Fix the Environment, Not the People. 4 Levers for Affecting the Culture.

Editor’s Note: This post is part of the series “Disruptive and Innovative Culture Change,” a weeklong effort co-hosted by Switch & Shift and the good people at Culture University. Keep track of the series here and check our daily e-mail newsletter for all posts. Don’t subscribe? Sign up.

We know that environment has a large impact on people’s behavior, yet as leaders, we are often too quick to blame a behavior on the person rather than the culture we’ve created. This is easier, because while they are responsible for their behavior, we are responsible for the culture.

Parents instinctively know this. One day their child plays with the “right” group of people and behaves decently. The next day, their child plays with the “wrong” group of people, and doesn’t play nice. Parents react by trying to keep their children playing with the right kids because they understand that nothing has changed about their child from one day to the next other than the environment they were in.

In 1973, John Darley and Daniel Batson performed a seminal study to see the impact of environmental factors on behavior, now referred to as the Good Samaritan Study.[1] Study participants went one by one to an office where they received instructions to go to another room across campus where they thought they were giving a talk. The instructions varied the degree of urgency participants would feel. One third were told they had plenty of time; one third were told they would be just in time and one third were told they were already late.

Along the way, the psychologists had staged a man lying on the ground in distress that the study participants had to walk right past, and in some cases step over. The question was how many people would help this person in distress.

S&S Human Synergistics Engaginar Promo 400 x 400

Of the people who were told they have plenty of time, 63% helped. Of the people who were told they were just in time, 45% helped. Of the people who were told they were already late, only 10% helped. Since all three groups were randomly drawn from the same population of seminarians, their propensity to help others ought to have been about the same. Yet, the actually behavior of helping a person in distress was dramatically affected by their sense of urgency – whether they thought they were late or not.

The sense of urgency and the culture more broadly is the leader’s responsibility. Here are four ways leaders affect culture.

1. They control the physical environment.

Replacing smaller tables with larger ones in the lunchroom results in people interacting with more people in their company and a wider transfer of information across business units. This is more effective than giving a lecture on sharing information.

2. Leaders model the behavior.

In a study from the 1960s, children saw adults play with a Bobo doll, a large self-righting inflatable doll like a bowling pin. Children who observed adults playing nicely also played nicely when they were left alone with the doll. Children who observed adults being aggressive toward the doll were also aggressive when left alone. It’s important that the leader live the culture because the actions of the leader will have more impact than words, slogans, and posters.

3. Leaders implement mechanisms that will rewire the brain.

For example, on the USS Santa Fe we started to refer to everyone on the submarine, whether officer or enlisted, or in supply or engineering, as “we.” Initially it felt like a contrivance but eventually we felt more and more like a team. This was because teammates refer to each other as “we” and the rest of the world as “they.” But it also works the other way round, people who refer to each other was we, will see others as part of their team.

4. Leaders embed the DNA of the culture in their policy documents.

I think this is the tool most underused by leaders. Let’s say a leader wants people to “take initiative” and “be empowered.” We’ve found that a simple change to a delegation of authorities document stating clearly the decision-making authority of people lower in the organization will do much more to create a culture of empowerment than speeches.

Remember, the environment matters a lot to our behavior, more than we generally give it credit for and shaping the environment is the leader’s responsibility.

How do you affect the culture of your organization?

[1] “From Jerusalem to Jericho”: A study of situational and dispositional variables in helping behavior.

Darley, John M.; Batson, C. Daniel

Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 27(1), Jul 1973, 100-108.


Upcoming Culture Change Engaginar (aka webinar)

We are also partnering with Human Synergistics’s Tim Kuppler to do a free engaginar on the topic of innovative and disruptive culture change. Please join us for this insightful and powerful session. Seating is limited to 100 people. Register early to get your spot. Registrants will also get a free white paper on culture change from Human Synergistics. Register here.

Leading Disruptive Innovative Culture Change Engaginar Mailchimp V2 1200 x 400

Did you like today’s post? If so you’ll love our frequent newsletter! Sign up HERE and receiveThe Switch and Shift Change Playbook, by Shawn Murphy, as our thanks to you!

David Marquet

Captain David Marquet imagines a work place where everyone engages and contributes their full intellectual capacity, a place where people are healthier and happier because they have more control over their work–a place where everyone is a leader. ​Captain Marquet is the author of Turn the Ship Around! A True Story of Turning Followers Into Leaders. Fortune magazine called the book the “best how-to manual anywhere for managers on delegating, training, and driving flawless execution.”

  • Benjamin Mosior

    I completely agree with this article’s preface, but something that bothers me about much of today’s leadership doctrine is the implicit reinforcement that employees are to be treated like children. We’ve seen the poor outcome when rules are prioritized over understanding and micromanagement is preferred over autonomy: Treat people like children, and they will behave as such. I know that’s not the behavior David is aiming to reinforce, but I fear that’s the impression many will take away. While the child psychology examples in the introduction and point two are sound on their own, it genuinely rubs me the wrong way to think of applying them to leadership in the context of culture change.

    To the first point, the next leap one might take is to consider open seating plans, but I would strongly encourage doing the research, specifically to look into understanding introvert/extrovert ideals and why a wide spectrum of private and public workspaces is important.

    And to expand on the fourth point, identifying inherent conflicts between responsibility and authority is an excellent strategy for enabling “empowerment” (Goldratt:

    To further reinforce David’s premise, consider the “Fear, Selection, Socialization” section of this article on NUMMI: Same people, different system, completely different outcome.

  • footer-logo

    There’s a more human way to do business.

    In the Social Age, it’s how we engage with customers, collaborators and strategic partners that matters; it’s how we create workplace optimism that sets us apart; it’s how we recruit, retain (and repel) employees that becomes our differentiator. This isn’t a “people first, profits second” movement, but a “profits as a direct result of putting people first” movement.

  • Connect

    email: connect@switch&
    1133 Ferreto Parkway
    Dayton, NV 89403

    Terms & Conditions  |  Privacy Policy

    Newsletter Subscription

    Do you like our posts? If so, you’ll love our frequent newsletter! Sign up HERE and receiveThe Switch and Shift Change Playbook, by Shawn Murphy, as our thanks to you!
  • Contact Us

    Time limit is exhausted. Please reload the CAPTCHA.