The culture of an org is best thought of as the characteristics and knowledge of a group of people. It is the growth of a group identity that is fostered by certain social patterns that are unique to that group. It is important to understand how it changes for one simple reason:
We do not get to choose whether or not culture changes. It will, and always does. The question is whether we will be intentional about it, or simply let it happen like the weather.
Cultures are a space that needs to be navigated and understood, they are not “problems to fix” or simple right/wrong propositions. In the example diagram below, you can see different kinds of predispositions a culture can have, towards learning, or order, or results. This is a simplified view that only takes into account two axes: how people respond to change, and how people interact. This is not the full picture, but enough to show the space and how it is not a fixed set of choices.
Culture is an emergent phenomena. That is, there are no rules or guidelines for how it forms. Among potentially millions of individuals, each making their own decisions, culture emerges as the sum of all of their actions and then extra on top of that. As an example, even in the Soviet Union where citizens had extreme restrictions, the culture was not of the USSR’s direct choosing or design. The difference between individuals and culture is much the same as the difference between the behavior of individual bees, and the behavior of the hive.
How does Culture Change?
First, we know that it does. If 50 years pass by, there are clear changes in the culture of the United States, or Freemasonry. It’s a bit like boiling a frog though, in the sense that you know the change after it’s happened, but it’s harder to detect while it is happening. Due to the downsides & costs of certain cultural attitudes, at all times there’s a desire to change culture; to pursue some positive value, or avoid a negative value. So it’s useful to investigate the ways that culture changes, so that we can spot when it’s happening, and even to provide some hints about what needs to happen to change a problematic culture.
Culture results from the people. Change the people, change the culture.
The people participating in a culture always change, because humans are born, grow, and die. There is always some non-zero attrition rate and some non-zero influx rate. Changing culture by changing the people is usually done via dilution; adding new people. To see how this works, think about beer, lemonade, and shandy.
Take 1 liter of beer. Add 1 drop of lemonade. What do you call the resulting drink? Well that’s beer, as there’s too little lemonade to even taste. Now take 1 liter of beer, and add 1 liter of lemonade. At a 50/50 mix, you’d call that drink shandy. Now take the same 1 liter of beer, and in the third scenario at 40 liters of lemonade. What is that drink called? Well that’s just lemonade; there’s too little beer to notice.
Culture can be changed in the same way. In a startup company that grows rapidly and adds employees, the culture will tend to be determined by the behavior and attitudes of the most recent crop of hires, because they are the most numerous. By contrast, if your company grows very slowly and adds only a few people, their culture impact will be minimal or zero, just as the lemonade goes into the beer.
In your organization: who are the newcomers? How numerous are they, and what do they want?
The most common way people think of cultures as existing in a kind of a behavioral loop. If a large group of people do a thing (behavior) this leads to a “Behavioral Norm” or an expectation from the group of what other people will do. This creates “cultural capital” which means that people who do whatever the right thing is are seen to be more influential, and have higher status. This in turn creates behavioral drivers for other people: everyone wants to be high status and have the esteem of their friends and peers; so they make paths for themselves to show the same behaviors. And this becomes a self-reinforcing loop. This works in all cultural situations, from the profound to the mundane. For example:
- Behavior: Celebrities adopt social media platforms and post pictures of what they’re doing day to day
- Cultural Capital: others see that those who are high status drink a certain kind of coffee, or do a certain kind of yoga
- Behavior Drivers: people want to drink that kind of coffee.
- Behavior: more people drink that kind of coffee
In this cultural change approach, you can see governments that try to operate on all three elements. They can act on behaviors through the uses of payments, taxes, or fines to incentivize/disincentivize behaviors directly and affect culture change. They might get a celebrity spokesperson or other high status individual (CEO, former president, etc) to operate on the “cultural capital” element – for example, “Wearing masks prevents COVID-19 and saves lives”. Or they can work on behavioral norms: “Did you know that more than 70% of your neighbors are already donating blood?”
Culture can also abruptly change as a result of things like war, economic shocks, disease, and internal division – at least two of which are at play today. Cultures always rest on certain assumptions; for example, the culture of suburban living requires affordable cars, and transportation to move between separate zones of house, work, and shopping. If those things aren’t present, a certain kind of culture cannot exist, people’s behavior changes, and the culture changes as a result of the difference in individual behaviors.
Shock is usually caused by unintentional events, but it can be intentionally created by fast-moving policy as well.
These three methods (dilution, modeling, and shock) are only the beginning of the most common ways to think about culture change, but they are useful tools when considering your own org and how it operates.
With respect to an institution like Freemasonry and the challenges that it faces, leadership can use these kinds of patterns to consider carefully what kind of an organization it wants, and how to get there. In future articles, we may approach some of that and discuss the art of the possible, with Freemasonry as an example organization form.