Topic letter 30

The complexity of cultural change 1

Many organizations seek to change their culture. In so doing one can e.g. attempt to achieve higher levels of innovation, synergy and safety. Major projects are often launched, but unfortunately, they do frequently fade away without having been very effective. Due to the complexity of the subject of cultural change, this blog is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the question what is culture and discusses why conventional projects to change culture often enjoy so little success.

What is culture?

During evolution we have learned to survive by living together. Being part of a group has always been of vital importance. Therefore our behavior is partly made up of patterns which are common within a group. The learning processes by which we acquire these patterns are called modeling. Model learning means that we take on the behavior of esteemed peers as a model for our own behavior. Certain behavioral patterns thus occur more frequently in a group and these patterns form a culture.

What makes a culture so strong?

If we imitate the behavior of others, others experience us as being more sympathetic. Thus we rise on the social ladder. The reciprocal mirroring process of each other's behavior is therefore self-reinforcing; it needs no further reinforcement. The more we imitate each other's behavior, the more the members generate the same behavioral patterns and the more powerful a culture becomes.

The world is changing faster than patterns

We live in a world which develops at a continually increasing pace and which regularly requires new behaviors. The pace of innovation is no longer in line with the inertia of an organizational culture. In this modern age culture by definition hobbles along, lagging behind the facts. We increasingly suffer from old behavioral patterns that once were useful, but which have lost their effectiveness.

Social reward outweighs rational effectiveness

But if certain behavior is no longer effective, why doesn’t it just stop? After all, behavior is also subject to the economic laws of costs and benefits. The social rewards from the group however are often greater than the disadvantages of ineffective behavior. While exploring the theme of safe behavior, we might see a whole team behaving in an unsafe way, although everybody is fully aware of the risks involved with such behavior. Nobody wants to miss the boat and therefore all team members collectively ignore certain safety rules.

Model behavior operates on an unconscious level

Furthermore, we must realize that model behavior is driven by what we call the basic or reptilian brain. We are hardly aware of which behavior we are imitating or copying from each other. Model behavior is difficult to put into words and quit insensitive to influences of language and conscious reflection. We must realize therefore that discussing a culture can have hardly any impact on changing it. An insight is rarely powerful enough to change unconscious behavior. This may well explain why an approach based on verbal expressions is so limited in its effectiveness.

Misapplication of a good theory

Another weakness of many change programs is that they are based on an incorrect interpretation of the work of Edgar Schein, the Godfather of cultural psychology. Schein initially examined both concrete behavior and the experiences behind that behavior (underlying values and attitudes). He noted however, that actual behavior is constantly changing due to situational influences. That’s why he decided in 1992 to limit himself to the more cultural values which are more stable. Since then many organizational developers have been working with these cultural values. Unfortunately they also used this angle in trying to change concrete behavior. They thereby make the assumption that values behind a behavior will be related to that behavior. This assumption could not be proven by Schein and is also not confirmed by modern psychology. The explanation for this is that we attribute to ourselves socially desirable values that unfortunately do not correspond with reality. It is therefore not appropriate to use values in programs that aim at changing concrete behavior.

To be continued

If we want to change actual behavior we need a different frame of reference. Both language and abstractions of behavior cannot help us to change collective behavior. What we need is a frame of reference which is much more connected to actual behavior. In the next blog I want to present such a framework based on the core strength of culture: model behavior. The core elements of model learning can be used to change behavior within teams and organizations.

Juni Daalmans

October 2013

Brain Based Safety


More information on brain based safety can be found on and in the book "Human Behavior in Hazardous Situations. Best Practice Safety Management in the Chemical and Process Industries." 2012 Elsevier

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