Dr Elisabeth Stevens is an alumnus of our commercial partner, SCL, and a contributor to the BDI methodology. Here, she looks at the role of corporate culture in behavioural change.

Corporate culture is not usually high on a CEO’s priority list. Many executives think of culture as being “fluffy” and difficult to link to company performance. There is a belief that culture is hard to measure and to influence. As a result it is often ignored and not given much time on the corporate agenda. This is a mistake. Through the use of social norms, it is possible to create and manage a high performance culture with very real and significant results, which ultimately boosts the only metric that matters: the bottom line.

Although companies pay lip service to the importance of corporate culture the reality is that most do very little to actively manage it. This is surprising given that organizations do devote significant resources to improving employee performance and investing in keeping workers motivated. By making a simple switch from a focus on the individual to a focus on the group, it is possible to achieve noticeable behaviour change with better results and for less cost and time.

CEO’s and managers often struggle with how to motivate employees to perform at their best. Frustrated because they know their employees are capable, managers often don’t understand what to do to encourage their employees to excel.

Traditional motivation methods focus on the individual and often include tools like recognition and rewards. These can be useful, but can also yield short-term benefits. The Observer Effect means that employees will perform differently when they know it matters, like right before a performance review, during a meeting with a senior manager, or at bonus time. Traditional individual-focused motivation tools do not generate sustained behaviour change.

A more effective motivational strategy – with longer-term results – can come from tapping into the power of group dynamics. A corporate culture that emphasizes high performance social norms can be a very powerful (and often overlooked and underutilized) strategy for getting the best from employees for the long term.

    How social norms work

Psychological research suggests that perceptions of social norms have a strong influence on real-world behaviour, and that this relationship is stronger than that of individual beliefs on behaviour. Research also suggests that perceptions of social norms are easier to change than are individual beliefs (e.g. Berkowitz, 2004; Blanchard, Crandall, Brigham, & Vaughn, 1994; Cialdini, Kallgren, & Reno, 1991; Sherif, 1936).

Therefore, if a manager is looking to influence or motivate employee work behaviour, the key is to target the social norm of the group, rather than focus on each individual. In a corporate setting this means establishing a highly visible culture where the perceptions of group norms are consistent with the manager’s goals.

So, for example, if the manager wants employees to take fewer coffee breaks and get into the office earlier in the morning, the effort should be around communicating that this behaviour is what most employees do. Highlighting examples of workers getting in early (“A group of us were just talking about that in the parking lot while coming into the office at 8 this morning”) or working through the day without many breaks (“We have all been so engrossed in this project we forgot to eat lunch!”) helps employees notice the desired behaviours. With repetition, the employees begin to believe that coming in early and taking fewer breaks is the norm and the desirable behaviour. Research shows that people who think ‘everybody is doing it’ are more likely to do ‘it’ as well; no one wants to be left out. In the case of employee work behaviour, when employees recognize the new desired behaviour pattern they rationalize that there must be a good reason and find themselves wanting to ‘join the club.’ (Cognitive dissonance helps to explain why people view it as the right thing to do; because they are doing it, they bring their beliefs into line with their actions.)

A similar social norm culture strategy can be used for any goal, including high employee performance. The formula is simple, but needs consistent and committed follow-through.

    How to build culture

Developing or changing a corporate culture requires active management and consistent attention. The following provides a few suggestions on how to implement a lasting culture change:

    Identify corporate goals, break them down & be specific

High-level goals are a good start, but to have impact it is important to be as specific as possible and to break down goals into specific behaviours. For example:

Improve company’s profits –> Generate more revenue by filling customers’ orders faster –> Encourage employees to be more productive about processing orders over the phone –> Have workers take fewer breaks to answer more calls

Identifying specific behaviours creates a roadmap for targeting the relevant social norms. A focus on behaviour allows managers and employees to be clear about what needs to be done.

    Establish the new norm & highlight examples consistent with goals

As suggested above, implement a strategy where worker behaviour consistent with the new norm is accentuated and where inconsistent or undesirable behaviours are ignored. It is also crucial that management is visible and transparent and is seen demonstrating the desired behaviour consistently and regularly. Culture applies to everyone and employees will look to leaders and those with seniority for clues on what behaviour is expected. Words are not enough.

    Socially reinforce and reward the behaviour

Make it desirable to be part of the group and to engage in the desired behaviour. This will usually not be through individual or monetary rewards, but rather through positive social reinforcement. Social reinforcement includes things like acceptance, smiles, praise, and positive attention. It can come in the form of simple things like wanting to have lunch together, sending social emails or asking for advice or help on work or personal issues. Research has shown that social reinforcement can be a powerful motivator (Hall, Lund, Jackson; 1968).

    Create a sense of connection

Culture and social norms are not an individual thing. Social norms are most powerful when group members feel strongly connected to the group (Cartwring, 1971). To facilitate the development of group identity, it is important to regularly hold office-wide gatherings and events (lunches, office update meetings, social events, etc) that bring people together and to help define the group.


Implementing a corporate culture using social norms can be a cost efficient, effective and long-term strategy for positively influencing the behaviour of employees. Instead of focusing on traditional methods of motivating employees at an individual level, research suggests that the most fruitful path might be to take a group-level approach.



Berkowitz, A. D. (2004). An overview of the social norms approach. In L. C. Lederman & L. P. Stewart (Eds.), Changing the culture of college drinking: A socially situated prevention campaign (pp. 193–214). New Jersey: Hampton Press.

Blanchard, F. A., Crandall, C. S., Brigham, J. C., & Vaughn, L. A. (1994). Condemning and condoning racism: A social context approach to inter- racial settings. Journal of Applied Psychology, 79, 993–997.

Cartwring, Z. Group Dynamics: Research and Theory (New York: Harper and Row, 1971)

Cialdini, R. B., Kallgren, C. A., & Reno, R. R. (1991). A focus theory of normative conduct: A theoretical refinement and reevaluation of the role of norms in human behavior. In M. P. Zanna (Ed.), Advances in experimental social psychology (Vol. 24, pp. 201–234). New York: Academic Press.

Hall, R. V., Lund, D., & Jackson, D. (1968). Effects of teacher attention on study behavior. Journal of Applied Behavior Analysis, 1, 1-12. Sherif, M. (1936). The psychology of social norms. New York: Harper & Brothers.

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