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The impact of culture on behaviour and success

This is the third in a series of weekly features we’re publishing in the run-up to PRmoment’s new event: PR Masterclass: The Agency Growth Forum.

One of the UK’s most successful PR agency entrepreneurs over the last 25 years has been Lewis’s Chris Lewis and in this exclusive column for PRmoment Chris talks about the impact of culture on behavior and success.

The return to work after holidays can be a daunting prospect. You can tell by the metaphors. Salt mine. Rat race. But for a happy few – whisper it – they’re actually looking forward to seeing their colleagues again. No-one’s going to sell them on global capitalism, but at least they like the people they work with.

Why does culture matter so much? Because successful careers always involve other people. It really helps if you get on with your workmates. They will help you and refer you along their networks and connections. The Harvard Business School once defined business as “the management of social relationships for profit, where profit might be financial”. It’s a pretty good definition because it says that business is about people. It also hints that success may be about something more than just money.

Those that are good at networking, empathy, collaboration and humour tend to do better in collective enterprise. But that’s not what our education system is set up for. Education is about individual achievement. We get marks for passing exams not helping others. Worst of all, at least in the early stages, characteristics like non-conformity and rule-breaking are frowned upon. The highest levels of academic achievement involve yet more individual assessment in greater levels of specialism. These academic highflyers don’t often feature at the top of the commercial world.

And yet, many of our country’s highest achievers are privately educated, often to an advanced level. How to explain this apparent paradox? Ask any parent why they choose private education for their children and they might tell you something surprising. Of course, some will say it’s because of the way they were educated. Some will say private schools have better facilities. Some will even say it’s a tradition. The D’Arcy-Farquhars have always been educated this way.

All this may be true, but it ignores what parents are really paying for. This is the cohort, connections and the culture of the peer group. You see, adolescents are more influenced by their peers than they are by their parents. At that stage, fitting in really matters. Where children are surrounded by others that want to network, achieve and get on, it’s more likely they will follow suit. Failure is not unknown, but there’s a culture of success in many private schools – an attitude or even an entitlement, if you like. Whether this culture is a consequent of connections or culture is a moot point. The success of the system is undeniable and its perceived unfairness explains why many want to tear it down.

Behind the ‘good’ schools is an industry of coaches, crammers and collaborators. Success is celebrated, but to be frank it’s also engineered. Once established on this path, success becomes self-fulfilling, inevitable and reflexive. We become a successful part of a successful cohort. The culture helps us along and we like to return the favour.

Once we get outside the school system, success cultures are not always easily identifiable. High salaries do not exclude low behaviour. Look for busy. Look for attention to detail. Look for the quality of first contact. Look for humility. Look for character. Look for kindness. Look for common cause with communities. A leadership attitude is not just for leaders. And it’s certainly not just for the world of work.

If you’ve always been part of a success culture, it’s difficult to understand failure. Sure, you can study it. You can read a book about it. You can talk to people about their experiences. But unless you’ve felt it, you won’t properly understand it. It’s visceral. It’s isolating. It feels personal because the key feature of a success culture is how it collectively copes with failure.

How to bring the two worlds closer? There’s no future in trying to make the successful feel failure. The other way around though and you’re on to a winner. This is why inclusivity really matters. This is why we need to look beyond traditional educational achievement.

All success comes from a culture and connections. It’s the same in business. Profits are the by-product of a successful culture. But profits will not guarantee a successful culture.

To achieve wider success, we have to understand failure. Success and failure are both sedimentary. Culture is a function of frequency and duration. If failure happens regularly and systemically enough, then a negative culture emerges. Success then becomes unlikely, and many – too many – just give up. This is what happens when failure becomes a belief.

Belief really matters. To paraphrase Thomas Aquinas. For those that understand success, no explanation is needed. For those that don’t, no explanation is possible. Put simply, if you believe you can or if you believe you can’t, you’re probably right. Belief and hope are where success cultures begin.

Article written by Chris Lewis, CEO & Founder, Team Lewis

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