Blog – What’s the Difference Between Culture and Behaviour?

Within the last few years ‘culture’ has entered the realm of buzz words, it seems whenever you hear about issues within organisations these days, the culture is quickly identified as being a key cause. Undoubtedly, culture is a key factor in many of the issues we hear about, but the word is often used superficially without any further discussion or exploration of what it is or how it works.

This leads to a large amount of confusion around what culture is and how to measure it. Shaun McCarthy wrote a whitepaper on the subject a few years ago seeking to clear up some of this confusion. Essentially, culture is about behavioural norms, which is distinct from other people measures such as engagement, which are about organisational climate, basically how people feel about their organisation.

Shaun has addressed this first area of confusion. That is, the difference between culture and climate, multiple times, so I won’t rehash it here. However, there is another area of confusion that we frequently hear from our clients: the difference between culture and actual observed behaviour within an organisation.

Through our suite of diagnostics, we measure both culture (through the Organisational Culture Inventory™) and perceptions of individual behaviour (through the Life Styles Inventory™ feedback from others). It’s not uncommon for a client to put a large cohort of their leaders through the LSI diagnostic and then ask us to combine all these individual profiles to give them a snapshot of their culture. However, this does not provide an accurate measure of culture for a couple of reasons.

1. Culture is not the only thing that influences behaviour

Culture is certainly an important factor and plays a major role in how individuals behave on the job, but there are also other factors, such as an individual’s previous experiences, background, preferences or personality that will influence their behaviour. We generally find that once you reach a sufficiently large population within an organisation, the combined LSI tends to match our norming group with the natural differences between individuals cancelling each other out. This results in the combined profile being a blob that’s not particularly useful for anything other than demonstrating our norming data works. Figure 1 shows some examples of the combined LSI2 (behaviour) data from several organisations.

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Figure 1. Aggregate LSIs with a sufficiently large population fit the norm.

2. Things look rosier at the top

The other major flaw with trying to use aggregate LSI data as a proxy measure for culture, is that most clients will use the LSI diagnostic as part of their leadership development programs. Therefore, the data is concentrated amongst their more senior people rather than being representative of the organisation.

We know from working with thousands of organisations around the world that in most cases those higher up in the organisation tend to have a rosier view of its’ culture and report it as being more ‘constructive’ in our language. An example of the different cultural experiences seen as we move down an organisation can be seen in Figure 2, with the senior leaders having a highly constructive experience, which dilutes as you move down to the front line level. This difference is likely because the more senior you are the more autonomy or control you tend to have.

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Figure 2. Cultural experience is more constructive at the top.

3. So why bother measuring behaviour if it all just averages out? Or culture if it does not control your people’s behaviour?

The answer to both of these questions is that the two work in unison. While there is not a 1 to 1 correlation between your culture and the behaviour of individuals in your organisation, there is a strong link. People will not always act in alignment with your culture, but it is the best way to influence their thinking. At the end of the day you can’t completely control your people’s behaviour, short of some sort of Orwellian constant surveillance which will do wonders for the organisational climate mentioned earlier and most likely fail anyway.

The best results are achieved through a combination of focusing on both the systemic cultural level and the individual behavioural level to ensure the two are working together and mutually reinforcing each other. If you measure an individual’s behaviour, provide them with feedback and coaching but then toss them back into the same cultural system without any support they are unlikely to change. On the other hand, leadership is a powerful driver of culture and if you make a concerted effort to shift the behaviour of your leaders as a cohort this is likely to have a positive effect on your culture. Although, nowhere near as significant an effect as you’d achieve by combining this with other cultural initiatives focused around structure, communication, systems and job design.  This is shown in the leadership-culture performance loop in Figure 3.

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Figure 3. Leadership and Culture work together to generate performance.

Where culture and behaviour are worked on in unison, we do see the aggregated behaviours shift away from our norming data, the 3 examples shown in Figure 1 are all organisations who work exclusively on leaders’ behaviour rather than also incorporating culture. Figure 4 shows an example of a client who have taken a more systemic approach.

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Figure 4. Culture and behaviour reinforcing each other.

Here we can see the organisation’s culture and the behaviour of its’ leaders are very similar, both being highly constructive and reinforcing each other. The constructive culture influences individuals to behave constructively while the constructive behaviour, of leaders in particular, sets the tone that constructive is the cultural expectation. Even with a relatively large population of 164 individuals, the aggregate LSI2 is starkly different from the norm. So while aggregate LSI2s are generally not a good representation of an organisation’s culture, they can be when both are worked on in unison and over time to ensure they align.

We’d love your feedback as well as any suggestions for questions you’d like answered from our data. Email your feedback to


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