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What is Your Culture?

Social Normative Influence

Anyone not living on an island or in a cave in total seclusion is part of one or more groups. The groups might be a department, a team, a club, or something similar. The group might be formalized such as Internal Medicine Department, Facilities Maintenance, “Blue Team” in an automotive service department, ABC Flying Club, a local chapter of Rotary International, etc. Or, it might be informally organized such as a group of car enthusiasts who meet for breakfast on the second Saturday of the month or a group of friends who meet frequently to play cards.

Regardless of the group structure or its purpose, that group will have a culture. The culture of any group is not something that was established at the group’s inception or something that is codified in a procedures manual or in bylaws. It is the unwritten, fluid, normal operating method of the group. Our species has learned over time that to prosper, we must live and work with others, and that requires us to fit into groups. We learn to conform to the rules of the group. The more we group members performing in a certain way, the more likely we are to go along.

This phenomenon is called normative social influence and is often shortened to simply, “norms.” The norms define the culture of the group. Trends in fashion and current fads are examples. We constantly hear that something is “trending” which means that many people are clicking a link to watch a video, read a blog post, or do something similar.

Norms can be positive or negative. They can promote a healthy culture in which people work together for a common goal of excellence. They can also promote a culture of distrust, selfishness, and pride. Or, more commonly, they can promote a culture of getting the tasks accomplished with little regard for established procedures or rules. The latter is much like the Venus flytrap, ensnaring new members of the group and attempting to pressure them into the norms of the group. The new member may enter the group with an ethic of following procedures and rules. But may succumb to shortcuts and violations when ridiculed or scoffed upon for compliance.

The person faced with a culture that is misaligned with his or her beliefs has three choices. The easiest is to assimilate into the group by simply following the norms. The second is to withdraw from the group. If the group is not important to the individual, just walking away is often the best solution. However, this may be difficult or impossible due to individual circumstances. The third, and more difficult, is to attempt to change the culture.

Changing an established culture is not easy and is not for the weak of spirit and resolve. Ridiculing and ostracizing are to be expected and change will not happen overnight. The existing norms developed over years and will not be easily changed. But a friendly, positive attitude, supported by facts can begin the process. It is critical to avoid the appearance of being a know-it-all or having a superior attitude. Leading from behind by earnest questioning can be effective. When a procedure is being done contrary to the manual or established procedures, asking why it is being done that way opens a discussion without being accusatory. Answering whatever explanation follows, with more relevant questions can get the group thinking about possible negative outcomes. Over time, an individual can make a positive impact on an established culture.

Knowing how to be effectively assertive without being aggressive can be very helpful. The technique is learned and practiced in our Being Better program. Check out this short YouTube video that I prepared for pilots. The basics of the technique can apply to any situation, whether in aviation or something entirely different.

Our Being Better Program addresses many aspects of understanding and dealing with cultures, especially those found in the workplace.

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