Policies Cannot Change Culture

Person's arm and hand writing with a blue pen in a notebook.

People love to create policies. We have policies for what to do and policies for what to say. Creating a policy is an easy way to address an issue in the workplace or outside of work. I recently wrote a commentary in the publication Industrial and Organizational Psychology about a set of emerging policies for researchers called open science. These policies concern the scientific publication process and are an attempt to limit scientific fraud and questionable practices. My issue is that such policies are not likely to be effective unless they are accompanied by a change in the reward system for those who publish research. When you break it down, policies are just words on a page and generally have little impact on their own. This is because policies exist in a broader context of existing norms and culture that have a far bigger impact on people than written policies. In other words policies cannot change culture.

Why So Many Policies?

Policies are everywhere in large part because they are easy. In the time I spend writing this blog, I could have drafted a dozen or more policies to address a wide range of organizational and social issues. Some of those policies are rules that demand specific behaviors be enacted or avoided. Other rules become codified as laws. But if all we do is draft a policy, it is unlikely to have much impact. Drafting rules can be an easy way to feel we have solved a problem when we have not. In fact sometimes drafting a policy can backfire when people feel you are trying to coerce them into doing something they don’t wish to do. In such situations a policy can trigger psychological reactance where people feel their autonomy is being threatened. So they do the opposite, even if the opposite is counterproductive.

Policies Cannot Change Culture

Policies are necessary to make expectations clear about what people should and should not do, but they are ineffective on their own. To be effective policies have to affect practices, that is, the behaviors people actually do. The first step is to change organizational climate–that is, people’s shared perceptions of what is encouraged/rewarded and what is discouraged/punished. Climate often begins with policies, but to be a climate, there needs to be compliance with those policies. This can be done by the use of rewards, which can be an effective way of getting people to follow policies. But if all you do is state policies and reward compliance, it will be difficult to sustain people’s behavior. To achieve that you need to gain their acceptance of the policy. People must believe in the policy and value it as a way of accomplishing something important. When this occurs, you have gone beyond climate to create a deeper culture.

Culture of an organization consists of accepted behaviors, customs and ways of doing things, and values. When an organization has a strong culture, everyone is in alignment in terms of goals and how goals should be accomplished. Policies become statements of the culture and how it is enacted. For example, in an organization with a strong culture of employee safety everyone knows that safety is an important value and they share that value. This translates into awareness of safety risks, compliance with safety protocols such as wearing safety gear, frequent discussion of safety concerns, and a sense that everyone is responsible for safety. Such cultures can be self-sustaining as new employees are initiated into the organization. Those who violate safety principles, whether formalized in written policies or not, will be corrected.

Policies Are Only the Start

Don’t get me wrong. I have nothing against policies. They are an important tool for making expectations clear, and they can help avoid litigation when employees are disciplined for breaking rules. But too often people want to take the easy way and create a policy without following up on how that policy will be implemented. During my time as a full-time professor I was struck with how often faculty ignored policies and did the opposite. This is because there was no effort to implement policies other than perhaps an email reminder that most people didn’t read. Setting policies is easy and quick. Creating climates where people adhere to policies, and creating cultures where they believe in the policies is hard. The next time you see a new policy, or decide to create one yourself, remember that policies cannot change culture, and if you really want to change behavior culture change is what is needed.

Photo by picjumbo.com from Pexels.

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3 Replies to “Policies Cannot Change Culture”

  1. I liked the mordantly funny sentence “In the time I spend writing this blog, I could have drafted a dozen or more policies to address a wide range of organizational and social issues.” I also liked the following: “During my time as a full-time professor I was struck with how often faculty ignored policies and did the opposite. ”

    As usual, Paul’s blog is right on the mark.


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