Since I received the findings from our culture study of 1,000 Australian managers there is one question I am asked the most.

People want to know “What surprised you?

The answer is a lot. But there was one finding that stands out in my mind.

Fifty per cent of the people leaders in our study believe that culture cannot be influenced – it just happens.

It wasn’t just surprising; it was alarming.

When I shared this on my LinkedIn and asked what people thought, I wasn’t alone.

In our qualitative interviews, I asked our facilitators to go deeper into this stat. What emerged from the conversations is the distinction between a culture by default versus a culture by design.

Can culture be influenced?

The answer is ‘no’ if you interpret that question to mean, ‘Can you do anything to influence whether culture exists or not?’ Each day, a leader and their team make decisions that shape the culture. But when it comes to building the culture you want, people leaders told us that is definitely something that can and should be influenced.

Clifford Morgan’s LinkedIn comment captured this idea well.

This echoed many of the interviews we conducted during the research and what has emerged in my conversations since.

Our biggest threat, though, is that we spend more time defining culture than we do applying it. The problem with heading down the rabbit hole of academia and literature is that it is seemingly never ending. And this information overwhelm seems to have created a great deal of confusion for leaders.

‘What is the right definition of culture?’ is the wrong question. The more helpful question is, ‘What do I need to know in order to take action on culture?’

Over the last five weeks, we’ve been exploring the four elements of culture that can help point us in the direction of shaping culture. Let’s bring it all together.

  1. Culture is Collective – Where you have a team, you have a culture. If culture is collective, then the conversation should be too.
  2. Culture is Unseen – Although difficult to measure and impossible to touch, culture has an underlying set of factors that guide expectations and influence culture. By having the conversation and making these explicit, we remove ambiguity and increase clarity.
  3. Culture is Seen – Culture needs a set of clear, observable behaviours. If you don’t know what your culture looks like, how will you recognise it when you see it? Consider what behaviours need to be established, eradicated or enhanced.
  4. Culture is Learned – 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. Consider the behaviours that are celebrated and those which are confronted on your team, because both are communicating culture.

You may not be able to influence whether culture exists, but you can influence what kind of culture exists.

Here’s a question to reflect on this week:
What aspects of our culture have I tolerated by default that I can start shaping by design?