How to Change a Culture: If you want to redirect the behavior of a crowd, don’t be idealistic about human nature
The Boston University hockey team has a crisis on its hands. Last December, one player was charged with sexual assault; just a few months later, another was charged with rape. And though only two of the team’s players have been formally accused of wrongdoing—and the rape charge was dropped in June—there has been a sense ever since the scandal broke that their alleged crimes were not isolated incidents, but symptoms of something deeper.
Then, earlier this month, the task force conducting the investigation confirmed that suspicion. In a disturbing report, it identified a “culture of sexual entitlement” that had taken root among the players. This was not a matter of a few individuals that could simply be kicked off the team: It was something intangible and pervasive. Now, as the university responds to the problem, it faces the challenge of stamping that out. What it needs to do, in other words, is change a culture.
The notion of transforming a culture gets tossed around so frequently — by corporate consultants, political candidates, overexcited entrepreneurs — that it’s hard to appreciate just how difficult it can be. Culture, the mix of rituals, values, and traditions that defines a group, is tenacious and sticky. Whether the culture belongs to a sports team, a neighborhood, or a country, it persists because it’s one of the main ingredients in the glue that holds the group together—because it exists in the space between people, rather than residing in any one individual. Studies have recently shown that cultures can be almost unimaginably persistent. In Germany, for instance, towns in which Jews were blamed for the Black Plague still exhibited more anti-Semitism than other towns 600 years later.
What researchers have found is that there are techniques for changing a culture that appear to work, but they are not always the obvious ones. Doing so in a way that produces lasting results, but doesn’t involve destroying the group entirely, requires finesse, subtlety, and patience. It also requires a certain suspension of optimism about human nature. To really change how a group of people thinks and behaves, it turns out, you don’t need to change what’s inside of them, or appeal to their inner sense of virtue. You just have to convince them that everybody else is doing it.