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The Differences Between Behavior and Culture

Dear David,

How do you define the difference between behavior and culture? Does behavior drive culture, or does culture drive behavior?

Natural Order of Things

Dear Natural,

The short answer is that behavior determines culture, and culture determines behavior. But it’s more complicated than that, and the complications make it a fascinating topic. First, let’s turn back the clock. I did my doctoral work in psychology back in the 1970s, studying with Albert Bandura at Stanford University. Al looks at culture and behavior through a model he has labeled reciprocal determinism.

He developed this model to respond to the overly simplistic approaches that were popular in the 70s. The first of these approaches imagined that behavior was determined entirely by genes and personality. The second imagined that behavior was determined entirely by the environment.

Bandura recognized that behavior is influenced by both personal and environmental factors, but added that people, through their behavior, also influence themselves and their environment.

As an aside, when Bandura used the term environment, he placed special emphasis on our social environment as well as the physical world. This emphasis brings us back to your question about culture. I see culture as a part of our social environment. I’ll come back to this in a few paragraphs to make some finer distinctions. But for now, I’ll continue with Bandura’s model of reciprocal determinism.

Most importantly, it is a model that posits human agency. For example, suppose we want to exercise more. We can take two steps to exert our agency. First, we need to recognize the influences that are working against us. Bandura suggests we look at personal, social, and environmental influences. In Influencer and Change Anything, my co-authors and I classify these as Personal, Social (the social environment), and Structural (the physical world) influences.

Once we’ve identified the influences that are working against us, Bandura suggests we take action to change ourselves, our social environment, and our physical world so that all three exert positive rather than negative influences on our behavior. This ability to recognize and change the influences around us gives us agency over our behavior.

When we apply this model to culture, we see that we are influenced by our culture, but that we are also able to influence and change that culture. Instead of being a prisoner of our culture, we are both the product and parent of our culture.

Now, back to my earlier aside. I said that culture is an aspect of our social environment. What I really mean is that culture is the implicit part of our social environment. Our social environment includes both explicit and implicit elements. For example, if my boss asks me to work late, that’s a part of my explicit social environment. But, if my organization has an unspoken norm that everyone works late, that’s a part of my implicit social environment—my organization’s culture.

We often characterize this distinction as above the waterline and below the waterline. (As in the part of the iceberg that’s visible and that part that lurks beneath the surface.) Above the waterline are the explicit, acknowledged, and intentional influences of our social environment. Below the waterline are the implicit, unrecognized, and unseen influences. These include the norms, practices, habits, and unwritten rules that form our culture.

The implicit nature of culture makes it difficult to change. Sometimes we don’t even see the cultural influences around us. Other times the cultural rules are undiscussable—taboo to even talk about. Still other times cultural norms come with long histories, and are reinforced by multiple sources of influence. In these cases, it can feel as if culture determines behavior, and not the other way around.

However, we have been involved in many incredibly successful culture change initiatives. The key is to recognize the hidden influences that are supporting the status quo, and to enlist a critical mass of new influences in support of the change. It’s also important to recognize that your culture is a treasure, a source of pride and power. We describe our Influencer process as a precision tool we use to fine-tune a culture without undermining it.

I hope this helps. How do you see the relationship between culture and behavior?

Best Regards,

PS. Here’s another article on the Six Sources of Influence you might find helpful.

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7 thoughts on “The Differences Between Behavior and Culture”

  1. Danny Thompson

    David –
    Thanks for that clear description of culture, and the relationship to behavior. At Keller Williams Realty, we are very proud of our culture, and believe it is a crucial core value of our organization. In fact, we leverage our culture (stated and actual) as a reason to join KW. Our culture attracts like-minded individuals, and shapes the behavior of those who join us. It is as you said – culture shapes behavior… AND, behavior shapes culture.

    Interestingly, growth challenges culture, in that an infusion of individuals with in-congruent behaviors (values) potentially can lead to imbalance, with undesired behaviors influencing the micro culture (local), which can eventually influence the macro culture (national).Intentional protection and hedging around the preferred culture becomes crucial. Clearly stated mission, vision, values, beliefs and perspectives are the key to keeping the culture centered and on track, with a willingness to confront, and even remove those who may derail the intended culture. This requires commitment and clarity.

