Contagious behavior

The organization design model that I work with does not have 'culture' specifically visible as one of its elements (neither does Galbraith's model). The participants in the course I was facilitating last week noted this and it started a discussion on whether culture was an 'output' of various other factors, and whether culture can be changed by taking steps to change people's behavior.

One manager told the story of moving to a new role in a different department, but in the same organization. She was shocked by the different norms of behavior in the new department. Here it was the norm to swear and shout during management meetings. She noted that the manager was one of the worst offenders and in her view people followed suit.

This incident is less about changing behavior and more about role modeling – people copied what they saw as acceptable managerial behavior. The importance of leaders role modeling the behavior they'd like to see in their subordinates or in the organization as a whole is often remarked on.

Additionally there have been many studies illustrating that behavior is contagious. One that caught my eye recently Bad Behavior Contagious, Study Finds was conducted in Holland a couple of years ago,
asking the question "Does a messy neighborhood make a difference on how people act?" The answer is 'yes'.

Graffiti on the walls, trash in the street, bicycles chained to a fence, all resulted in a decline in how people behaved in a series of experiments.

A bit of litter or graffiti didn't lead to predatory crime, but actions ranging from littering to trespassing and minor stealing all increased when people saw evidence of others ignoring the rules of good behavior

In normal behavior most people try to act appropriately to the circumstances. … But some tend to avoid effort or seek ways to gain for themselves.

Things like littering an area or applying graffiti change the circumstances by indicating that others are not behaving correctly, which weakens the incentive for people to do the right thing.

So the researchers were not surprised that people littered more in messy area, for example. But, the researchers said, "We were, however, surprised by the size of the effect."

Here's an example:

The researchers found a tidy alley in a shopping area where people parked their bicycles. There was a no-littering sign on the wall.

The researchers attached flyers for a nonexistent store to the bike handlebars and observed behavior.

Under normal circumstances, 33 percent of riders littered the alley with the flyer. But after researchers defaced the alley wall with graffiti, the share of riders who littered with the flyers jumped to 69 percent.

They did a half-dozen similar experiments, all with similar results.

While the study seems to deliver a negative message, Keizer [the leade researcher] pointed out that "it also shows that municipal officials and the public can have a significant impact on the influence of norms and rules on behavior."

In other words, keep public areas neat and people will be less likely to make a mess.

Although it's not a good idea to generalize or extend from a specifically designed piece of research, just from observation it seems that people are likely to act within the norms that are apparently acceptable. People who work where there is a clean desk policy have clean desks (when the policy is reinforced) regardless of their tidiness quotient. People whose managers swear are likely to swear if that is their predilection. On this, I'm guessing that people who don't normally swear would not take it up – but I may be wrong. Some recent research on eating habits The Spread of Obesity in a Large Social Network over 32 Years found that people who ate with friends were likely to copy the eating patterns of the friends. (See also Are your friends making you fat? and Watching your Weight? Beware of Skinny Friends with Big Appetites)

This kind of behavior is also exposed in the Abilene Paradox – bylined 'the management of agreement'. Collectively these stories reinforce the notion that desired behavior should be role modeled and reinforced when it occurs. However, they are not suggesting that behavior equals culture, and it would be misleading to infer that influencing behavior results in changing the culture.

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