Conflicting signals and how they impact our culture


Some once said of culture:

“An organization’s culture is defined as the worst behavior that is allowed to occur or that is considered acceptable.”

I think this definition speaks volumes about the culture we create. After all, “culture is not what you say, but what you do.”  A culture is not created with banners, slogans, or goals.  It is that sum of behaviors and actions that occur day-after-day that determine the norm for that organization.  When negative behavior is allow (or even encouraged), the culture assumes that negative vibe.  When the norm is positive and enthusiastic, the culture assumes those attributes.

Which brings us to the problem with conflicting signals. Let’s look at a couple real examples:

  • When you first learned to drive a car, you knew that the speed limit was the legally allowed maximum speed you could travel. However, you also quickly learned that you can typically drive 4 – 8 or more miles per hour faster than the speed limit without negative impact. This is re-enforced by the police when you drive past a waiting policeman going 5 miles per hour over the limit and you do not get a ticket. Further, the policeman never blinks when you only drive 5 miles per hour over the limit. Though you know the posted speed limit, the signal we get is that we can violate that limit up to 5 miles per hour or more.
  • Another driving example… A new driver very quickly learns that a stop sign or red light means stop! Though you might occasionally get away with a “rolling stop,” the vast majority of drivers understand that stopping is a true safety issue and most readily comply with stop signs or red lights. The signal we get is that this is so important that we do not have liberty to violate it. The signal comes from others (peers) and those in authority (police).

So, how do conflicting signals impact us in the workplace? Again, let’s look at some examples:

  • What do you think when we say, “Safety is our number one objective”, then we clearly reward production more than safety performance? Is this a conflicting signal?
  • What do you think when your supervisor talks about the importance of integrity, then appears to take advantage of the rules in place that should apply to everyone? Is this a conflicting signal?
  • What do you think when your department is faced with severe budget or spending restrictions, then you see others spending lavishly on travel, meetings, etc.? Is this a conflicting signal?
  • What do you think when a parent tells a child, “Don’t drink (or smoke or gamble or whatever)”, then frequently does the exact behavior that they are teaching their children that they shouldn’t do? Is this a conflicting signal?
  • What do you think when one member of management is allowed to yell or scream or use abusive language, yet the typical response is, “Ah, that’s just the way he/she is. Just ignore him/her.” Is this a conflicting signal?

We create our culture by what we do day-by-day, week-by-week. If we want a culture that is encouraging, credible, and positive, then our behavior should reflect that.  If we want a strong quality/compliance culture, we need to diligently adhere to established procedures, limits, specifications, practices, etc. without allow those “minor excursions.”  Those minor excursions that we allow say that compliance is important… when it is convenient!  A culture of quality/compliance (or whatever you target) is established when you say it, do it, and reward others that say it and do it.  Any inconsistency degrades or cancels what you say.

In short, conflicting signals is one of the primary reasons we struggle with a negative culture. We can say whatever we want, but unless we live it consistently, our words become nothing more than noise that becomes lost in the buzz of the crowd.

Have a terrific day!

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