Contagious Culture
/ Author: Kevin Kohut
/ Categories: Guide magazine /
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Contagious Culture

By Kevin Kohut, BC Director 

A few years back, I was flipping through sports channels, half asleep, and landed on international soccer, which can be a beautiful game to watch. 

Moments in, I watched as a player—completely untouched by anyone—belly-flopped onto the pitch and writhed around with the hopes of obtaining a call from the referee. It didn’t take long before a couple more players followed suit, each embellishing their pain with increased convulsions.

I couldn’t help but wonder how it ever became common behaviour for adult athletes to act in this manner. I grew quickly frustrated by the repeated behaviour and flipped to another channel that revealed a different sport, one that my tired mind couldn’t quite figure out. It wasn’t soccer. Rugby? Football? It turns out it was Australian rules football—“footy.” 

The details of the sport aren’t important, but suffice it to say that it had an extremely different set of cultural norms than soccer. One player was bleeding, and the commentator mentioned, “He’s gonna want to hide that!” He was referring to the “blood rule,” which allows a ref to pull a player off the field if he is bleeding.

Another player rolled his ankle. Badly. Yet he continued trying to ignore it for the majority of the 80-minute game. It is interesting to note that players in the Australian Football League rarely take themselves off but instead try to hide their injuries to continue playing. What a difference in thinking compared to soccer! 

The above contrast is certainly not given to endorse athletes playing injured. Rather, it is to ask the following question: how did either of these cultures—polar opposites of each other—come to be what they are?

It spawned another question in my mind: how would I act if I were to enter into either of those cultures (assuming I lost 80 pounds, grew some talent, and had the ability to run for more than 7 seconds)? If I was a soccer player on the international scene, would I be more inclined to take opportunistic dives to obtain an advantage for my team? I’m sure it would be far less tempting to do so in the footy league, where such behaviour would be considered embarrassing by the culture already established there. 

According to my birth certificate, I’ve been on this planet for about half a century now. In that time, I’ve been exposed to many different work cultures, all of which possessed some combination, in varying degrees, of diligence, work ethic, laziness, silliness, intensity, camaraderie, friendship, competitiveness, positivity, negativity, freedom, rigidity . . . the list goes on.

But I’m frequently amazed by how radically different one work environment can be, and feel, from another. They can seem almost as diverse as people themselves. 

The part of my brain that likes simplistic answers is tempted to think that happier work cultures likely have better bosses, wages, and working conditions—much like one might assume that a joyful person probably has wealth, health, and nothing but free time on their hands. The other part of my melon is aware that this is often not the case at all. Just as an individual person is far more than their external circumstances, a culture can be truly complex. Why are some workplaces happier and more productive than they seem to have reason to be? And why are some rife with complaining, while their circumstances seem far superior to their comparators?

I’m no psychologist, but I do enjoy reading scientific studies that reveal how we as individuals and as groups act, think, and function. I won’t bore you with details, but a result that has been well-established by several studies is that what every person does affects what others end up doing. Even if they’re unaware of it, it affects the way others end up acting. 

We all have gravitational pull, whether we know it or not. When I gripe, others are more apt to gripe, and the culture grows in that direction a little bit. When others are positive, it’s a bit more natural for me to be positive too, and the culture grows more positively. 

Those who are new to the culture will inherit the direction of the group at that time, but their actions—good or bad—will play a part in turning it into something a bit different. To a significant extent, each work culture is what we made it—what we decided it would be—by our actions and attitudes. What each of us does, and how we act each day, will play a significant part in creating next month’s culture. I find that empowering—and a bit frightening.


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