Shaping organisational culture is a popular topic. And for good reason, the culture that we exist within influences how we perform and, therefore, the results an organisation can achieve. While most companies collectively explore what they think their organisational culture should look like from within, we suggest a different approach on how to design organisational culture.

Starting with the end in mind 

What results do you need to achieve? This question needs to be answered at the highest level looking at the overall business strategy and objectives. Then it needs to be asked of each level as you move down through the organisation. We suggest that organisations get more specific as they move from team to team and flesh out what a great year would look like.

Behaviours drive your organisational results

Behaviours are the things people do or what generate the desired results in your organisation. In our experience of working with organisations, behaviours are notoriously difficult for people to articulate well. But rest assured, with practise and feedback, behaviours can become more and more clearly articulated. The way we frequently describe it to our clients is to ask them to imagine that an alien has stepped into the team and needs to be taught from scratch what you want them to do. We define behaviours as observable actions because we find this the most helpful workable definition.

Behaviours can be complex. When an organisation asks for particular results without specifying how those results can be attained you can sometimes veer into murky waters. History shows us many examples where individuals have been so focused on the result that the behaviour undertaken to achieve them has been undesirable and caused many other problems. Behaviours might get the desired result but may also cause other problems.

Take, for example, a classic sales environment challenge. The desired result is to maximise sales. People have been incentivised to secure the sale themselves. This in many instances, triggers behaviours that may not benefit the organisation overall. For example, salespeople being very protective over their leads, not collaborating with others where it might be more beneficial, and not taking the time to keep their databases as up-to-date as the organisation may like. Many organisations in this position then complain that they don’t have the collaborative organisational culture that they desire.

Behaviours are what you can see of your organisational culture

It has been said that if an organisation’s values are clear then the organisational culture naturally follows and people know what is expected of them in any given situation. We would challenge this assertion because we’ve seen many instances where values are interpreted in different ways. We also know that individuals will evaluate values and even change their beliefs depending on context.

Another challenging example to consider is diversity and inclusion. While an organisation may say, they promote an organisational culture of diversity and inclusion, when a manager needs to pull together a team to work on an important project what do you see? Does that manager invite those he is closest to, the people he likes and trusts, and who are like him? Unless proactively resisted, many of our innate biases may drive behaviours that are less inclusive and welcoming of diversity.

This complexity exists all over the place with behaviours. Our approach to tackling the complexity when designing organisational culture is to go back to the brain and look at the underlying networks that drive particular groups of behaviours. Always reverse engineering.

Environment drives behaviours

So what about the environment piece? When we say environment, we mean two different environments. The first is our physical environment. The space that we exist in. From a range of different scientific studies, we know that our physical environment is hugely influential on our behaviours. High ceilings and large rooms correlate with increased creativity. Asking people for charitable donations at the top of an escalator yields more donations annually than donations asked for at the bottom of the escalator. Have visual representations of money in a room, and you may see less pro-social behaviour. Many people find some of the environmental influences on behaviour hard to believe and some of the scientific research does need strengthening in particular areas – but it is safe to say our environment influences our behaviours.

So your organisational culture needs to take into consideration your physical environment. Today, with more people working from home than ever before, things are a little more interesting in this space. However many practical things can be done to positively shape and align organisational culture through remote working environments as well as the traditional office spaces.

The second environmental concept that we refer to is our internal environment; our brain. You may be thinking, of course, our brain influences our behaviours. That’s a given. The question then becomes how intentionally you are helping to shape people’s internal environments to positively influence their behaviours. Organisational cultures often hit the headlines when they are toxic. These damaging drains on people’s internal environments cost organisations in many ways.

Are all organisational cultures created equal? 

We firmly believe that some organisational cultures are better than others, and not just better because they help nudge the desired behaviours that create the organisational results that mean the business is succeeding. Some organisational cultures are better because they serve humans more fully. They help people be the best versions of themselves, reach their potential, and be resilient and fulfilled individuals. Science tells us that there are some non-negotiables when it comes to healthy living and working environments. We want to see more organisations turn to science when designing and embedding their organisational culture.

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