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Your organization should do things differently? Do not just talk about it…

Sometimes I come across projects, or articles, that seem to suggest that you are running a project to introduce „a new culture“ or cultural change, or simply a change of behaviors, by communicating it.

Amazing communication plans are set-up, posters are printed, the intranet is flashed with articles, perhaps there is even fancy videos featuring board and staff members on talking about aspects of the new culture. Maybe the roadshow is so cool, that even after years everybody is still talking about it.

That can be quite disturbing if at the same time people do not really remember the content of the roadshow… Maybe they still know it was about a certain topic, however being able to mention the details of it, the new values, or the changes in behavior? No chance.


How can that happen? Remembering the poster, however not what was it about?

When we want to address changes in behaviors, in habits – it may not be sufficient to simply talk about it. Why is that?

Communication – in my experience – is like what happens in outer space. It can be super interesting, yet it does not concern your actions, or how you do things, unless it is a revelation or an amazing insight, or maybe a shock that changes the way how you look at the world.


What does that mean?

Let’s take a step back. I do not intend to make this a huge thing by looking at and talking about culture, however those mentioned things like communication, behaviors, even mindset, in my worldview, are layers of culture.


An iceberg model for culture

Speaking about layers, what I am seeing is a typical pyramid, or maybe even an iceberg. The basis for any organizational culture are the values. I am not talking about the official ones here, that are communicated on corporate web pages, but rather the values that are living within the organization. Usually both management and staff members are not very aware or even conscious of them. This is quite natural, as also individuals mostly are not aware of their own, deep values, as long as they are not being discovered and discussed. Based on the values, as a next layer in my pyramid-iceberg, there comes the mindset. The mindset is what drives organizations and their members, it is the inner, not visible engine, that might give a little roar every now and then, but mostly just runs as well in the unconscious.

The inside, this inner engine gets tangible through our behaviors – this is where the inner meets the outside world. Driven by and based on the mindset, our behavior basically is how we do things. This is how we show ourselves to the world, and so do organizations through the individuals that belong to them. You can find similar behaviors in teams or business units, and sometimes throughout a whole company, when they are based on a long standing, well established mindset. With our behaviors, we still are mostly in the unconscious, however every now and then we act and react sub-consciously, and sometimes indeed also consciously, for instance when we are out of our comfort zone, trying out something new. Or when a lot of attention is required, when we are very excited, when we feel quite uncomfortable, when intentionally we want to do something differently, our awareness can increase quickly.

At the tip of the pyramid, or iceberg, we finally have the communication. As we can hardly control everything we are saying, how we are saying it, our choice of language, our tonality, our voice, the communication gives away quite a bit of our mindset, also within organizations. Even though parts of our communication happen sub-consciously, this is where we have the biggest level of awareness and consciousness. Therefore, when there is a lack of congruence and coherence in what someone says, and what they are actually doing, we notice right away. And this does happen in organizations, we are all so familiar with it. Having your boss say: We need to establish a culture of trust, and yet at the same time his behavior indicates otherwise – you’ll know right away, and it might leave a strange feeling.


When what we say we do, and what we actually do, doesn’t match – it changes everything, immediately.

Frictions in what we say we want to do (e.g. establish a culture of trust, or simply trust each other), and what we actually do, how we act, or how we behave (e.g. establishing measurements of control that do not level with the trust as mentioned before), make it even harder to establish what we want to establish.

It shows immediately when the language we use, or what we are actually saying, differentiates and deviates from what we are doing and how we are doing things. This is why the long-used „walk the talk“ is still and evermore important. Our evolutionary archaic brain parts, like the brain stem, or what is sometimes referred to as the reptile brain (as this is a part of brain also reptiles actually have), have been trained forever in recognizing incoherence and incongruence in between what is being communicated, and how things are actually being done. If you’d ask me, most change projects fail no matter how fabulous the communication, when the people affected by the changes cannot experience behaviors that are absolutely matching the messages.

This is what makes me say: Communication is like outer space. Because whatever happens in outer space, when people do not feel it internally, or at least at their skin, where their inside meets the outside world, it does not really touch them. There’s exceptions, for sure, however more in private life situations, and less in organizational life.


Turning the pyramid around, how can you actually establish cultural change?

Well, yes, you still might need great communication plan. It would actually help if it is fun, as well. Or stimulates other emotions, as emotions help us to create new synapses between our neurons, our brain cells, faster.

Now what does cultural change have to do with brain cells?

If you want to allow for behavior changes, thus for changes in how things are done in an organization, you need to make it tangible. It gets tangible in different ways: Understanding the why can certainly help to influence the mindset (yet, no matter how much I appreciate Simon Sinek’s approach, it is very often not yet sufficient – giving your organization „the why“ of a change does not automatically make them change, as many change project leads can confirm…). Creating more awareness on the behavior is another possibility. The higher the awareness, the more conscious certain behaviors, the easier it gets to take active decisions on how some things should be handled in future, and how not to handle them any longer. Still, it takes a lot of practice (as the synapses have to be not only created, but they really need to be used in order to do their job properly, and to start „firing“ actively, and soon enough sub-consciously). Establishing congruence and coherence between what you are saying you do in your organization and how you are actually starting to do things, this creates both trust and allows new, wanted behaviors to slowly roll-in (I’m afraid it requires some consciousness for the starting phase, as well). You want the people involved to create those new synapses, so that new habits can form and the change does happen sustainably. You want to make it stick, by growing these new synapses, so it gets more and more sub- and unconscious again, just in the new ways you are trying to establish.

And you’re right – as we have now, on our way down the pyramid, so far reached the level of behavior: It won’t change permanently, if the mindset continues to be same same. Can you change a mindset from the outside? I do not think so. You can influence, you can try to manipulate (which I strongly advise against!), however in the end it is the very individual as part of an organization, that is the master of their mindset. And still you can change an organization’s mindset. Those changes happen over a longer period of time (e.g. if you start hiring for a specific attitude only, and foster the same attitude in your talent programs, your individual target setting, and what not). They happen through consistent usage of new, wanted behaviors, and increased awareness on those. Or they happen through shock or enlightenment / insight. Shock can be very effective, however it comes at a cost. And you should consider upfront, if you are willing to take on the consequences of creating this moment of shock. It might take more effort to create insight, specifically when the „insight“ can be quite different for all those individuals, however this might finally be surprisingly beneficial. You might find higher levels of engagement, of self-responsibility, of innovativeness within your organization, once you decide going that way.


In this article I am using thoughts as triggered by and I am referring to basics, such as Hebb’s rule; Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking, Fast and slow; Simon Sinek’s The Why approach; and my current own studies regarding setting up a new model for organizational culture, and how to actually work with it.