The Power of Workplace Culture to Drive Behavior

Graphic of a seesaw with many people on the high side and only on on the low side showing the phenomenon of workplace culture on behavior

Smart leaders know how to use the power of their workplace culture to drive behavior that helps to accelerate their strategy and to attract, develop, engage and retain top talent.

While leaders can certainly have an over-weighted impact on behavioral norms, workplace culture rarely works according to the picture above where an individual holds more sway than the group as a whole.

Only in extraordinary circumstances and with a very strong, determined leader can a single individual have more influence on changing a corporate culture than the majority of the workers. By design or by default, for good and for bad, a company’s culture shapes the way most of the employees think and behave. Those that do not “fit” the organizational culture tend to leave or lose functional status and effectiveness.

The phenomenon of using workplace culture to drive behavior is active not just in the corporate world. Consider the sport of professional cycling.  Somehow unethical behavior became the norm. First came the doping scandal in which many of the top international cyclists, including the now infamous Lance Armstrong, were discovered to be using performance enhancing drugs. More recently we have read of “doped bikes.” With tiny engines hidden in bike frames, some cyclists were able to cheat their way to greater speed through what is being called “mechanical doping.” From the outside it sure appears as though the prevailing culture is one of “win-at-all-costs.”

There will always be individuals who try to scam the system, but the “win-at-all-costs” culture in professional cycling almost invited riders to cheat in order to level the playing field. This is an example of the power of culture for bad.

Let’s look instead at the power of culture for good. There was a time in the U.S. when it was commonplace for people to toss trash from car windows as they traveled the highways. People did it because everyone else was doing it. Then came the campaign for highway beautification led by Lady Bird Johnson. It didn’t take long before the culture believed that littering was not acceptable. Habits changed as even children became part of the effort and admonished their parents if they littered. Tossing trash now carries a stigma…it does not “fit” with the culture. Seeing someone throw trash out the car window is sort of like seeing someone pull out a cigarette on an airplane. It is simply not done anymore.

Culture works the same in the corporate world. Think of corporate culture as how things truly get done in an organization. It includes the known and unspoken assumptions and values that drive daily behaviors and practices. Though many still mistakenly consider workplace culture as “soft HR stuff,” we know that it can have a measurable impact on performance. A Harvard Business School research study reported that an effective culture can account for up to half of the differential in performance between companies in the same business. And our organizational alignment research found cultural factors account for 40% of the difference between high and low growth companies.

These numbers should persuade you to be very thoughtful about the culture you want to shape and encourage at your workplace. It matters.

To learn more about using workplace culture to drive behavior and creating a high performance and purposeful culture, download The 3 “C’s” that Create High Performance Culture Whitepaper

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