Behavioral Science & Shifting Organizational Culture in the Workplace

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2 min read

May 23, 2023

By Charles Smith. The article was originally published in LinkedIn Pulse on June 13, 2018:

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak with two Stanford University behavioral scientists who are applying their research to the challenges of Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging (DIB) in the workplace. I met Professor Geoffrey Cohen and Raj Bhargava who have over 20 years of research and application experience looking at achievement gaps, social psychology, and identity maintenance, among other areas. They have discovered that when we measure and manage organizational culture using tailored best practices, we can predictably address societal problems that affect our businesses.

Why is culture a lynchpin to addressing diversity & inclusion challenges? As Bhargava expressed through this quote,

“ Culture is like the wind. It is invisible, yet its effect can be seen and felt. When it is blowing in your direction, it makes for smooth sailing. When it is blowing against you, everything is more difficult.

(By Bryan Walker, IDEO, and Sarah A. Soule, Stanford; Harvard Business Review, June 2017). Many companies today, even with the best DIB intentions, are battling this indiscernible headwind. How do you transform a culture to turn the headwind into a tailwind? That is the question that Cohen and Bhargava have dedicated their careers, and their new company to. 

One of the most critical points is that a culture is not what management thinks or says it is, but “it is the sum total of beliefs, values, and perceptions of people in an organization." In layman terms, this is what your employees collectively believe the culture to be. Often, management does not take the simple step of “perspective gathering” -- finding out what people really think. In headline news, we see the embarrassing situations that can occur when the promoted culture does not line up with the culture as experienced “down on the ground” by the employees and customers. At Guitar Center, after we took an honest look at ourselves and our customer demographics, we recognized that we needed to grow in a new way and to do so proactively.

Many of us are familiar with the Growth Mindset research, which shows the power of believing that abilities and intelligence can be developed, made popular in companies nationwide by another Stanford professor, Carol Dweck. Cohen spoke about other research by the social psychologist Mary Murphy and Adrei Cimpian that finds that “not only is mindset a characteristic of the individual but it's also a characteristic of a climate or a culture. An organization can have a stronger degree of endorsement of a growth mindset or a fixed mindset as measured by the sum total of the individual beliefs in that organization." For instance, in studies of schools and workplaces, larger gender gaps were found in science departments where there was a “fixed mindset” rather than a “growth mindset.” People didn’t trust the company as much, took shortcuts, and even acted dishonestly when they thought that it was more of a fixed culture. But, Cohen and Bhargava emphasize, it is not enough simply to know that a growth mindset matters. You need to work at weaving a growth mindset into your daily practices in the workplace. In other words, it’s not enough to read Dweck’s excellent book. You need to think carefully--and ideally with experts such as Bhargava and Cohen--about how best to integrate that mindset into your company’s culture. Not only that, you have to think about how to measure whether your efforts are successful.

At Guitar Center stores and offices, we are on a mission to embody the diversity represented by the wide backgrounds in our client base and the breadth of the music landscape as a whole. Diversity is an asset, but we need to make the environment one that surfaces those assets.

Like many others, we are at the beginning of a long journey, but we have made a great deal of progress. Our training, employee resource groups, enhanced recruiting practices, and executive engagement are indeed delivering results, but we know there is more that can be done.

Cohen said, “Behavioral science has shown that shifting culture through specific pressure points can result in higher performance." Identifying these pressure points can go a long way in changing culture and individual performance. Even simple acts -- such as explicitly recognizing the contributions of employees, making sure each individual on a team contributes equally or changing the way you give feedback (in a “wise” way that Cohen has investigated) -- can have outsized results.

As our current CEO started to put his thumbprint on the organization, we revisited our values and mission statements. Because of the vision of our CEO, all 11,000 employees were encouraged to share the personal values they held, which were then integrated into the final Guitar Center statements. We learned from Cohen that the simple act of reflecting on personal values can have powerful motivational effects when done correctly. “One significant thing with these type of efforts is that it's important for people not only to express what their values are but why they're important to them." This extra step allows the values to come alive in people’s minds. It also ensures that the HR/talent acquisition, executive leadership, and marketing teams can internalize the more profound meanings as they promote talent brand and product brand. Cohen, Bhargava, and their colleagues have developed simple “value expression” exercises that improve worker satisfaction and performance.

One major pitfall for many companies is maintaining cultural credibility with employees and candidates alongside their DIB efforts. “The organization says they value diversity, they value inclusion, they value growth mindsets, but then down on the ground the employees do not feel that message -- if anything it's worse because they hear one thing said by management, yet they see something else. Their work may be unfairly overlooked or opportunities for advancement not being given” Cohen explains. This perception of hypocrisy costs companies, employee and candidate trust – and it has expensive repercussion to retention and talent attraction. That’s why addressing organizational culture is so critical. As Bhargava pointed out to us, it’s more than a warm-and-fuzzy, nice-to-have, post-on-walls effort. Starbucks and Nike have come to see quite publicly that it is hard sometimes to weave a company’s values into its practices and culture--and sometimes, moreover, it’s hard to know that your values have not been integrated until it is too late.

And they are not alone. All of us, especially in HR, have to be mindful that our efforts need to be more than surface level -- more than a “plugin”. The Stanford research team recognizes that there is no silver bullet, or one size fits all, but there is a process to get us there. They liken this process to the scientific method, but applied to organizations, with a healthy dose of empathy on top: “wise action.” Cohen notes that it comes down to "understanding the experience of people from all walks of life within an organization." But you need to do so systematically, using established measures grounded in science. The craft of asking the right question, Cohen says, is difficult but one that behavioral science has long grappled with. As I think about this in my role at Guitar Center, I believe formal policy and professional efforts have been critical to the creation of our inclusive culture that embraces diversity and integrates differences.

Corporate policy can dictate the programs, but our personnel and associates bring these programs to life through their words and deeds. And the insights and methods of behavioral science give our DIB efforts more traction and longevity.

What can we do differently? Bhargava and Cohen outlined a few things:

1)    Create a psychological environment (organizational cultural) where all employees and even interview candidates perform to their potential. We believe this will really help you achieve the full benefit of your DIB effort.

2)    Have an empirical approach, where you set cultural goals, use behavioral science-based best practices, and measure outcomes relative to the cultural goals. Otherwise, you may be steering your ship in circles. Cohen and Bhargava’s team have expertise in helping organizations to accomplish precisely this. 

3)    Employee Resource Groups or Affinity Groups are great as a safe haven for experiences to be shared but they should be supplemented with organization-wide initiatives that build an inclusive “superordinate” identity for all workers.

4)    Find the lever points. Shifting the culture through specific points of influence in a complex system can result in higher productivity and impact change early. There are points where people are especially amenable to influence, such as the new employee onboarding process or promotions to new positions.

5)    Work with behavioral science experts. Cohen and Bhargava work with companies to do this in personalized ways – they have developed a set of assessments that identify the pressure points and then custom tailor the solution to your business.

As we learned from Carol Dweck, mindset is a muscle. To strengthen these muscles, we need effort and practice and a commitment to working together to help one another realize our full potential. The good news is, even though this is an iterative process, a little bit of cultivated change can have large and lasting effects on your organizational culture, hiring, retention, innovation, and performance.

Lastly, Bhargava reminds us, “We're talking about people, and they are not always predictable -- but with the right process, over time, things can holistically move in the right direction." The key is the process: set concrete cultural goals, intervene using proven scientific methods, and then evaluate your progress with respect to them. Bhargava and Cohen have, between them, years of scientific and business experience that can unlock the potential of employees, managers, and teams.