When people join a new business, they want to ‘fit in’. No one wants to join a new company and end up being seen as the weak link or the person no one else talks to. 

At The Pioneers, we talk about this as being our motivation to belong – the desire to be accepted and included by the people you work with. And the research from social psychology suggests that when people want to fit in, their behaviour and attitudes are remarkably malleable – much more so than any of us would like to admit!

Imagine for a minute that you run a chain of fast food restaurants. You’ve recently hired a team member called Jim. Jim’s out on the floor cleaning and as he walks past a table he gets the sense that a customer isn’t 100% satisfied with their food. Jim needs to make a choice: does he engage the customer or does he get on with wiping the dirty tables and pretend he hasn’t heard anything? 

Now, it’s unlikely that in these circumstances Jim’s going to refer back to your corporate strategy. Jim’s not going to ask himself whether your goal of driving NPS is best served by cleanliness or by checking in with the customer. It’s a bit much to ask Jim to try and calculate the relative reputational risk of dirty tables versus satisfaction with food quality, the potential impact on lifetime customer value or factor in the opportunity cost of getting involved. If he tried to do this every time he faced a decision, Jim’d be exhausted 30 minutes into his shift!

Instead of making a rational, deliberate decision about what’s in the best interests of the company, Jim’s going to make an emotional, instinctive call based on the signals he gets from his peers about ‘the way people do things around here

If the culture in the restaurant values cleanliness above all else, then Jim is less likely to engage with the customer. And if he does stop for a chat with a customer, Jim’s likely to find some of his colleagues pick him up for ‘slacking off’ either with subtle gestures of disapproval, or by telling him: “don’t bother with that, get on with cleaning the tables”. 

Now if someone consistently goes against the culture of the team it becomes a source of tension

So if cleanliness is a cultural norm in the restaurant – something you have to do to fit in and be accepted by the team – but Jim consistently chats to customers instead of cleaning tables, then this tension will be resolved in one of two ways. Either, Jim wins and he inspires a change in the team’s culture… cleanliness becomes less important and everyone starts to emulate his care for customers. Or, more likely, the group wins and Jim either starts to conform or he chooses to leave for a business where he feels more like he belongs.

Company culture doesn’t determine behaviour – a cultural norm (what you need to do to fit in) isn’t the only thing that might affect whether Jim decides to clean the table or talk to the customer – but in a people system, your culture is almost certain to be the biggest influence on your people’s day-to-day behaviour and decision making. 

Put simply, your vision and strategy will determine what you work on, but on a day to day basis, your teams will be making decisions and adjustments about what’s prioritised, what gets done and how. Getting this ‘last mile’ right is the difference between having a great plan, a fancy brand and an inspiring vision and actually delivering for your customers and growing your business. It’s your culture that’s actually going to determine what work gets out the door.