    Understanding the direct relationship between behavior and culture, and having a clear vision of your preferred culture within your organization are so important. Then, getting buy-in to that vision constantly becomes the activity every leader, every person in the organization. Even the largest, most successful organizations can maintain a coherent culture in the face of constant change, and in that, provide a wonderful work life for everyone in the organization.

    1. David Maxfield

      Thanks Danny, I completely agree. Often, the organization’s selection, orientation, and retention systems need to play a “border guard” role to protect the culture. The challenge is that selection systems often focus too exclusively on above-the-waterline skills, and fail to evaluate below-the-waterline factors.
      Having said that, it would be a mistake to over-rely on “hiring the right people” to build and maintain a culture. First, people can change. A person who has grown up in one culture can discover and appreciate a new set of cultural norms. Second, selection alone will never be a powerful enough lever to maintain your culture. You will need to use all Six Sources of Influence to keep your culture on track and growing.

    2. Prof. James H. Ombaka

      David, you have driven the thought in with precision and acute distinction. I just wished to add one point I felt needed amplification. While there exists mutual influence between culture and behaviour, culture involves groups, society, tribe. It is a collective attribute therefore rather difficult to manipulate quickly, while behaviour tends to be individual/personal and therefore easier to manage and manipulate within a short span of time.

  2. Mary Ellen Bonelli

    David, thank you for that, I want to re-read and absorb it more, I opened the link to reciprocal determinism to better understand. I will discuss this with my cousin as we both like to work on and learn more emotional intelligence. I frequently say my current department has a difficult culture but I’m now not sure I’ve got that right…I need to get some scuba gear to look under the waterline…stay tuned and again, thank you.

  3. Matt

    David– this is very interesting. I have a heavy science background, and I often think of this interaction between culture and behavior like gravity. Physics tells you that your gravitational pull on the earth in terms of force is equal in size to the earth’s upon you. However, the difference in mass means that when you jump up, the earth’s resulting motion is so imperceptible that a nearby observer doesn’t trip because of the earth’s motion– they really feel nothing of the earth moving, and all the apparent motion is in you, the jumper. Of central importance here is that there is no distinction from the physics perspective about how any one part of the system interacts every atom in us and in the earth is treated equally. We simply perceive the interaction to be about our movements on the surface of the earth, because the earth beneath us is so large that none of our movements can be detected by watching the earth’s reaction.

    Now in the behavior/culture interaction, a similar mass game is at play. When one person in a room of 1000 does something a little out of the norm, they are the jumper and the other 999 are the earth– the earth doesn’t move–the culture doesn’t change– and you just “see the jumper”– you can tell they’re not the norm. But if 800 people in the room are doing the same thing as the one did earlier, perhaps now the culture of the room has changed, because the two masses are not so out of balance.

    Another way I see this is that culture is somehow the median of behavior. Where you have distributions of behavior with “more than one peak”, then you have culture clashes because individual members don’t always think of themselves as close to the same peak in the distribution.

    In both analogies above, the essential distinction is that culture is usually thought of as an environmental or group effect, but when you ask how that relates to behavior, I think it warrants specifying whether you’re talking about one person’s behavior or the behavior of several. This is why I like the gravity analogy– it assumes the rule is the same, and what really matters is the numbers/sizes of the two things that are interacting.

    Finally, these two views and that of the article are very static to age considerations, which I think have a ton to do with the overall question from the point of view of the individual.

  4. davidmaxfield

    Hi Matt, I like your analogies. They illustrate how very difficult it can be to change cultural norms.
    At the same time, cultures don’t follow the same rules as mass and gravity. With culture, individuals can have disproportionate impacts. We always involve two groups in particular: Formal Leaders and Informal (Opinion) Leaders.
    The relevant literature here is Diffusion of Innovation–the book with this title by Everett Rogers is the place to begin in this field. One of my favorite introductions is an article by Don Berwick that appeared in the Journal of the American Medical Association. Below is a link:
    Finally, remember the quote from Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
    And from the Dalai Lama: “If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito.”
    I also agree with you on the importance age has on our points of view. I think it affects us in two ways: 1.) I agree with Erik Erikson that people’s interests change in predictable ways as they age. That 20-year olds are working on life problems that are different from those that occupy 60-year olds. 2.) I see cultural changes that relate to age-related groups, such as young technophiles. If young (or old) people experience a common data stream, they will have common reactions.
    thanks again for your stimulating ideas,

  5. the effects of culture and society on behaviour - konkeng & konkeng

    […] The Differences Between Behavior and Culture […]

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