Understanding the Power of Workplace Culture

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Two fish are swimming together in the ocean.  The first fish turns to the other and, to make small talk, asks, “How’s the water?”  The second fish replies, “What the hell is water?”This parable highlights a strange truth: When we are completely immersed in something, we cease to notice it.  For us as employees, this is our workplace culture.  Our company culture is defined by the prevalent values, beliefs, rules, and expectations.  

Culture is the water in which we swim.  It is all around us, and its quality affects our worldview, relationships, choices, and overall wellbeing.  

How powerful is workplace culture?  How much do people allow their actions to be shaped by others?  The famous Asch experiment painted a picture that is downright scary:

Participants were given a simple matching task with an obvious correct answer.  For example, given the below image, they would be asked to match the line on the left with the matching line on the right, based on length:    

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When peers before them agreed on an incorrect answer (as part of the experiment), participants themselves tended to conform and submit the same wrong response.   

Take a second and let that sink in.  Even when the answer is clear as day, most participants chose to conform instead of trusting their basic senses.  It wasn't for lack of intellect, either.  This study was conducted at Swarthmore College, a strong liberal arts institution.  

This is the reason why so many individual interventions fail.  The cultural pull to behave in old patterns is like a magnet.  Psychology has demonstrated time and time again that going against others’ expectations takes tremendous emotional and mental energy.  It is much easier and more comfortable on many levels to just go with the flow, rather than risk alienation by the group.

If social influence can be so strong in very clear-cut situations, what happens when the answer is not so clear and we are faced with social pressure?  What happens when we want to behave differently but the culture around us pushes us to act in old, unhealthy ways?  

Well, in no uncertain terms:  We almost always fail.  

Psychologist Kurt Lewin asserted that an individual’s behavior is a function of their personality and the environment.  The environment does not determine our actions, per se, but it has a very strong influence on them, especially when we are not aware of its pull.

This is why great leaders obsess about creating positive culture.  This is why progressive HR departments put such a strong emphasis on shaping healthy structure for their talent.  

At Workit Health, we suggest that enhancing Substance Wellbeing® is a natural starting point for this process.  We know now that addictive behaviors affect a huge percentage of the workforce, at great personal cost to the people of the organization.  Even when an employee does not struggle personally, often someone they care about does.  When this is the case, the culture around these individuals can have a drastic influence on their ability to overcome addictive behavior or cope with a loved one’s struggles.  

Look around the office and ask yourself: Is there support to make a healthy change, or does my workplace culture reinforce the problems people experience?  Is there peer pressure, for example, to drink alcohol at happy hour events?  Are healthy eaters forced to choose between compromising their goals or dining alone?

It’s a difficult problem to tackle, because culture and social norms run deep.  We believe that growing our collective awareness is a reasonable first step.  This article is written in the hope that you might see your interactions with colleagues in a different lens, if only for a day.  

After all, everyone contributes to culture.  Even if you are not pushing to reduce bad habits or old patterns, you can participate positively by supporting others in their efforts.  

So, how will you shape your team’s culture today?