My oldest child turns 4 years old today. It’s so interesting to watch him learn. In recent weeks it seems he’s turned up his language skills a notch, using more complicated words and phrases, and checking his understanding of words he hears us use. He’s also become more of a boundary tester, becoming aware of behaviors that are off-limits, admonitions that are mere suggestions, and other behaviors that required. He’s thoroughly confused about the difference between lying and sarcasm.
I realized he’s learning culture for the first time. Up to this point, he’s been living by our rules more-or-less because we say so, but now he seems to be more deliberate about learning what really is acceptable and what things mean. Fascinating!
This got me thinking about how once we have the initial learning about human culture as children, learning how to fit into other group cultures – first school, then work – comes easier and less deliberate. Some of my ex-colleagues used to say, when a new employee joined the company, “Write down all the things you want to fix, because after six months, you become part of the problem.” Either we assimilate quickly, or we bounce off to another organization if we reject the culture we find (or it rejects us).
Which makes me wonder: if it is so easy for an individual to assimilate into a new organizational culture – to learn new rules, guidelines, values and language – then why is it so hard to change culture?
Perhaps we should go back and look at how people learn culture in the first place. Like my 4 year old, we all learn culture by testing boundaries and processing the resulting feedback. If we want to change the culture, then we need to move the boundary. Then, retraining individuals on the new culture requires feedback as the new boundaries are explored – through correction, repetition, and praise. The challenge is how to do that without making people feel like a 4 year old. If we were all still motivated by timeouts and stickers, changing culture would be a whole lot easier.
Inquiry: What boundaries are you moving?