by Kevin | May 27, 2020

Culture is for everyone, or no one.

The recent episode in the UK regarding a government advisor apparently flouting guidelines seems to be causing indignation, anger and a national debate about when is a rule not a rule? However, the apparent behaviour of Dominic Cummings is no different to that of many ‘leaders’ in organisations the world over who believe it is okay to behave in a way that apparently contradicts the culture they espouse. I'm not in any way casting judgement on this situation, simply using it as an example of why culture can never be optional.

Culture, by definition, is a set of shared beliefs which translate into desired behaviours and subsequently deliver outcomes. In the case of Covid-19 the belief in the UK was that the spread of the virus would be slowed down if some lock-down rules were followed. The expected behaviour was that everybody would stay at home unless they were an essential worker or shopping for food or taking short exercise. The outcome hoped for was reduced spread of infection, a lower death rate and subsequent return to normality. Everybody was affected, everybody was treated equally, and everybody would be held accountable. Imagine the outrage therefore when one of the authors of these ‘rules’ was caught apparently breaking most of them.

But sadly this happens too often.

Why is it that some people believe they are above the law or excluded from guidelines or more important than others? When beliefs are shared and behaviours are consistent, we have something called culture; this may not always be good culture, but nevertheless a culture exists. When leaders create rules and behaviours for others to follow but from which they are personally exempt, it’s called control, coercion or manipulation.

Culture includes everyone.

In organisations the most critical exponents of the corporate culture are the leadership team. They set the tone, they determine whether the stated culture is important or not and they decide whether the culture is, in fact, optional. When culture becomes optional it ceases to exist; one rule for the many and another rule for the elite. Organisations will gradually see lower and lower employee engagement and higher and higher turnover of talented staff. In these companies ‘values’ statements become the focus of internal ridicule and external confusion. They become known as the ‘poster on the wall’ instead of the way we are day to day.

Don’t start a culture journey that doesn’t apply to you.

So, my advice to CEOs and Boards of directors is this. If you’re up for the challenge, the journey and the pain of creating a constructive culture that applies to everyone then we’re right behind you every step of the way. This isn't to say some mistakes wont be made. They will, and when they are, apologise, learn and move on. People will forgive and soon forget. But if you’re simply trying to get others to behave in a certain way that doesn’t apply to you personally then my advice is don’t go there, don’t raise expectations and let your people down by positioning yourself as a special case to whom the rules don’t apply.

Culture applies to everyone or no-one.

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