The Unseen Force That’s Shaping Your Culture Every Day

And What You Can Do About It

beliefs and workplace culture

There’s a silent power within your organization that’s quietly moulding the patterns of behavior that will determine your culture. A survey probably won’t detect it, but identifying and shifting it will have a significant impact on performance. We’re not talking about values or behaviors here, but something far less universal and more specific to individual organizations. The dominant, but tacit, influencer that has the capacity to both limit and liberate a business: our shared organizational beliefs.

I spent many of my early years as a culture consultant focussing on values and their relationship to culture. It is only in more recent years, however, that my colleagues at Walking the Talk have dedicated significant energy towards identifying and understanding the impact that beliefs have on culture. Although limiting beliefs can be more challenging to locate and shift, when it comes to business outcomes, the process is well worth the effort.

What is a belief?
A belief is a conclusion about how the world works. Once formed, we use our beliefs to direct our future actions. For example, if I believe that coaching helps people to become more effective, then I will invest in coaching for myself and my employees. However, if I believe coaching is a waste of time and money, then I will not invest in it. My beliefs about coaching may have been formed by a negative personal experience, or from something that I read about coaching, or even by what my peers have told me about coaching—based on their own experience, or what they themselves have heard from others.

Beliefs become particularly potent once we have persuaded ourselves that our beliefs are actual truths, rather than our opinion. When this happens, we tend to close off from new information that could challenge or negate our belief. Once I have formed the belief that coaching is a waste of money, then if someone tells me about a good experience they have had with coaching, I might conclude that they have been brainwashed, or that the benefits won’t last.

Beliefs can be about trivial things, such as the best restaurant in town, or they can be more deeply embedded, such as the belief that “I am not good enough” or “if you want something done well, you have to do it yourself.” Either way, our beliefs are the framework on which we base our day to day decisions and the way we behave. From a cognitive point of view, beliefs can be incredibly useful: If we were to evaluate every situation with brand new eyes, then we would never get anything done. Beliefs free up mental real estate because they offer us a go-to shortcut for knowing the right thing to do.

Whilst beliefs are applied by individuals, they are also formed and applied by groups. And it is in this regard that they play such an important role in organizational life and culture shaping. Most organizations have a set of values that describe the aspirational features in the culture: integrity, teamwork, customer focus, accountability, innovation, and so on. But few organizations describe the beliefs on which they want to build their organization. Fewer still can describe the beliefs on which they are currently operating. Beliefs are subtle and often invisible, but they can be very persuasive when it comes to directing group behavior.

Cause and effect (on culture)
The shared organizational beliefs that impact performance can take many forms. Over the years, we’ve uncovered some that were particularly powerful in shaping behavior. Here are a few anonymous examples. Do any of these sound familiar to you?

  • “We can do anything we put our minds to” – this belief generated a willingness to experiment and move into new markets. Sometimes with unrealistic goals and plans.
  • “We are too big to fail” – this shared organizational belief bred arrogance and lack of customer empathy.
  • “Sheer willpower and brute force will allow us to push things through” – although this led to strong execution, it also produced bullying behavior both internally and externally.
  • “People either have what it takes, or they don’t” – created an “up or out” culture with little development or coaching.
  • “More is always better” – this belief brought about continuous stretch, as well as poor prioritisation and high burnout.

If you don’t change your beliefs, your life will be like this forever. Is that a good thing? ~Somerset Maugham

Diagnosing beliefs
Identifying core beliefs takes patience and forensic diagnostics. Unlike behaviors and values, people find it hard to articulate beliefs because they are often simply seen as the truth. Sometimes you need an external eye to spot them. At Walking the Talk we have not found surveys to be effective at uncovering the most powerful shared beliefs. Instead, we favour qualitative research techniques to extract the subtleties of deeply held organizational beliefs.

When we do unearth a core belief, we know it, because it engenders two strong responses: some gasp in shocked recognition, others start arguing that it is not a belief, but rather “just the way things are.” The strength of both reactions is often the test of how close you are to a core belief.

Want to change beliefs? Get marketing!
Changing beliefs requires time and a co-ordinated process of communication, conversation, education and presentation of new evidence. We liken this process to a successful marketing campaign. Following good research, you’ll need to form a ‘campaign’ whose goals are very clear. Once the new, or reframed belief has been defined, you can then enroll a large group of leaders, opinion influencers and viral techniques to seed new thinking in the organization. This is not an easy process, which is why it is important to treat it with the seriousness with which the marketing department would treat a major campaign. Changing the shared beliefs held within the culture is just as difficult as changing beliefs that customers hold about a particular brand or its products. But if the beliefs do not change, nor will be behavior that they drive. The culture will continue as it did before.

