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strategy and business
 / Spring 2011 / Issue 62(originally published by Booz & Company)


Stop Blaming Your Culture

The new formal practices were congruent with the values in the culture. For example, the executives laid off about 15,000 people, or almost one-third of the workforce. But they did it in a relatively transparent, compassionate way, with a clear rationale for those chosen to leave, and with pay increases and stock options (along with an increased work week) for those who remained. Rather than worrying that their jobs might be next, the remaining staff at Aetna now had a culture that they had helped define, in which they felt more a part of the growth direction.

Rowe and Williams also commissioned a cross-organizational effort to build motivational capability among the most respected frontline supervisors in the company. These “master motivators” were respected by their peers; they connected widely and virally in ways that energized many of the changes.

The Power of Behavior Change

The notion that behavior change leads to attitude change can be traced back to the 1950s, to psychologist Leon Festinger and his theory of cognitive dissonance. Festinger argued that when people are induced to act in new ways, even if those new behaviors feel unfamiliar or wrong at first, their need for consistency will gradually affect the way they think and feel. They will seek out reasons to justify their new actions — both rationally and emotionally.

Behavior change affects attitudes most powerfully when it is supported by empirical evidence and real-life observation of better results. Direct experience trumps the old beliefs of an established culture. If that experience is reinforced by a group of people, then it is far easier to change a culture than most people believe. But you must focus on changing the behavior rather than engaging with the culture directly.

In emphasizing behavior, you are looking for those few actions, conducted again and again, that will lead to better values (and thus to better results). Make clear the distinctions among the values you want to develop, the one-time actions you are changing, and the recurring behaviors you hope to instill. A commitment to service, for example, is a value. When a retail salesperson expresses that value by helping a customer exchange a purchase, that’s an action. When the salesperson does this routinely, knowing that over time it will help solidify customer loyalty to the store, it’s a behavior. Similarly, frugality in government is a value. When a prime minister flies on a commercial airline once (as U.K. leader David Cameron did to the U.S. in July 2010, shortly after his election), that’s an action. When the prime minister does this consistently, as Singapore leader Lee Hsien Loong does, that’s a behavior — and it is likely to have much more cultural impact.

Thus, if you are seeking more accountability, identify the types of ongoing behavior that embody that value. You might have to be specific: “I expect you to read, record, and respond to every customer complaint — and I will reward or penalize you accordingly.”

These new behaviors can be startlingly simple. Years ago, Shell Oil Company (a subsidiary of Royal Dutch/Shell PLC) had a reliability problem in the global refinery system. It was traced back to the safety and quality control processes, which were designed at the central office but not followed consistently at the refineries. Instead of launching a broad accountability initiative, a peer group of managers convinced the executive leaders to institute one new behavior. Before initiating any new process, central office managers had to ask local people how they could best introduce it. That simple behavior change, conducted by just a handful of corporate executives, ensured consistent implementation of the new process.

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  1. Joel Cooper, Cognitive Dissonance: Fifty Years of a Classic Theory (Sage, 2007): Solid introduction to Leon Festinger’s grand idea and its relevance to today’s conflicts.
  2. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, Leading Outside the Lines: How to Mobilize the (In)Formal Organization, Energize Your Team, and Get Better Results (Jossey-Bass, 2010): Integrating formal and informal measures (with more on the Aetna story).
  3. Jon Katzenbach and Zia Khan, “Leading Outside the Lines,” s+b, Summer 2010: How StockPot, a division of Campbell’s Soup, used metrics to shift cultural behavior.
  4. Richard Pascale, Jerry Sternin, and Monique Sternin, The Power of Positive Deviance: How Unlikely Innovators Solve the World’s Toughest Problems (Harvard Business Press, 2010): Changing behavior by championing people who get better results.
  5. Edgar H. Schein, The Corporate Culture Survival Guide (rev. ed., Jossey-Bass, 2009): Realistic, masterful handbook for diagnosing your culture and raising its tacit assumptions to the surface.
  6. The Katzenbach Center website: Ongoing source of research and insight on culture change theories and methods.
  7. For more thought leadership on this topic, visit s+b’s website at:
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