Follow the Leader – Culture #2

“In all affairs it’s a healthy thing now and then to hang a question mark on the things you have long taken for granted” – Bertrand Russell

“Whenever you find yourself on the side of the majority, it is time to pause and reflect” – Mark Twain.

The previous blog on culture scrutinised perceptions of what culture, in a broader sense, actually is. We came to the conclusion that culture is a complex and ever-changing mix of beliefs, values and ideas, based on variable variables, and that the best cultures should encourage diverse thinking – a mindset that mirrors and propels culture’s developmental process. Following on, this blog will assess how culture works within an organisation, understanding the power and influence a culture can have.

An organisational culture, as most companies see it, is something every employee should buy into to ensure the success of the company. It is a fundamental component in forming the identity of a company and getting employees to behave in a manner congruent with that unifying identity. Culture, therefore, might be a certain set of rules, values and beliefs that employees are supposed to conform to – a company codex that informs employee behaviour. The desire to conform is psychologically potent and has a considerable impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviour, which impacts on performance and wellbeing. This means that developing positive, constructive cultures that provide purpose and meaning to employees is fundamental to performance and wellbeing.

Influence of Groups

In 1936, Muzafer Sherif explicitly linked the convergence effect (the idea that a group can cause members to converge and become more similar without direct pressure) to the development of group norms. Proceeding from the premise that people need to be certain and confident that what they are doing, thinking or feeling is correct and appropriate, Sherif argued that people use the behaviour of others to establish a range of possible behaviour for themselves. We develop a ‘frame of reference’ or relevant ‘social comparative context’. A company culture can provide this ‘frame of reference’ as it articulates the norms of the company and, for an individual, represents the opinions and behaviour of the group at large. Based on the perceived culture, employees will act in certain ways that they think conform with the overarching culture, meaning behaviour is influenced by relative comparison. Because of our drive to be accepted and belong, to feel part of a group, psychologists agree normative pressure – the indirect or direct pressure to conform to norms – is one of the most effective ways to change behaviour. But the power of norms and the influence of conformity presents problems for culture.

So, norms govern behaviour, dictating ‘what we do around here’, so to speak. Based on embedded norms, and organisation either consciously or unconsciously prescribes a set of ‘cultural display rules’; these are informal, normalised rules and regulations for behaviour as prescribed by the general ‘culture’ – but they aren’t always good. For instance, a community or organisation could have a culture of sexism and bullying that, despite knowledge of such behaviour’s negativity, people perpetuate because it is normative within the culture. This is because their normative behaviours operate at an automatic, unconscious level, Kahneman’s ‘system 1’; norms are thus the ‘secret authors’ of our actions. Because norms and the urge to conform are so powerful, even when it is necessitated, changing ‘what we do around here’ can be hard, but it can be done. How? By raising self-awareness and ‘speaking truth to power’, as the civil rights leader Bayard Rustin said, inviting cognitive dissonance and open questioning within a culture.


As our previous blog suggested, although an employee might perceive the company as having one unifying, catch-all culture, this isn’t often the case. There will be many sub- and micro-cultures sitting within the larger organisation. For instance, a group of traders will, in general, behave differently to a group of engineers; traders might be more open to uncertainty and take risks that a more fastidious engineer might not. Each of these subcultures will have established their own group norms and, as the potency of the desire to conform has shown, these cliques can develop strong bonds.

Managing many subcultures can be hard. There might be friction between subcultures or between a subculture and the larger organisation’s culture, causing tension and dissent if not managed carefully. This creates highly unproductive, almost tribal, ‘ingroup vs. outgroup’ mentalities. When small groups form they have the tendency to become silos: isolated cliques that only associate with those that think as they do. If people feel restricted, limited, and homogenised by the imposition of a unifying company culture they may go into a threat state and begin functioning poorly, performing badly. This sort of negativity can spread, via emotional contagion, to other members within these subcultures and, potentially, to the wider organisation, cracking irreparable rifts that send shockwaves throughout the company.

It is also important to note that the Whitehall study found a low sense of control to be one of the biggest stressors at work. Levels of autonomy, then, or ‘job decision latitude’ as the organisational psychologist Robert Karasek coined it, severely affect performance and wellbeing. So, with this in mind, when you’re trying to unify a company, how do you manage the balance between creating a holistic, collective sense of direction and empowering employees on an individual level, managing on a macro and micro level?

Positive’s DRIVERS

Cultures and subcultures and individuals, as we know, are influenced by numerous variable variables and competing ideologies. And this is fine; it is healthy, normal, and introduces diverse thinking. But developing the cognitive flexibility to become open to and incorporate diverse thinking might seem hard to some. One way we can do this, however, is by understanding the DRIVERS that operate within each company’s subculture.

The DRIVERS activate powerful neurobiological circuits that impact on how we think, feel, and behave. The DRIVERS can be applied on a micro and macro level to build trust and relationships between teams with differing cultures, providing a template that we can use to better understand and outline how motivated, valued, and engaged individuals and teams feel. When engaging with a colleague one must ask themselves: what is supporting his/her/their DRIVERS, and how can I help to support them?

By empathising and viewing the world from the point of view of the other when engaging with an individual or group, relationships across subcultural borders can become stronger. This enhances the type of communication that encourages idea flow and diverse thinking across groups internally and when dealing with clients or partner groups. When the DRIVERS are reinforced it builds trust within teams and across groups, activating positive neurobiological circuits that help to motivate and engage.

As well as being applied across the company, this understanding is crucial for leaders working with teams. By understanding the DRIVERS of team members, leaders can adapt their style of leadership to motivate different individuals and groups. It is important, then, to develop emotional literacy and cognitive flexibility in order to engage with their teams in ways that encourage idea flow and openness, prizing a culture of respect and equality that considers other peoples’ DRIVERS and works with them, not against them. This is how real change can occur. Because – although minority influence can play an important role – change is best precipitated by leaders within an organisation: in other words, by those with authority.

Influence of Authority

On the whole, we are extremely obedient to authority. As Stanley Milgram’s study into whether people would electrify a subject if instructed to teach them a ‘lesson’ demonstrates, we have a tendency to obey orders without thinking. Since leaders have the authoritative power to influence the thoughts, feelings, and behaviour of teams and individuals, they have a responsibility to lead by example.

Just as group norms dictate an individual’s ‘frame of reference’, a leader represents the blueprint for behaviour, a model of the company’s or subgroup’s culture. The leader is the norm, the example, the standard of behaviour that others use as their reference point. Since many psychologists believe – and studies show – that normative pressure is one of the most effective ways of igniting change, it is down to leaders within an organisation to practice what they preach and inspire change by example. Instead of just talking the talk they must walk the walk, losing ‘do as I say’ and adopting ‘do as I do’. By adapting their behaviour, attitude, and approach, leaders change the norm, which, in turn, can change team and individual behaviour and, as a result, change culture in the workplace.

If those of us with authority or power create environments where people feel comfortable to experiment and motivated to excel, evidence shows that performance and wellbeing will be greatly improved. As Philip Zimbardo’s Stanford Prison Experiment showed, the given environment or situation has a huge influence on group and individual behaviour. If an environment is hostile or stressful, this will impact negatively on performance; similarly, an optimistic and open environment will have a positive impact. It is the role of leaders, therefore, to hone the cognitive flexibility and openness to diversity that fuels the development of a strong, growth-focused culture.

On a broader level too, all organisations have a responsibility to optimise the DRIVERS for individuals and teams; organisations should develop a culture that supports diverse thinking and inclusion, not rigidity and homogeneity. The more adaptive, flexible, and agile we are, the more successful we will be in a VUCA world.

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