How will you know that shared beliefs are shifting? Evidence comes in the form of changing behaviors and decisions, as the new beliefs start to drive a new approach. That approach then starts producing a different outcome in the market. In this way, a force that was once insidiously limiting can become an agent for transformation and growth organisation-wide.

What is one dominant belief that drives how people behave in your organization? Is it useful or not useful? How could that belief be reframed to drive more productive behavior? 

I invite your comments below.

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Carolyn Taylor is the founder and CEO of Walking the Talk and one of the world’s foremost experts in corporate culture. Her pioneering work in this field stretches over 25 years and every continent. During which time, she has been a tireless advocate for the recognition of culture as a key driver of performance. She is well regarded in the international business community for her provocative facilitation skills, her sound advice on culture and teams, and her inspiring public speaking.

Walking the Talk is a specialist culture change consultancy, operating globally and offering pragmatic methodology and easy-to-use tools to build internal capability to manage and lead culture. Walking the Talk’s methodologies were first introduced in Carolyn’s seminal book ‘Walking the Talk: Building a Culture for Success’ (Random House) which is considered to be the most practical guide to changing a culture on the market.

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Jacqueline Le Fèvre

    Have to say I completely agree. Like you Carolyn I focus a great deal of my work on values but when working with a new client at the start I have found the most profound understanding of the ‘why’ they are doing what they do the way they do it comes from surfacing the beliefs that underpin their values.

    Beliefs are amenable to revision but only if they can be identified and examined in the light of more recent lived experience. Sometimes a small change in a single sentence can make a world of difference. For example I was working with a mining company and the senior team told me at length how their success or failure depended on ‘what came out of the ground’. We talked about this for a while – there was a large stockpile of sub standard ‘product’ and I asked people to wonder about ways in which it could used for things they didn’t do yet… they came up with all kinds of ideas but parked them saying ‘we never have time’.

    So I suggested that one day, when there was time, they would be able to do good stuff with the ‘waste’ which they agreed with and then we decided that the underpinning belief could be reframed as ‘success or failure depends upon ‘making the most of what comes out of the ground’. The following week after record high rain falls there was a massive landslide into the main open cast mine. The site was shut down on safety grounds and no operations could take place for at least 6 months. The Managing Director credits their shift in underpinning belief with enabling the team to very quickly refocus on developing the new products they had never had time for and ‘making the most’ of what they had. In other years, the organisational response to environmental interruptions had been lay offs and short time working.

    How the world turns on what we believe……

    • Tim Kuppler

      Great example Jackie. Thank you for sharing.

  • Patrick Trottier

    I think it is important to understand that ‘beliefs’ are a closed system unless one believes that ‘beliefs’ can be, under certain conditions, an open, living, emergent, evolving system.

    In my experience ‘a change in one’s beliefs’ comes from having different, consistent and congruent experiences that reflect one’s reality and that makes sense to an individual or group. I’m not sure ‘beliefs’ can be ‘marketed’ as a ‘marketing department would treat a major campaign’. I could be in error here.

    People have heard all the talk, read the list on the pretty frames in
    the hallways that sound the same in any organization, and have attended
    the ‘event programs’ about its vision, desired norms, values, attitudes
    and beliefs. But the reality is until they experience such, those ‘talking points’ will not become real, nor internalized in people’s minds and hearts.

    An open, emergent, evolving belief system manifests what I term ‘a living culture’.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Absolutely Patrick. The shared learning and mutual experience (as Schein puts it) is the key. There can be an “a’ha” through reflection, seeing the negative impact of a belief, and many other ways. It must be translated to behavior that achieves results for there to ever be a chance of it spreading to others and eventually (far down the road) becoming a new cultural attribute. It needs to lead to results, people need to “like it” more than prior approaches AND it needs to operate for a period of time.

  • Yuvarajah

    Long ago, I came across a statement, “seeing is believing; believing is seeing”. The real life application I can relate it in the context of thinking – the former in analytical and latter in creativity. IMHO, changing one’s belief is not that difficult if you put your mind and heart into it. The question to ask is, first, to ask how the current belief adds value?. If you are satisfied then there is no cause for change. If not, you don’t have valid reasons to ignore reviewing the belief. Whatever it is, one must be honest and sincere to oneself. JFK believed in putting a man on the moon within 10 years and it happened. People valued and believed, relentless working towards realizing that goal despite their personal beliefs. Now, how is that possible why would’t it work. The challenge is rallying your people as a team behind the cause – worthy goal. The problem with corporate organisations is that far too many individuals operate with personal goals at the expense of team collaboration. There can be no synergy if the sum parts does not equal the whole.