As with many things, when all is going well, we don’t really look to change things. If no one is complaining, we don’t stop to look for things to improve or identify if we have slipped up anywhere. Culture can be like this too.

I spend a large part of my day talking to clients and candidates about culture and value alignment. Both can be hard to define, but for culture to really become the foundation of your working environment, it must be more than just words on the company website. You need to be able to display it in your day to day interactions. Culture is not just a set and forget process. You also need to be sure it is guiding the right kinds of behaviours from your teams.

James Clear who wrote Atomic Habits provides a sensible insight into how and why we do things and how we need to make our habits easy and attractive. His book delves into culture’s impact on our habits. James explains we typically imitate the habits of three groups: the close, the many and the powerful.

To reinforce this James discusses a famous social conformity experiment conducted by Solomon Asch on the power of peer pressure. Solomon provided the study group with two cards, the first had one line on it, the second card had three lines. The length of the line on the first card was obviously the same as the lines on the second card but when a group of actors claimed it was different length, the research subject would often change their minds and go with the crowd rather than believing their own eyes. James explains that whenever we are unsure how to act, we look to the group to guide our behaviour.

There are some highly publicised examples of when cultures have gone off course and when the behaviour of the powerful led to undesirable outcomes.

Recently the Australian Cricket team went through public scrutiny over their culture during a ball tampering incident or ‘sandpaper gate’. The below lines are from an article from ABC Writer Catherine Murphy from October 2018.

An independent review of Cricket Australia (CA) has delivered a scathing report on the governance and culture of the organisation. The review described Australia’s players as living in a “gilded bubble — disconnected, for much of each year, from families, friends and the grounding influence of community”. They see themselves as being part of a machine that is fine-tuned for the sole purpose of winning”, the review said.

Tim Paine, the current Test captain has said the following during this period:
“I think potentially for a little bit, we got a little bit wrapped up in our own self-importance, we’re the lucky ones playing for Australia. It’s not our cricket team, it’s Australia’s cricket team, and I think for a little while, we lost that.”

More recently, the toxic culture of one of the more highly regarded organisations in Australia, the Defence Force, was exposed by the inquiry into Australian special forces soldiers in Afghanistan. Mark Willacy from the ABC wrote the following:

“Defence leadership allowed ‘cancerous individuals’ to influence SAS culture”

“It was known as the “Stirrer’s Parade”. Held to celebrate the birthday of the elite Special Air Service Regiment (SAS), Stirrer’s was a rare opportunity for all three of its so-called “sabre” squadrons to get together. It was part send-up, part piss-up. Stirrer’s had been a fixture of the SAS social calendar for decades.

When the sergeants took to the stage. They had an announcement to make about a junior officer.

The junior officer was also a veteran of the Afghanistan war. He was clever and competent, though some found him a little pedantic and prickly. He had refused to bow to some of the more senior members.

There, in front of hundreds of his colleagues and superiors, they announced that the junior officer had won the “XXXX of the Year Award”. It was not a prize, far from it. The crowd roared with laughter, including the Officers.

This wasn’t a knifing, said one SAS veteran, it was a decapitation.

It was the ultimate humiliation for an officer who was part of the most elite and revered fighting force in this country. A while later, he would quit the SAS”.

These individuals do amazing things in extremely hostile environments, and only a very few would truly understand the constant pressure they would be under. Anyone of their mental and physical capacity is a high achiever. While I don’t want to undervalue what they do, this example highlights how difficult it can be too stand up against the crowd – and the burden of peer pressure.

James Clear explains one of the most effective things you can do to build better habits is to join a culture where your desired behaviour is the normal behaviour. As parents’ generations over have told their kids, be careful who you choose as your friends, they can have a large impact on your future direction. This is also the case when you are taking that next step in your career and choosing an organisation to join.

Remember the three and how we subconsciously follow the close, the many, the powerful. The standards you walk past are the standards you accept. Ensuring you get the right cultural fit can have a dramatic impact on your personal success in your next role.

Happy recruiting!
Andrew Hill

Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash