Professed Culture and Expressed Culture

“Culture” can be a big word, one that is used differently from one person to another. For the purpose of clarification, I will be using “culture” to represent the collective habits of the members in a certain community. These habits can be contrasted between what the organizers of the community document (e.g. operating principles, work instructions, laws) and what the community actually practices (e.g. day-to-day decisions not covered by or not adhering to given instructions). The members of the community can say that they follow the documented habits, but this does not mean what they actually do when there are no instructions available is consistent with those documented habits. In a sense, there is a “professed culture” (representing what they say they do) and an “expressed culture” (representing what they actually do). Different communities will have varying degrees of alignment between these two concepts.

For example let’s say that Dan and Don are employees at a workplace. One of the operating principles at their workplace is safety. The workplace has a safety manual which reminds that they need to wear certain personal protection equipment in certain designated areas. One of the designated areas is a Building #42, which is a manufacturing shop. Dan and Don have both been reminded multiple times about this procedure by their manager Steve, so they both always remember to wear safety glasses when they go through Building #42.

Now let’s suppose they are visiting an external supplier and are about to walk through a Building #24. Building #24 is also a manufacturing shop, but the safety manuals do not have an entry for it available. As they are about to enter the building, Dan reflexively reaches for his safety glasses, while Don just continues walking in.

“Hold on there Don”, says Dan. “You’ve got to wear your safety glasses before we enter here.”

“What do you mean Dan?” responds Don. “I have read all of our safety manuals, and none of them tell us to wear our safety glasses when we enter this Building #24.”

“I guess that’s true”, answers Dan, “but I think we should follow similar safety procedures that we use for Building #42, or in general any manufacturing shop.”

“If we were really supposed to wear safety glasses in this Building #24, don’t you think our manager would have written it in our safety manual?” replies Don, quickly walking inside the building. “Now hurry up before our guide leaves us behind.”

The visit to the supplier goes without any further complication, and both Dan and Don return home safely.

Dan, who is concerned about Don’s response to his safety concern, goes and talks to their manager Steve and mentions their recent visit to Building #24.

“So what do you think Steve?” asks Dan.

“I think you bring up a good point Dan. First thing tomorrow morning I will write a safety manual instruction for Building #24,” replies Steve, and continues working on other paperwork.

Dan is a little unsatisfied by this response, and presses further, “What about if we go to another building, let’s say Building #6. Shouldn’t we also wear safety glasses there?”

Steve looks up from his papers and replies, “Now don’t be silly Dan, Building #6 is our cafeteria. Why would we wear safety glasses there?”

“I mean hypothetically, Steve” answers Dan. “How can we encourage Don and other employees like him to wear safety glasses where he needs them for protection in a building that isn’t Building #42 or Building #24?”

“Now I’ve had enough of your backtalk for one day Dan”, exclaims Steve. “Do you expect me to write a section in our safety manual for every building before we even see them? How do you expect me to know whether a Building #702 is going to be one where we should wear safety glasses or not? You did good by telling me about Building #24, and next time you see a building we need safety glasses for, just tell me and I’ll include it in our safety manual. Now get out of my office, I have other paperwork to handle.”

In this example, both Dan and Don are professing their safety culture when they follow the safety manual instructions for Building #42. Dan goes beyond mere profession when he continues to express a safety culture which applies also to a Building #24, one that is not explicitly written in the safety manuals. As their manager (i.e. organizer of this workplace community), I would say Steve is focusing on changing the professed culture rather than conditioning the expressed culture. Steve is focusing on changing behavior by writing down exactly what to do in a given situation, rather than by teaching general procedures which can be applied to generic situations.

It’s when we focus on changing professed culture rather than conditioning expressed culture, that we lose our purpose of improvement, our purpose of increasing our chances of winning. Not every change is an improvement, but every improvement is necessarily a change. More often than not, changing professed culture is just focusing on change (which may or may not lead to improvement), while conditioning for expressed culture is focusing on improvement (which will require a change).

I’ve written before on pitfalls of process planning. When planning on how to change a culture, first we need to focus on the desired expressed culture (Output), then we focus on the current state (Input), and then we enact the changes required to transform the current state to one which has people expressing the culture (Process). Focusing on just changing the professed culture is like first planning the Process before identifying the desired Output and available Input, which can lead to situations of Lost Purposes.

When we are talking about changing the culture of a certain community, are our proposals just focusing on changing the professed culture? Or are they focusing on conditioning the expressed culture? Are they focused on change? Or are they focused on improvement?


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