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<strong> Behaviours, Symbols and Systems - Channels for Culture </strong>

Behaviours, Symbols and Systems - Channels for Culture

The culture of an organisation provides the boundaries and guidelines that help employees know the desired way to perform their roles. In their book “Culture Change on the Fast Track to Business Success” the authors define culture as “the patterns of behaviours that are encouraged or discouraged by people and systems over time”.

At its core, culture informs the sense of purpose and shared values that guide decision making throughout the organisation. Carolyn Taylor (2005) shows us that the values that underpin the culture play out through three channels: behaviours, symbols and systems.

Behaviours, Symbols and Systems image


New Direction Consulting Ltd 2017 ©


Behaviours are defined in the dictionary as ‘the way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.’ Behaviour is influenced by a multitude of interrelated factors such as genetics, individual thoughts and feelings, hormonal and nervous system reactions, the physical environment, social interaction (with other individuals), social identity (interaction within and between groups), and the macro-social environment. Behaviours also reflect individual values for example, if a person values relationship, they will be polite, considerate and avoid actions which may cause friction.

The behaviours of senior leaders have significant impact on the corporate culture as they model to employees that ‘this is the behaviour of how to be successful in the organisation’. Leadership behaviours will be adopted throughout the organisation as ‘the way to behave here’. The key to understanding what shapes culture is to understanding how things are perceive. Employees may perceive and interpret the behaviours of leaders in both positive and negative ways, even if the intentions are good. Task based behaviour, focusing on efficiency and production will be entirely appropriate in certain aspects of the organisation (e.g. quality procedures, compliance, financial control) while relationship behaviours of co-ordination, innovation and cohesion will be required for others (project work, strategic direction, marketing).

Culture is formed and reformed by everything that is done within an organisation. Each behaviour and decision sends a message that is in turn interpreted by people in the organisation as reflections of what is valued, which in turn moulds the behaviour and decisions of others.


Cultures are also shaped through symbols that express specific ideologies and ‘cultural norms'. For example, symbols can include how the brand is perceived, how employees are fired, how employees are inducted, who is promoted (and why) etc. Taylor (2005) writes that symbols are events or decisions to which people attribute a meaning, which may well be beyond the scope of the original act. When an organisation for example, considers relocating offices, the size, location, aesthetics and environment of the site it has a symbolism, which extends far beyond the area they occupy. How you feel when you enter an office will give you a clear symbolic feeling of what is important to this company and the people here.

Taylor argues that symbols are important to understand, because ‘the interpretation of events will usually follow a pre-existing perception of what is valued’. For example, a popular senior figure may be fired, but if the reasons are not explained fully, staff make their own conclusions to why this happened, which may be entirely different to the reality. The power of symbols as communication internally and externally should never be under-estimated.

In Walking the Talk, Taylor shows that rituals are other powerful symbols, which have been built up over years. Rituals have the power to bind and reinforce cultural norms as an effective way of bringing a community together. Symbols are also accentuated through the telling of stories, which turns them into legends. If internal communication is unclear or unconvincing, employees will take symbols and interpret them in a way, which may be detrimental to employee engagement. For example, in a culture where job security is constantly threatened due to risk of redundancies, employees will be looking out for signs that may indicate redundancy rounds and subsequent gossip will feed the ‘rumour mill’. This could have the inadvertent impact of highly competent and well-regarded employees leaving.

Perhaps, the most potent symbols are what leaders prioritise and pay attention to, and what they put off or avoid. In meetings, who does the leader look at when they want an opinion that matters to them. Micro-signals such as these are often underestimated symbols that drive culture more than we would ever imagine.


Systems in this context cover mechanisms of management including operating systems, IT systems, policies, procedures, and organisational structures. Taylor sees that systems differ from behaviours and symbols because they are the result of historical decisions that were made and so systems tend to lag behind when there are changes to mind-sets and values. Systems influence both the behaviour and mindsets. The classic line from Little Britain that “The Computer says No!’ incites a reaction within us and forces people to behave in certain ways. In many organisation where technology is not ‘fit-for-purpose’ employees at first react emotionally with frustration but then will invent their own work around. This becomes a bigger issue the larger the organisation is.

Taylor argues that the system also influences and reinforces corporate values, particularly if employees see the company is supporting the system, and so apparently endorsing the values the system encourages. For example, if the leadership does not address the IT systems, which are not ‘fit for purpose’, this will significantly impact employee time and motivation.

Sometimes, the systemic components can be used as a justification for cultures not changing. For example, organisations with high avoidance cultures inevitably have poor management information, because it has not been important enough to them to really know how each individual is performing. Having the justification of poor information systems allows them to continue avoiding tough decisions about performance.

Intertwined influences on shaping and sustaining culture

In our work at NDC we have come to experience these three channels, behaviours, symbols and systems, as intertwined like platted strands. Of course if one channel is significantly neglected or causing disproportional impact on the culture then corrective attention is needed on that channel. Where the organisational culture is very unconscious or individual self-awareness levels are limited, we find that the behaviour channel will be the most urgent to address. In all cases, we find that the symbols challenge sends the most potent and effective signals to the whole organisation that things are different, for example senior leaders paying attention to or prioritising activities or decisions previously neglected. Typically, in culture transformation programmes, the systems channel can be the easiest to correct as a function of the organisation e.g. changing a KPI, but these in themselves do not have the sustainable impact of symbols and behaviours. However, we have recently worked with culture transformation in organisations where the self-awareness and behaviours are already at a very high standard, and in these cases we see that the greatest ‘rate limiting’ factor influencing culture transformation is the legacy systems and structures in the organisations. This highlights the interdependency of the three channels and importance of evolving all three simultaneously for viable culture transformation to occur.

We also posit that the consulting expertise required to help organisations address the systems channel in systemic and informed ways, requires expertise that go beyond the skills of most behaviour and organisational culture specialists. What is your experience of the integration of system and behavioural transformation simultaneously? Assuming the systems are not inhibiting effective behaviours in the organisations, it is the shift in the hierarchy of values amongst a critical mass of people in positions of influence and power that will achieve permanent change.

Reference: Carolyn Taylor (2005) ‘Walking the Talk’ Random House Business Books

  • By Martin Egan
  • 12 Apr 2017
  • Culture, Behaviours, Systems, Symbols

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