The Elevator Experiment

By Greg Nathan posted August 19, 2022
Greg's Tip #239: The Elevator Experiment

Culture in business and social life has always intrigued me, especially how it is created and passed on. I first learned about this in an anthropology course at university, where we were taught the concept of enculturation. This is how people absorb the values of a group, and ‘how things are supposed to be done around here’, by just being around others who have been in the group for some time.

The behavioural bubbles we inhabit

When you were a kid, most of how you learned to fit into your family happened in this way, (By the way, families are a good reminder that cultures are not always highly functional, though they can be improved over time with a bit of work). Enculturation is also how we learn to fit in at work or with other groups. While most of this process occurs without our awareness, the result is a shared understanding of how we are supposed to behave when we come together with other people.

In a sense, a culture is like a unique behavioural bubble that we inhabit with others, whether it’s how we interact with the person next to us on a plane, or how we behave when we are with thousands of people at a sports event. Think, for example, of how your behaviour changes when you’re with different types of friends, in different work meetings, or in different organisations.

Pay attention and you’ll see the magical power of culture, and its impact on behaviour and performance. A strong culture will supersede person limitations and external incentives every time. That's why the famous management consultant, Peter Drucker, said "Culture eats strategy for breakfast."

Psychologists riding in elevators

When I was doing a lot of international travel, I would sometimes run a little experiment for fun in the elevators of the hotels I stayed in. Stepping into the elevator on the ground floor, I would turn and greet people with a friendly smile as they entered. When the elevator stopped at each floor, I would continue to greet each person with a smile and a welcoming comment. This would often generate some pleasant conversation which would inevitably extend to others. By the time we arrived at the 20th floor, the elevator would be filled with a friendly buzz.

On other days I would enter the elevator and look down with a serious demeanour, not making eye contact with anyone. My behaviour would be reciprocated, with people standing silently as the elevator quietly ascended to the 20th floor. This is culture in action, and it shows just how quickly a culture can be formed. It’s also a powerful reminder that one person can make a big difference to how a group functions.

Once a culture has been created, it tends to take on a life of its own. In my elevator example, people were entering a culture that had been initially shaped by me as an informal leader, being the first person in, and then extended by my fellow passengers.

You can't not have a culture

Sometimes business leaders talk about culture as though it is time they created one. The fact is, culture is always present. You can’t not have a culture! If you want to take a fresh look at your culture, a good question you might want to ask is whether it is helping your group achieve its goals in a way you are comfortable with.

If you do take an objective look, and you don’t like what you see, before criticising others also take a look in the mirror, especially if you are the leader. Better still, ask for some feedback from someone in the business you respect. Earlier this year, I was frustrated by a lack of openness and proactivity in our team meetings, and I suspected I might be the problem. So I asked Kat, my COO, for her thoughts.
“Yeah, you’re probably right on that one” she quipped.
“So what can I do?” I asked.
“Just be a little kinder” she responded with a gentle smile. That’s also culture in action. And better advice I could not have asked for!

Subscribe to Greg's Tips

Since 1990, thousands of franchise executives around the world have enjoyed receiving a regular email tip from FRI’s Founder, Greg Nathan.

These short stories on the psychology of business and everyday life have been likened to “mind brightening pills” as they open our thinking to fresh insights for improving wellbeing, business performance and franchise relationships.

Sign up now to receive your regular free tip from one of the leading thinkers in the world of franchising.

Start typing and press enter to search