I was recently in the USA speaking at a conference about culture. On a lunch break, I decided to take a stroll through Times Square and saw something not uncommon to find in New York City – a queue of people. But it was what they were lined up for that caught my attention.


Well, not all of them. Let me explain.

As I passed the back of the line, I heard people asking one another what the line was for. Nobody had an answer. All they knew was that it was exciting and they didn’t want to miss out so the joined the back. The energy was palpable. Were they going to meet a celebrity? Were they going to get something free? Nobody had a clue, but they all wanted in so the line continued to grow.

As I approached the front of the line it became clear.

They were waiting in line for…the sightseeing bus. And not a single person looked excited about the wait.

People saw a line and they wanted to be included. Or more accurately, they didn’t want to miss out.

We human beings are creatures of belonging. We can’t help but want to fit in and be included. We rarely want to feel on the outer or like we’re missing out.

As leaders, it’s important to understand that culture has a social learning element.

This means that we are consistently looking to the people around us and asking the question ‘what does it take for me to belong on this team?’

My good friend Fiona Robertson excellently unpacks this concept in her book where she explores culture as the ‘rules of belonging’

Culture is learned and dynamic. We are observing the responses of those around us socially to better understand how to interpret the culture.

Think back to the way you learned what was acceptable and unacceptable in the culture of your house growing up. You likely learned through experiences where certain behaviours were celebrated and others were confronted. You learned the importance of saying ‘Thank you’ by being reprimanded when you forgot or encouraged when you did it without being asked.

Because culture has a social learning element, we need to consider the behaviours that are celebrated and those which are confronted, because they are teaching people about the culture.

  • When you or the people on your team confront behaviours you communicate “we want less of this
  • When you or the people on your team celebrate behaviours you communicate “we want more of this

Also consider how the conversations you ‘don’t have’ can unintentionally create a culture you ‘don’t want’.

  • When you or the people on your team tolerate behaviours you communicate “we are ok with this

We take notice of what the people around us do. We want to know what it takes to belong. We look to leaders and role models to not just tell us the way but show us the way.

Culture is learned. Be a great teacher.

Here’s a question to reflect on this week:
What would an external person learn about the culture of our team simply by spending time with the team?