Culture & the Tipping Point


seesawLately we’ve been hearing a lot about culture. The issues at Target, the VA scandal, and many FCPA issues are often boiled down to a cultural issue—whether that culture is country-wide or just exists in one division of one group in one company doesn’t matter.  As these companies struggle to right the ship, and others work to build culture from the ground up, there is going to be a point when the culture has been created, the point of no return. This tipping point of culture is the precipice and, hopefully, with the right training and input, your organization tips toward being culturally healthy, ethical, and compliant.

A tipping point is the moment in time what an idea, trend, a word, or behavior crosses the invisible threshold, catches on and spreads.

In Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point, he highlights three factors that help turn a fad into a concept that has taken hold. These three factors when taken in the context of company culture, can provide guidance on how to build a strong, ethical organization—or how to get back on that track.

“The Law of the Few”

The law of the few says that in order for a trend to become the prevailing culture, certain types of influential people must be on board. Gladwell describes these as Connectors, Mavens, and Salesmen, but the names don’t really matter for our purposes.

When  trying to implement a cultural shift in your organization look first for people who are connected and influential in the organization—they’ll be how you can spread the message and the attitude organically. These people have social clout, and are trusted because of the relationships they’ve built. They’re not necessarily the most powerful or senior leaders, but they’ve fostered real connections with their peers.

Secondly, look for champions. These will be the folks in your organization who want to do good, and who will just naturally encourage others to do so. They may not be decision-makers, but they’re the ones who will spread the message sincerely and authentically, because it’s something they truly believe.

The third type of person you’ll want on your side are what Gladwell calls the “Salesmen.” These are the people in your organization that ooze charisma—you know the ones—the kind that could sell cats to mice. Because of their natural charm they are incredibly persuasive and can be extremely effective in influencing behavior.

“The Stickiness Factor”

Your message must be memorable. Plain and simple. When evaluating your compliance and ethics training program, or looking to improve company culture, you should ask yourself, “What makes this memorable?” Is the coaching we’re giving practical? Is it personal?

Stickiness and memorability both rely on some basic human psychology. Such basic things as making your training interactive and incorporating both stories and music can make the difference between boring and memorable. Your trainees shouldn’t just be your audience; they should be your participants.

Additionally, repeat after me: repetition is good. Depending on which study you read, adults have to hear something between 6 and 17 times to remember it. Not only should you be repeating yourself in training, you should be constantly be sending messages to reinforce your training and promote ethical behavior.  If everyone in your organization is perpetually surrounded by peers and tools to help with ethical decision-making, eventually you’re going to get a lot of ethical decisions.

“The Power of Context”

In Gladwell’s own words, “The key to getting people to change their behavior, in other words, sometimes lies with the smallest details of their immediate situation. The Power of Context says that human beings are a lot more sensitive to their environment than they may seem.”

Think about context in your own life: how do you act at a baseball game versus a funeral?  And what dictates those actions? That is context.

Because humans are sensitive to their environment generally, it stands to reason that we’d be sensitive to the conditions and culture in our workplace as well. The members of your organization, and everyone around you, acts based on their perceptions of the world around them. If they perceive themselves to be part of an ethical culture, they’ll act ethically. Alternatively, if employees perceive themselves to be a cog in a no-holds-barred-money-making machine, they’ll act accordingly.

While obviously not a panacea, there are some lessons to be learned from the theory of a tipping point. By taking the general concepts and applying them to a compliance and ethics program, we may be able to gain additional insight into how to build effective training and create an ethical culture.