I was doing a culture assessment for an organisation that did civil and engineering works. They had a mix of labourers and engineers and their culture was challenging to say the least! I was conducting focus groups and one participant started getting very agitated about how they were treated. He told a story about a time, roughly six months ago, where they had all given up their weekend to get a job finished. One guy even gave up his daughter’s birthday, and when it was done not one manager thanked them.

He was very angry and upset, to the point where his colleagues had to calm him down.

Later in the focus group I had reason to ask him how long he’d been with the company. Can you guess his answer? 3 months. Only 3 months! He wasn’t even around when this event had taken place. He hadn’t given up his weekend, yet he just knew the story and was very upset by it.

So what are we talking about here in relation to culture? In my experience there are two popular definitions of culture:  

  • “the way we do things around here.”
  • “shared values, beliefs, and norms of behaviour”

I’m not sure either definition is thorough enough. There’s a deeper element that needs to be understood. We need to understand how deeply the human is influenced. Their behaviour, thoughts, beliefs, mood, attitude, values, opinions, perceptions, and even their sense of self, who they are, is all shaped by this amazing phenomenon we call culture.

To understand it we need to highlight our ability as a species to adapt. This is particularly prevalent when someone joins an organisation. They want to fit in so they observe behaviour, listen to conversation, soak in the stories, and quickly figure out how they need to think and feel. Most people don’t realise it’s happening but it eventually becomes a deeply engrained part of who they are.

How do you write a definition that captures that? In Team Focus we use the following as a working definition for culture:

“The patterns of thinking and behaviour that people adopt
in order to fit in with people and systems.”

We find it helpful to remind the groups we are working with, in the definition, that people will adapt their behaviour in order to fit in. It creates a great question. What culture would you like them to “fit in” with?
To see how quickly this can happen, check out the social conformity experiment conducted by Brain Games: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o8BkzvP19v4