Kids and Culture
Why are young children more culturally effective than adults? If we understand this, then we can equip people to perform better in our work culture.
Culture is the collection of behaviours and artefacts that motivate us to act in a certain way. Culture is true to itself; people will behave the way the culture determines. It might not be the culture you want, but it is your culture. To misquote Edwards Deming, ‘Culture is perfectly formed to give you exactly the behaviour it produces.’
So, when you have a culture that needs to change, how do you motivate people to adapt their behaviours?
Kids are Smart, in ways we’ve forgotten
Peter Skillman ran a well-known experiment (the marshmallow challenge) for different groups of professionals, CEOs, MBA students and nursery school kids. They had to build the tallest structure they could get out of spaghetti, sticky tape, string and a marshmallow. The result? ‘Kindergartners, on every objective measure, had the highest average score of any group tested.’
This raises two fundamental questions:
- Why was this? Why, with all the adults’ experience, skills, and maturity, did the youngsters beat them all?
- What does this mean to how we work effectively and make a great culture to get repeatable success in our work life?
How we Operate in a Grown-Up World
To better understand this, let’s look at a Behavioural Science model called SCARF – Status, Certainty, Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness1. SCARF is used to understand group dynamics. As adults, we’ve learnt to assess these dynamics before becoming productive2. And this takes time in a new group. An essential thing about SCARF is that it taps straight into the brain’s primary threat and reward circuits – the minimise threat/maximise reward instinct. And that means, once learnt, it is hard to dislodge.
Kids have no such issues. They don’t care about social standing and get straight to the task of rapidly developing, collaborating and learning.
So, let’s see how SCARF could play out in any group interaction, including the marshmallow challenge. The way we think, collaborate and interact in groups is driven by how we fit within them. These are largely learned behaviours over many years. And they tend to accumulate layer over layer. As Shrek said – “Ogres are like onions… …ogres have layers”. People in social/collaborative situations have layers of behaviour as well. On the outside are the cultural artefacts that our society places on us (and we buy into, so we perform effectively within it). If you’re not convinced that this is the case, think about how our different cultures around the world have responded variously to Covid-19. Or take a look at The Culture Map, a book about working with international cultures.
Beneath this outer layer is a bunch of competing cultures – our home cultures, social cultures, and work cultures. How they work together, how they cause friction all contribute to our sense of wellbeing and stress. And our personal sense of identity. And across all of these, we’re trying to figure out how we fit in, become productive and enjoy our time.
Most cultures need to embrace change through continuous learning and becoming relentlessly ambitious. This will start to build the agile mindset required to deliver responsive change. Ambition drives the vision higher, and continuous learning increases the capability to deliver it.
With the SCARF model, you can probably see how it plays out in your groups. How your Status impacts promoting and challenging ideas; how your Certainty (or lack of it) impacts clarity and courage; how your Autonomy allows you to get on with tasks; how your Relatedness creates openness or barriers; and how your Fairness allows judgement and equality. How you behave and react because of SCARF is dependent on the culture of the group you’re in and the other groups of which you’re part.
Freeing Groups to Perform
How do we solve this puzzle of SCARF reducing productivity? We need to create a positive atmosphere of psychological safety where team members (from the smallest team to the organisation as a whole) are steeped in understanding that their groups are safe places to work within.
With SCARF, Status and Certainty frequently has the highest priority, but Autonomy, Relatedness and Fairness should come to the fore. We see that most selfish or fearful groups focus on Status, Certainty and Autonomy, followed by Relatedness and Fairness. But in psychologically safe environments, the priority should be reversed. Teams should promote Relatedness and Fairness while providing security with Autonomy, Certainty and Status.
So, we need to:
- Increase the vulnerability and humility of the group to reduce the need for Status and Certainty
- Introduce fun and play into the workplace – work should always be fun but not a joke; fun should never be at someone else’s expense
- Reduce structure in interactions – collaborate where everyone knows they’re equal and valued, even though an individual will be accountable for the decisions
- Create a clear sense of purpose that overwhelms the emotional needs of the individual.
And this is psychological safety. But it shouldn’t be a safe place without conflict through fear of offending, but a place where conflict happens without retribution or invective and is supportive.
Also, remember that the life of a workgroup starts way before the group is formed. It begins in recruiting, onboarding or in other groups, through organisation and power structures, to policies, purpose, role models and reward systems. These are where the seeds and expectations are sown.
Giving examples of effective systems can be dangerous, but a classic of our time is Netflix. Please don’t try to implement their culture. Understand it: why it succeeds and who owns it; but find your own way of making culture work for your unique circumstances and particular Purpose and Values.
In summary, it is crucial to understand what drives behaviours, what are instinctive reactions to threat and reward so that you can design and continually improve psychological safety in your groups. The SCARF model shows that these facets are not held lightly, and so the psychological safety in a group must be robust and trusted. It also gives you a model to unbundle the complexity of behaviours and feelings within a group.
And if we do this well, we can become unencumbered like youngsters, but with the advantage of our experience and understanding. Imagine what a positive force we would be!
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Status – is about relative importance to others
Certainty – concerns being able to predict the future
Autonomy – provides a sense of control over events
Relatedness – the sense of safety with others
Fairness – The perception of fair exchanges between people
Read the original research article.
2. In a group, we spend a lot of time figuring out how we fit in. Bruce Tuckman’s Forming-Storming- Norming-Performing stages of group behaviour from back in the ‘60s is still relevant. This models how groups become productive once their behaviours are synchronised through a common purpose.
Read the original research article.