Culture, according to the CIPD is ‘a set of beliefs and values shared by members of the same organisation that influences their behaviour’. Or in plain English, it’s about ‘how we do things around here’.

In considering culture, there are a number of guiding principles and influencing factors to take into account, including your organisation’s purpose and strategy, leadership and management, and processes and systems. However, ultimately culture is intangible except in what people think and do. If you want to influence culture, then you need to influence mindsets (what people think and believe) and behaviours (what they say and do).

Assumptions about how people think and act are often simplistic – that any reasonable human being, will make the right behavioural choices provided they have information to make informed decisions and incentives and disincentives that are in his/her own interests.

If this were true, we’d all exercise regularly, eat healthily and no-one would smoke. The truth is far more complex. Life is complicated, there are many influencing factors on how we behave.

Knowledge based on scientific insight, neuroscience, psychology and behavioural change suggests an emerging model of how humans work.

The Human Operating System

Understanding this ‘human operating system’ helps us understand how we make decisions, and what motivates us to act.

Note: A full size version of this model can be found within our Human report. 

At the heart of the model are some key principles:

  • We make most of our decisions unconsciously – we make around 35,000 decisions a day, but our conscious system is limited. Because of the number of decisions we must make, the vast majority of them are made unconsciously. Because we must make them fast, we use up to 150 shortcuts. These decision-making principles are also called cognitive biases.
  • Our decisions are influenced by the behaviour of others – as we drive to work, walk down a street, buy music, watch a film or practice any number of daily actions, we make progress only because we mirror the actions of others or predict them or learn from them. “Our dominance as a species may be attributable to our ability to think socially.”
  • We collaborate to achieve shared goals – our ability to collaborate to achieve shared goals defines us, our sports teams, communities, information channels, provision of food, energy, light, transport, clothing, security, our businesses, our communities of interest and our governments.
  • Each of these elements applies to each of us – it’s a big mistake to stress only one of these elements as if it alone defines us. The truth is we are human. Each motivator will have a dominant position. For example, if someone is persuading you to buy something because it is cheaper, that is a personal benefit and is more likely to be a conscious personal decision. On the other hand, if you are being encouraged to cross the road when it is safe, the green man makes it easy for you to act and is often a background or unconscious action. Each motive will have a dominant quadrant, but motives and quadrants are flexible.

So how can this model help us tackle engagement or cultural challenges in our organisations?

Getting employees to think differently, or change how they do things, can then be viewed with a different perspective. Often communicators, engagement or culture change specialists follow the overly simplistic approach and consider only what ‘information’ and what incentives or disincentives are needed.

This emerging model urges a different approach. There are a number of motivators we can use to persuade people to act. If we select the right motive, we can trigger the desired action. With the right evidence, we can identify which motive to use to achieve the desired behaviour.

  • First understand your audience
    Who is it that you want to think or act in a different way? And what might motivate them to do that? Remember that different motivators may be dominant at different times and different contexts. Start by listening to your audiences’ needs, their concerns, what interests and excites them, or what worries them in the context of the mindset or behavioural change you’re asking of them.
  • Avoid assumptions
    Opinion or guesswork on what a particular audience might think or feel is risky. Use data and insight to get a real understanding. HR departments can sometimes help provide data. If no insight exists, gather it, it doesn’t have to be a complex process – just spending time talking and listening to your audience can be invaluable. And then…
  • Use what you’ve learnt to shape your approach to transformation,
    or tailor communication and engagement activities and interventions, tapping into audience needs and motivations to drive action.

Ultimately all change is imagined and delivered by people, so factoring in understanding of human behaviour is critical to success. For more information see our Human report.