Culture change is social change

If organisational culture were a person he’d be feeling utterly hacked off by now. Rarely consulted about anything that happens in the organisation, he always takes the heat when things go wrong.

Culture, it seems, is to blame for the problems at Mid-Staffordshire NHS trust, the wider NHSBarclays, RBS and the Civil Service. That’s just from one week’s headlines.

It’s a useful catch all for that stuff that no-one can really explain but that just seems to somehow go on in the organisation. It is rare that anyone attempts to define what culture is. Perhaps that’s the point. The cloudier it is, the more stuff you can hide inside it.

Calls for culture change are easy to make but harder to do. As Chris says, how can institutions lead culture change when it is they that have shaped and reinforced the culture for so long?

It’s not easy but, before doing anything, it helps to be clear what we mean by organisational culture. There are many different definitions but the one I always come back to, because it is simple enough to be useful but not so over-simplified as to be meaningless, is Edgar Schien’s; “a pattern of shared basic assumptions”.

When you feel uncomfortable or make mistakes in new surroundings it is often because your assumptions are different from those of the people around you. For example, shortly after starting a new job, a friend of mine had to give a presentation to the executive team.

When she arrived, one team member asked her, very bluntly, “Where is it then?”

“Where’s what?”

“Your presentation!”

“Er, …I’m just about to give it.”

“Yes but where’s the rest of it?”

It turned out that, in this organisation, a presentation was circulated as a paper beforehand, with lots of backup slides – sometimes running to a hundred pages. It gave those who wanted it the background information and showed that the minion presenting had done his or her homework.

My friend had come from an organisation where you were expected to say your piece succinctly, using half a dozen slides. “Be brief and be gone,” was one of her old CEO’s stock phrases. Her new bosses had completely different assumptions about what a presentation was. Because she brought her old assumptions with her, she came a cropper.

As the details have emerged about the Libor rate rigging, the assumptions behind it have become clearer. Many of those involved assumed that there was nothing wrong with what they were doing or that, if there was, the senior managers tacitly approved anyway. They also seem to have assumed that they would not get caught or that, if they did, their organisations were powerful enough to close ranks and protect them.

We will probably never know how much those at the very top knew or suspected about Libor rigging but the assumption among those doing it seems to have been that it was one of those things that was seen as ‘technically illegal’ but that ‘everybody does’ and as long as my peer group is OK with it, then there is no problem.

Now, the new CEO at Barclays is saying that his organisation and the whole banking industry needs a culture change – in other words a change in its shared assumptions. For that to happen, people will have to assume, as a matter of course, that activities like Libor-rigging and mis-selling are wrong. Actually, no, for the culture to really change, these things must never occur to people in the first place. Barclays must become an organisation where such things are, quite literally, as unthinkable as outright robbery.

Antony Jenkins has his work cut out. After all, these are things that were so ingrained in the culture that they were part of office banter. This is a problem all banks will have if they are serious about changing culture. How do you go from a set of assumptions that says Libor rigging, mis-selling and aggressive tax avoidance are not just OK but good for the organisation, to one which says such things are beyond the pale?

The NHS, the Civil Service and many other organisations face similar challenges. When people have assumed something for so long, how do you get them to assume something else?

As I’ve said before, when we talk about organisational culture, we are using a term from anthropology. In doing so, we are choosing to understand an organisation as a society. Therefore, when we want to change that society’s culture, we must understand that we are embarking on social change.

One of the major social changes in my lifetime has been the decline of racist language. Here is a textbook example of changing assumptions. Most people now assume that racist language is wrong. We are even seeing its gradual eradication from football stadiums. Go back a quarter of a century or so, though, and assumptions were very different. Sure, a few of the more offensive words might cause people to grimace but, for the most part, racist language was quite common. A manager could still say “Get your typing done by the wog” and get away with it, the court having decided that his conduct did not cause the abused typist any detriment. The idea of trying to ban such words from football grounds would have been laughable.

What changed and why? A mixture of punishment, education, respected role-models advocating changes in behaviour and a new generation growing up regarding the presence of people from ethnic minorities as normal. Slowly, assumptions began to change. Nowadays, it would never occur to managers in most firms to say the word ‘wog’, let alone use it to describe another member of staff. We have seen similar shifts in assumptions about sexism, drink driving and the wearing of seat belts.

Most organisations are not attempting social change on anything like this scale. Then again, most organisations can’t afford to wait 20 years for their change to happen. What sort of things should they do? The sort of things that make for social change anywhere.

There are some helpful suggestions in these recent articles on the challenges for the NHS and Barclays, though they apply in pretty much any context. The themes are similar: leaders modelling behaviour, getting a core group of people who want things to change and bringing others into it, rewarding, and being seen to reward, the new behaviours, enlisting those with status and influence to your cause and repeating your message at every opportunity. And, of course, punishing people who won’t change.

Culture change has, to an extent, become the preserve of woolly L&D types, so you don’t often hear much about the role of punishment but, as Louise Cooper says, it is an essential part of the mix:

[A]dopt a “zero tolerance policy”. The new standards of behaviour must be rigorously enforced…..reward those who embrace the new rules and penalise those who don’t – the carrot and the stick.

Remember, this is social change we are talking about here. Much as I would like to believe that education and celebrity role-models alone could have stopped people drink-driving or calling their staff racist names, somehow, I don’t think it would have. The threat of punishment had to be there too.

So it is in organisations. Assumptions take some shifting. A mix of leadership, education, role-modelling, cadre-building, rewards and punishment will do the heavy lifting. Ultimately, you may have to sack those who can’t or won’t change their assumptions.

