If you’re a team leader who sees the need to change the culture of an organization you just joined, what can you do to start the process to change?
Culture is the shared values and beliefs of an organization or any group of people. It is a way of life and a pattern of thought and behavior that insiders take for granted. Thus, it can sometimes be very hard to change. Team leaders who fail to read how their members react to the initiative may—at best—be ineffective, and at worst, produce chaos in the workplace.
One strategy to introduce change can involve managers policing their team members and enforcing some sort of punishment, like imposing fines, for those who don’t show the desired behaviors.
A recent study by researchers Rob Nelissen and Laetitia Mulder, however, have shown that this particular strategy, while effective in the short run (people become more compliant when there’s money involved, especially if it’s theirs), is not enduring. After the threat of the sanction is gone, most go back to their old behaviors.
They have found out, though, that there is one other alternative which is more effective and persistent: social disapproval.
In their study, the researchers grouped 84 participants into four and had them play a game where they were asked to contribute a certain amount into a group kitty. After each round, the kitty is multiplied 1.5 times and divided among the group members.
To prevent freeloaders, the researchers made one-third the groups impose a fine on freeloading members while another one-third played under threat of social sanction (group disapproval). The remaining one-third acted as control.
As expected, the groups playing under threat of financial or social sanction played fair; more so for those who were getting fined. At the seventh to tenth rounds, though, when everybody was told that the sanctions were removed, the participants playing with a financial sanction played as selfishly as those who were in the control group. Only the participants in the social disapproval groups continued to play fairly.
The main takeaway of the research is that in any organization, if a team leader wants to institute behavioral change among the members, social sanctions produce better result than financial ones.
However, this is not that easy to implement, as it requires a certain amount of emotional intelligence on the part of the team leaders. Emotional intelligence lets one have an insight into the motivation of other people’s behaviors. In the workplace, understanding the team members’ motivation is especially important, given the goal of cultural change.
It is only when team leaders can correctly gauge their members’ reactions (whether explicit or implicit) that true understanding of the organization’s culture can take place. With this understanding, the organization as a whole can be made to act—in this case, either to socially approve or disapprove behaviors of individual members—so that cultural change may occur.
Emotional intelligence can be developed and enhanced, so that leaders who want to implement changes in their workplace can do so without effectively and efficiently without alienating their members.
Nelissen, R., & Mulder, L. (2013). What makes a sanction “stick”? The effects of financial and social sanctions on norm compliance. Social Influence 8(1), 70-80. DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/15534510.2012.729493