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
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.