The power of simplicity to strengthen organizational culture

Changing an organizational culture is not easy, but it is not impossible either. It requires insight, a well-thought-out approach and a lot of dedication. Before you get started, it helps if you understand what your existing culture is and why you want to change it. Based on four questions, InContext founder and owner Thomas Benedict its organizational culture of mystery.

What is organizational culture?

Much has been written about the components of culture, and you probably think after reading that culture is still a mystery. I often think this is unnecessarily complicated. Culture can lie in many things, but the only thing that really makes a difference is the (collective) behavior of people in an organization.

To make it (too) simple: culture = behavior. How do people communicate with each other and with people outside the organization? What choices do they make, or don’t they make? And what do they do? These are all observable behaviors that in turn have an impact on important matters for the organization, such as (team) performance, employee and customer satisfaction, costs, turnover and profits.

Culture therefore determines the success of any organization and should therefore be a top priority for any manager. Is it really that simple? Yes and no. The question of what determines the behavior of people in the organization is also important. It’s a bit more complicated.

What determines organizational culture?

Given our definition of culture as the behavior of people, you can translate this question into: what determines the collective behavior of people in an organization? Here you can distinguish between three groups of factors. At InContext Consultancy Group, we call these groups perspectives.

1: The human perspective
It’s about who you have on board. What is the identity and personality of the employees, and what knowledge, attitude and skills do they bring with them?

2: The context perspective
This concerns the factors that influence people’s behavior in an organization and which lie outside the people themselves. When you work in an organization, there are many different factors that influence how you behave. This includes the behavior of your manager, the content of training and courses, the systems and tools you work with, the reward system, internal communication and so on.

These factors are generally the same for the members of a group of people (teams, departments) in the organization. Contextual factors influence people’s behavior and thus culture in the organization, but they are not directly influenced by people’s behavior ‘back’.

Take the rating system for example. This has a major impact on human behavior. But the behavior of these people, on the other hand, does not directly influence the reward system. So there is to some extent a one-way traffic in the influence. This is different with the pattern perspective.

3: The pattern perspective
It is about the interaction and image formation between individuals and groups. It is the ingrained patterns and images that have a great, but often hidden, influence on behaviour. Think self-fulfilling prophecies, simmering conflicts, and competition for resources or power.

“Organizational culture is systemic, it has many causes and consequences.”

Patterns are self-reinforcing because the behavior of one person or group directly affects another and vice versa. Here, then, there is a continuous interaction which is not always easy to recognise.

Such dynamics and patterns are hidden from members of the organization and difficult for outsiders to perceive. They are powerful influencers of behavior. This perspective is often missed in cultural change. If that happens, understanding an existing culture and realizing a new one can be very obstructive.

How do you analyze organizational culture?

Analyzing your organizational culture consists of describing the relevant behavior of people in the part of the organization you want to understand or ultimately change the culture in. So think carefully about the scope of your analysis. Once you’ve done that, you can also think about the three perspectives and how they influence and explain the behavior you see.

People who have been around the organization for a long time become culturally blind. They no longer see their own culture so clearly because it has become normal. For a sharp analysis of the existing culture, you should therefore preferably use outsiders or people who have not been in the organization for long and are still surprised by how things are done.

How do you get rid of the mystery?

What we would like to say is that organizational culture is systemic, it has many causes and consequences. Therefore, it is important to understand it before trying to change it. If you only focus on the human perspective (only one of the three elements of the triangle) and start working with behavior through training, you will most likely miss the most important influencers of behavior.

This explains why training without further interventions often has only a short-term effect. The three perspectives (people, context and systems & patterns) increase in complexity, of which systems & patterns is the most influential.

Mapping patterns and contexts that influence behavior is more difficult than a direct and quick intervention on people, but it is the starting point for a significant cultural change with a lasting effect.

InContext helps organizations map, change, strengthen and anchor culture. This is to make organizations more productive, more humane, more valuable and happier. We always do our own analysis first, to determine what the best approach is and has the greatest impact.

We have an open conversation about the situation and our analysis. From there, we look together at which efforts provide the optimal combination of feasibility and effect. This way you get a fair trade and an approach that works, and culture is no longer a mystery.

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