Identity Precedes Behavior

2022-02-16 This post is over 2 years old

For an organization to achieve the best results it can, it needs a ‘high performance culture’. But you cannot wish a such a culture to appear. Behaviors build culture. Cultural features like Psychological safety are the result of tangible, consistent behaviors. And there is another name for building a consistent set of behavior: a habit.

In the dictionary sense, a Habit is usual way of behaving. Something that a person does in a regular and repeated way. James Clear discusses the making and breaking process for Habits at length in Atomic Habits. In one notable segment, he contrasts two approaches to habit building that have very different results. The first is the outcome driven habit. You start with the outcomes you want to achieve, like losing 20 pounds, and work inwards towards the behaviors you that will help you get there, in the hope that if you do that often enough you’ll be the kind of person who is 20 pounds lighter.

The second path is almost entirely the reverse. An Identity-based Habit starts with character, with who you wish to become. Then selects the behaviors that a person with that character might exhibit, and expects the outcomes to come as a result of becoming more like the person who would have those outcomes. And this approach to habit is building is by far stronger than the outcome basis for a variety of reasons. But for this discussion I want to hone in on just one: If someone doesn’t believe they are actually part of a group, they won’t act like it.

Someone must hold an identity internally before their externally observable behavior will change. If a child believes riding a bike will be hard, they will have a terrible time learning to ride. A junior engineer joining the team may not exhibit the ownership behaviors of someone whose been on the team for years! Until our Identity changes, our actions will not on a long-term basis. We might make it a sprint or two, but eventually the old habits, the old ways of working will turn back up. If someone believes their voice won’t matter, they won’t speak up.

So if we desire a changed culture. If we want something different, and better than we have today. We cannot just talk it into existence. The people who are going to be part of that culture have to participate. They have to believe they are part of that culture. That they are in a real sense owners of that new Culture with you! To create a joint sense of ownership , we need some guide posts. Some independent thing to which we both can refer to. In the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People Mr. Covey talks about ways to discern those priorities, those guideposts, for your own life. A little later in the book, he talks about how to use an Eisenhower Matrix to help us spend time on those guideposts as part of the ‘Important’ work in our life.

He highlights that we should spend considerable time thinking about what really matters in our lives, and then that we should manifest those thoughts by accommodating our actions to those decisions. If we were to apply this same concept to a team, we would need to dedicate time to verbalizing what we, the team, wanted our culture to be. From there, we can ask the question: ‘What kind of people, what character traits, would enable that culture to exist, and keep it strong?’ And these answers could lead to new behaviors.

Now not every team has a culture where those conversations can be had. Some teams are so low on trust, that even trying to talk about the culture of the team would be met with tense silence, and uncomfortable shuffling. But, the path forward remains pretty much unchanged. Though there might be more iterations to get there. You see, Culture isn’t a once an done thing. It is a living, breathing part of the organization. It takes maintenance, and trimming to remain fit for service. And a culture that is missing trust, or one that isn’t able to grow right now can be trained up just like any other.

Instead of asking ‘what culture do we want to build’ and focusing on the grand expanse of perfection, start by honing the question. Focus on a reasonable next step. We could start by targeting a culture that is created safety and a willingness to learn. One that accepts an appropriate degree of risk. The path to get there is simple. ‘What culture would we like to see?’ , ‘What character traits are necessary to get there?’ Perhaps a little meta, but since Cultures evolve, we should expect to come back to these questions as we grow.

The trick is to have those conversations about who we are. We need to actively discuss who we want to be and what we want to achieve beyond just the product goals. We need to eat to live, but no one lives just to eat! If we don’t have these conversation, then we will react our selves into the lowest maintenance team our current level of maturity will support. If we are to become better, we need to be proactive about our work, and govern our day-to-day choices by what we want in the long term. Thankfully the typical scrum team has a moment for such reflection built into their sprint cadence: Retrospective.

Per the Scrum Guide, the Retrospective is to plan ways to increase quality and effectiveness. Very often we limit ourselves to just the actions of this previous sprint, and those we could take to make the immediate next sprint better. What if you took one of those retros per quarter to talk about the team’s culture? That would mean every 12 weeks or so, you’d be discussing how the people on your team are working with each other. What kind of improvement could you see in the next quarter, if you could establish a common guidepost to build cultural alignment for respectful collaboration and productivity?

A Culture is built on repeated, anticipated behaviors. And a Consistent behavior becomes a habit. New habits are more effectively build on new Identities. So Identity precedes Behavior, which builds Culture. No matter where a culture starts, you can take steps to begin to build it intentionally. Eventually the team can openly discuss and verbalize the facets that the team wants in their culture. And once you have a guidepost, it can be used to help the team align themselves with the shared vision. All it takes to get started is to have the discussions about who we want to be, and find the behaviors that would stem from that.