One of the things I find myself saying a great deal at the moment is “I don’t think you mean culture, I think you mean behaviour.”

Like a pedantic stuck record, the phrase usually comes about when people are talking about trying to get people to behave differently in organisations, and then describe that as a need to “change the culture”.

The reason I take exception to this is two-fold. First of all because an organisation, in many analyses, is its culture. Culture is borne of beliefs and values, is the sum part of the history and the current members of an organisation. If you are serious about affecting true cultural change in time periods less than glacial, then you’re talking drastic steps: the best modern-day example is the disbanding of the Royal Ulster Constabulary and the creation of the Police Service of Northern Ireland (although it could be argued that the RUC culture probably still lives on). Every time a company disappears, it’s in part because the culture no longer fits with the market in which it found itself.

By labelling something as being about “culture change”, you’re immediately putting it into a big box marked “probably too hard”, and you’d be right.

But this brings me to my second reason: you’re most likely to get changes in behaviour if you approach them in a way that is culturally sensitive, not anti-cultural. The beliefs and values held in an organisation drive attitudes held by staff. And it’s the attitudinal stuff that is most likely to drive behaviours – not “culture” per se. Dropping behaviours and artefacts of “startup culture” (whatever the heck that is) into a staid organisation like, say, an insurer, is likely to result in at best silos and at worst tissue rejection.  If you want to get people, for example, to be more collaborative, it needs to be in a cultural context that makes sense or (at least) is a linear progression from where things are today rather than a leap into the blue.

I’ve no doubt that more revolutionary attempts at cultural change are possible – although the examples are few and far between – but more often what happens when the terms culture and behaviour are used interchangeably is that the conclusion that “it’s too hard” gets raised, and so organisations will then attempt to rely on tangible stuff (IT systems, funky office designs, organisational redesigns) and wonder why those isolated from a focus on behaviour don’t deliver the changes that were expected.

It’s ironic how often the “soft” stuff of people and their actions and interactions is often labelled too hard to do…

I’m currently running a research project for the Leading Edge Forum looking at collaboration and collaborative technologies – find out more at

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