So Barclays, the NHS and all the other organisations for whom cultural change has been prescribed have a long haul ahead of them. When rate-rigging, mis-selling, aggressive tax avoidance, bullying and low care standards become as unacceptable as getting behind the wheel while drunk or calling someone a wog, then cultural assumptions can be said to have shifted. Until that happens, the cultures of these organisations cannot be said to have changed.

Antony Jenkins and the others who aim to lead culture change in their organisations face a formidable task. Changing assumptions, as opposed to just getting people to nod and agree with you, is a tall order. I wish them all the very best. They’ll need it.

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12 Responses to Culture change is social change

  1. I value Edgar Schien’s definition e.g. Culture as “a pattern of shared basic assumptions”. But I feel frustrated when people quote this without also realising that culture is a *reflection* or projection of shared basic assumptions, not the assumptions themselves. Until we learn to separate the manifestation of mindset (i.e. culture) from mindset itself, the same dysfunctional behaviours you describe will continue unabated.

    And I feel very sad when I see folks professing the need for violence (punishment, sackings). Aren’t we past that myth now?

    – Bob

  2. chris says:

    Someone once said that “culture is the stuff you don’t notice” – the shared basic assumptions might be so basic we don’t notice them. I suspect (eg) expense-“fiddling” MPs or “greedy” bankers never thought they were doing anything wrong.
    It’s only when the assumptions are challenged by outsiders – the press on expenses, Francis on the NHS etc – that they are seen to be questionable.
    This suggests that cultural change will be hard to achieve unless it is prompted by a crisis. Which is another reason to suspect that organizations are inherently brittle – they seem strong, but under pressure they break rather than bend.

  3. Tom M says:

    It’s true that culture is about what you don’t notice rather than about what you do – speeding is something that most people can relate to as being ‘technically illegal’ but somewhat acceptable. (Almost) everyone speeds on the motorway. Exactly the justifications people give for doing 75mph on the motorway apply to those involve in the Libor fix.

    “What’s the problem with it?”, “It’s not hurting anyone”, “Everyone does it”, “What difference does it make?”, “What’s the big deal, anyway?”, “There are bigger problems”, “Other people go much faster” apply equally to both.

    Yet I would bet most people would resist such a comparison being drawn.

    • Needs2Cash says:

      I agree. The leader nurtures a management system that helps her or his organization to fulfill the organization’s mission honorably.

      Too many people in authority do not make themselves accountable for this. Some even choose being a victim or becoming a victimized organization.

      Others completely deny the value of leaders and leadership leaving society to determine the ethics of its organizations.

      But drivers are all self-employed without an organization to blame for their behavior. On the motorways we are part of the herd.

  4. ppor4 says:

    Nice piece. Given the social architecture of orgs. social change is a good comparison.
    I like to refer to culture change as analagous to personality change (not sure who coined it ? – kindly let me know if you do) Can quickly change the surface appearance but takes years to change the actual personality of the org !

  5. Sukh Pabial says:

    Rick, I am not a fluffy L&D type.

  6. Needs2Cash says:

    Leaders have to be in front of their organizations and ahead of society. They cannot be victims of society’s thinking or their organization’s thinking.

    Changing shared beliefs requires strong leadership skills or a crisis. Some leaders are blessed with both.

    In seeing if culture can be measured and changed ahead of society, I was surprised to see no reference here to The Oz Principle.

    Organizational leaders cannot afford to wait for society to change. When it comes to breaking the victim cycle and taking better care of the sick, neither can we.

  7. Culture reflects not merely assumptions but the organisational structure (i.e. power). This is particularly apparent in large organisations, such as the NHS or a global bank, where you have multiple and often antagonistic subcultures.

    The root of the “cultural problem” in UK banks is the merging of retail and investment banking, with their radically different cultures. The former has gradually been infected by the latter (commission-led upselling), while the latter was infected by the takeover of City banks by US firms in the 80s (elite partner profit-share giving way to more meritocratic trader bonuses). Investment bankers will always manipulate markets. That is literally their job: you don’t take a punt (that gets you sacked), you “make the market”. The solution for banking is proper separation of retail and investment, not ringfence + values.

    The NHS is based on an industrial, centrally-planned model. From the earliest days, cultural anatagonism was built in by the acceptance of staff allegiance to external bodies (notably the BMA and RCN), which resulted in multiple, over-lapping subcultures. The importation of the internal market and targets exacerbated this, as it was seen as a power-grab by the hospital manager subculture. The only thing that will prevent the NHS being privatised (which is what the whole “fix it” trope is inexorably leading to) is workplace and patient democracy.

    The one thing you can guarntee comes top of the list when cultural change is advocated is “leadership”, despite there being no evidence that this actually matters. As most astute observers recognise, cultures take decades to change and CEOs don’t tend to stick around that long. There is a congruence of interests between CEOs and the change management industry. The former want to be seen as effective trouble-shooters, for political and ego reasons, while the latter have an obvious incentive to flatter budget holders. Culture has become just another commodity, from audits to artefacts.

  8. Hi Rick!
    I recently discovered your blog and I just wanted to congratulate you! you hace such an amount of interesting and breaking articles, clearly explained and well written. In the “culture” environment of this post I also want to point to one of your older posts “Manners and calculated rudeness can be devastating weapons” and how we play with this “basic assumptions and behaviours”. I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing your posts and ideas on Glipho? I bet that our users would love to read your stuff! It’s a quite new social publishing platform, where you can connect to every social network accounts, really easy to use it and communicate with your followers. In additional, you are able to import the posts from your blog in a super-easy way without affecting it at all.
    Please, have a look and take a tour to know more about If you would like to set up your account, please do not hesitate to ask me for further information and I will send you an invitation. I hope you will join our Glipho community soon. 🙂
    All the best,

  9. Pingback: Culture Change at Barclays | HR Outsider

  10. Pingback: Culture | Active Development

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