You shape culture - one way or the other!

Culture is the buzzword. Everyone wants a good company culture - but: how do we get that?
In complex cyber-social systems, cause and effect are often hard to separate.

The biggest problem with Culture: it's "self-healing". When someone behaves in ways that are not in line with the existing culture, that culture will "fix" the "problem" by removing the unexpected behaviour, either through assimilation (conforming the person exhibiting that behaviour to existing culture) or ostracization (eliminating the person exhibiting the behaviour from the system).

Hence, changing culture requires constant, active effort until the culture no longer responds to the change like the human body would respond to a disease.

Shaping signals

Culture is shaped through the signals sent by leaders. We can take any of the following stances on any given, newly arising or potential cultural element - which could be a behaviour, idea or even a mix thereof:

"This is not a problem" 


If the element is negative, the signal is: "You may continue". Culture is shaped to accept the element.
If the element is positive, the signal is: "It doesn't matter". It will only prevail if it doesn't conflict with an existing cultural element.

"This is a problem" 

The signal is: "You should not continue". Culture is shaped to eliminate the element.
Do this a few times to a positive element, and you can be certain that it will never pop up again.

"We are looking for this" 


If the element is negative, the signal is "The end justifies the means". Culture will shaped by those who benefit not only from this negative element, but also from other negative elements which generate similar outcomes.
If the element is positive, there's still going to be a struggle with incumbent negative cultural elements that conflict with the positive element: The message won't stick if clashing negative elements aren't actively discouraged and the positive element reinforced.

Mixed signals

If management is sending different signals on the same cultural element, this can quickly turn into an "Everything goes" mindset. People no longer care either way - which is absolutely fatal when positive cultural elements start to get ignored and people learn to take personal advantage from exploiting negative cultural elements.
Sending mixed signals is an absolute no-go: consistency is key!

Culture as a consequence of signals

Hence, to form a positive culture, top down leadership must actively and continuously take a stance:
- Reinforce positive elements
- Reject negative elements

Everything else will eventually breed cultural toxicity.

Feedback Culture

Management needs to respond to feedback, both directly and across hops.

No Feedback

The absence of feedback poses a huge risk that culture doesn't turn out as desired - at a minimum, it's already a sign that there's no sound level of transparency.

Conflicting Feedback

When there's conflicting feedback, there's a problem. And that needs to have a root cause, which needs to be explored. There must be a negative cultural element hidden somewhere causing clashes with the desired state.

Negative Feedback

When feedback is negative, then a stronger negative element is overriding the signals - and that element needs to become priority 1 focus.

Positive Feedback

If management receives positive feedback, that needs to be reinforced. The fly in the ointment: How do you know it's honest and unfiltered? Make sure that you hear what you need to hear, not what you want to hear!


Culture as a consequence of feedback

Leaders have the opportunity to deal with feedback in a number of ways. We need to be aware that our reception of feedback is as important in shaping a culture as the way we address the behaviour itself. The way we handle feedback either creates or breaks reinforcement loops.

Negative culture as a result of feedback handling


  • Entirely disregarding feedback encourages a "Free for All" culture where people do whatever suits them best and transparency gets lost.
  • Rejecting negative feedback will lead to confirmation bias, where leaders lose touch with reality.
  • Ignoring positive feedback may lead to an abolishment of existing progress as people learn "it's not that important".

Positive culture as a result of feedback handling


  • Acting upon mixed or negative feedback reinforces the idea that "someone cares", which will lead to more efforts put into improving the situation to open a way for the cultural element.
  • Acting upon positive feedback reinforces the cultural element itself.


Down the line

Pervasive top-down leadership is the key to shaping culture - because top management are the only people with the positional power to stop the proliferation of negative cultural elements and to anchor in positive cultural elements.

Top management sets the direction. Their sphere of control on the culture reaches exactly as far as their active involvement in culture. When managers inbetween send mixed or conflicting signals with the message from above, culture in their immediate sphere of control will adapt to their local influence.

Hence, it's essential for top management to ensure consistency of signals both with their immediate staff, as well as across the organization. They need to sense and respond to the signals sent by their staff on every level.

You can't not lead

"As an manager, can't I just remain neutral? I want my teams to self-organize and don't want to impose myself on them!"
The problem with neutrality is: we can't not communicate. 
Not actively acknowledging positive cultural elements sends the signal that these are not important - hence, that's actively "not shaping a positive culture".
The same goes for not actively rejecting negative cultural elements - which is actively "shaping a negative culture".

"Evil triumphs when good men do nothing" (Image source: AZ Quotes)

Make your choice - and take a stance!




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