior. This insight suggests something powerful: even if on a small scale, our behavior sends messages to those we work with, as to what is, and is not, ‘appropriate’. Consider how our actions are already establishing a precedent for others to follow, when we:

  • Avoid bringing up breakdowns to peers and bosses;
  • Refrain from asking questions, when we are unclear; or,
  • Tolerate chronic unworkability.

Setting a precedent

When culture change is successful, a precedent of behavior and mindset has been created for others to imitate and extrapolate. Making a culture change ‘stick’ requires us to reflect critically on how we can begin building a new culture, by pioneering new behaviors for others to follow. Consider asking yourself two simple questions:

  • Where do I want to see the biggest cultural change impact in my organization?
  • What changes in my everyday behavior can I embody, to set a precedent for others to follow?

While it may sound like a cliché, we have a role to play in establishing the behaviors we want to see in others, in our own behaviors.

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