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Whose values are creating your culture?

It often occurs to me that one of the most challenging roles of a leader is creating a values based culture. A culture where the company values are readily adopted by everyone within the organisation and used as a guide for their decisions and actions. It often appears that people can accept the values at an intellectual level but using them as their guidebook is another challenge entirely.

Having watched the development of values based culture’s in action I find that it takes a number of key voices to actively accept the values, using them visibly and vocally in what they do, for a culture to spread and take hold.
Its like the 100th monkey theory. If you’ve not heard of it, here it is.

The basis for this idea was derived from a story in the 1979 book Lifetide: A Biology of the Unconscious by Lyall Watson. He reported on research conducted by several anthropologists on the macaques in the islands off Japan. According to the story, in 1953 one of the anthropologists observed an aged macaque female wash a potato to get the sand off of it before eating. She, in turn, taught another to do the same thing. The pair taught others, and soon a number of the adult macaques were washing their potatoes. In the fall of 1958, almost every macaque was doing it. Then macaques who had had no contact with the potato-washing monkeys began to wash their food. It appeared, concluded Watson, that as the practice spread through the monkey communities, a critical mass was approached when 98 and then 99 monkeys washed their food. Then, when the hundredth monkey adopted the practice, critical mass was reached, and the practice exploded through the monkey population.

Its not actually a true event, but the story was repeated in the media and passed around and reported as true until just about everyone had heard about it and believed it. This story became a meme that demonstrates a meme!
Meme’s work like that (and for those who have not heard of memes, the meaning is “an element of culture or system of behaviour that is passed from one individual to another by non-genetic means).
The thing about memes is that you only get them from someone you trust. Trust opens the door into your belief system. Its like your unconscious says to itself “ If they believe that this is the way we do things around here, then I should too“.

That’s why a values culture starts at the top; with one or two leaders who stand out because their actions match the values they espouse and those values are the ones you see on the wall every day when you walk in through the door.
The more that leaders quote the values, live the values and expect others to live the values the more likely it is that others in the organisation will adopt them too. Gradually those values become “the way we do things around here” and not just a set of words on a wall collecting dust. If people of influence, who sit outside the recognised leadership hierarchy, are seen and heard to espouse the values then even more people will join them.
Once the belief is embeded its hard to move. It takes a lot of energy to develop and a lot of courageous conversations by courageous people. You know this is true if you’ve ever inherited an organisation where people believe something counter-productive to your organisation. You may even see it in your engagement scores!

In the world we live in, business needs every advantage and point of difference that it can get. Is your culture giving you that advantage? Are your company values creating that culture? Are your leaders consistently walking the same talk, and is that talk matching your company values? Are your key players spreading the right meme?

Or are you losing the one advantage you cant buy off the shelf; a unique company culture.

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