The Power of Culture — Social Control

Jat Thompson
Sep 23 · 4 min read
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Bottom Line Up Front: The power of culture is that people underestimate its social control.

A leader can set external controls that will influence behavior, but rarely at the same level of impact as culture. For example, a coach can give special gear like a hat or t-shirt to an athlete that puts in extra hours of practice or has perfect attendance. These incentives (reward or punishment) are one strategy to make your athletes behave in a certain way but they often feel manipulative, binding, and unsatisfying. While the subtle social pressure we experience within a culture feels like we are in control of our attitudes and behavior, in actuality, we are conforming much more than any reward or punishment a coach can employ.

When new members join a team they will naturally have a different set of beliefs, values, assumptions, and expectations, and consequently behave different than the team norm. Norms are socially oriented standards (the unwritten rules) that act as the boundaries and guidelines within a team culture that help members know the correct way to behave; the correct way is not always the best or even a good way to behave but it is the way “we” behave. These norms are the collective expectations about the appropriate and inappropriate attitudes and behaviors of the members. As part of the indoctrination process, new members of the team will begin to model the expected attitudes and behaviors of the team. They will watch other members, especially key influencers, and form expectations about how and when they should act. This is because we learn most through direct experience, which includes observing people’s behaviors and the consequences of those behaviors. Typically, new team members will want to be accepted by the team influencers so they try to live up to their expectations by mimicking their behavior. When a new member begins to behave in a way that conforms to the team norm they are more likely to be accepted by the members of the team (i.e., social control).

So, in order to build a strong culture, you have to establish strong norms. For a norm to be considered a “strong norm” two factors must be present: Consensus & Intensity.

1. Consensus is consistency in which a norm is shared by the group.

2. Intensity is the degree of approval attached to the expectation.

If a coach believes that “Commitment to Excellence, ” to include how athletes behave outside of practice, is important to win a national championship then there will be a strong cultural norm when the entire team agrees (consensus) and all members see it as important (intensity). If everyone agrees with the team’s value in commitment to excellence but they don’t feel their behavior outside of practice is that important to winning a national championship then there is high consensus but low intensity. Conversely, if the offensive line strongly believes that a commitment to excellence is important for team success but the defensive line strongly disagrees that putting in extra hours of game film study or going to class will help them win a national championship then there will be high intensity but low consensus.

Strong norms can be very contagious because people imitate what they can clearly see; especially when their conforming behavior results in team member acceptance. The good news is that a coach does not need to establish too many strong norms in order to build a strong culture. What is important is that the coach establishes the RIGHT norms.

So how do you establish strong norms that will build a strong culture?

It starts by understanding and appreciating the power of culture as it relates to social control and then leveraging that knowledge. Identify the strong norms on your team that reinforce team member attitudes and behavior that are aligned with your values. Champion those norms. For norms that are competing against your values, identify the team members that have the greatest influence on the team. Educate these influencers on the importance of changing an existing behavior to a new behavior that will improve the desired outcome and encourage them to model it. If these members experience the value in the change then it will increase intensity and their influence over others will help to establish consensus.

When you can establish a norm with high consensus and intensity around one of your core values it will focus the entire team’s attention on what is most important and strongly reinforce the desired attitudes and behavior that you believe to be necessary for team success.


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