Three Channels for Culture Change

Three Channels for Culture Change

Behaviours, Symbols, and Systems

By Matthew Burdock and Martin Egan

At ND Culture, our workable definition of culture is:

“The patterns of behaviour that are encouraged or discouraged by people and systems over time” (Johnson et al. 2008).

At its core, culture informs the sense of purpose and shared values that guide decision-making throughout the organisation. Carolyn Taylor (Walking the Talk, 2015) and Ian Macdonald et al., (2006) show us that the values that underpin the culture play out through three channels: Behaviours, Symbols and Systems.

These three channels are critical because they send the strongest messages about your culture.

This article aims to explore each channel with you in more depth. The purpose is to help you make your work on culture more practical and doable today.

For a shorter exploration of the three channels, you can also watch this 3-minute video by Dr Martin Egan here.

Overview of the Three Channels for Culture Change

Image showing the Three Channels for Culture Change: Behaviours, Symbols, and Systems


Behaviours are defined in the dictionary as:

‘The way in which one acts or conducts oneself, especially towards others.’

Many interrelated factors such as genetics, individual thoughts and feelings, hormonal and nervous system reactions, the physical environment, social interaction (with other individuals), social identity (interaction within and between groups), and the macro-social environment influence our behaviour. Behaviours also reflect individual values. For example, if a person values a relationship, they will be polite, considerate and avoid actions which may cause friction.

The behaviours of senior leaders have a significant impact on the corporate culture as they model to employees that “this is the behaviour of how to be successful in the organisation”.

Leaders adopt behaviours throughout the organisation as “the way to behave here”. The key to understanding what shapes culture is understanding how things are perceived. Employees may perceive and interpret the behaviours of leaders in both positive and negative ways, even if the intentions are good.

Task-based behaviour that focuses on efficiency and production will be appropriate in certain aspects of the organisation—for example, quality procedures, compliance, and financial control. At the same time, other people will require relationship behaviours of coordination, innovation and cohesion—for example, project work, strategic direction, and marketing.

“From our experience, culture is formed and reformed by everything that is done within an organisation. Each behaviour and decision sends a message that is, in turn, interpreted by people in the organisation as reflections of what is valued. That, in turn, moulds the behaviour and decisions of others.” – Martin Egan.


We shape our cultures through symbols that express specific ideologies and "cultural norms". For example, how the brand is perceived, how we fire employees, how we induct people, and whom we promote (and why). Taylor (2015) writes that symbols are events or decisions to which people attribute a meaning, which may well be beyond the scope of the original act. When an organisation, for example, considers relocating offices, the site's size, location, aesthetics, and environment has a symbolism that extends far beyond the area they occupy. How you feel when you enter an office will give you a clear symbolic feeling of what is essential to this company and the people there.  

Taylor argues that symbols are important to understand because 'the interpretation of events will usually follow a pre-existing perception of what the organisation values. For example, a business may fire a popular senior figure without explaining the reasons fully. When that happens, staff will make their conclusions about why this happened which may be entirely different from reality. The power of symbols as communication internally and externally should never be under-estimated.

In the book Walking the Talk, Taylor shows that rituals are other powerful symbols which can build over the years. Rituals have the power to bind and reinforce cultural norms as an effective way of bringing a community together. Organisations accentuate Symbols by telling stories, which turns them into legends. If internal communication is unclear or unconvincing, employees will take symbols and interpret them in a way which may be detrimental to employee engagement. For example, in a culture where job security is threatened consistently due to the risk of redundancies, employees will look out for signs that may indicate redundancy rounds. Thus, subsequent gossip will feed the 'rumour mill', leading to highly competent and well-regarded employees potentially leaving.  

“Perhaps, the most potent symbols are what leaders prioritise and pay attention to, and what they put off or avoid. In meetings, who does the leader look at when they want an opinion that matters to them? Micro-signals such as these are often underestimated symbols that drive culture more than we would ever imagine.” – Matt Burdock


Systems in the context of culture cover mechanisms of management, including operating systems, IT systems, policies, procedures, and organisational structures. Taylor sees that systems differ from behaviours and symbols because they result from people's historical decisions. Hence, systems tend to lag when there are changes to mindsets and values.

Systems influence both behaviour and mindsets. The classic line from Little Britain, "The Computer says No!' incites a reaction within us and forces people to behave in specific ways. In many organisations where technology is not 'fit-for-purpose', employees initially react emotionally with frustration but then invent their workaround. That becomes a more significant issue the larger the organisation.

Taylor argues that the system also influences and reinforces corporate values, mainly if employees see the company supports the system and so apparently endorsing the values the system encourages. For example, suppose the leadership does not address the IT systems, which are not "fit for purpose". In that case, this will significantly impact employee time and motivation. Sometimes, organisations can use the systemic components as a justification for cultures not changing. For example, high avoidance cultures inevitably have poor management information because it has not been critical enough to know how everyone is genuinely performing. The justification of inadequate information systems allows leaders and organisations to continue avoiding tough decisions about performance.

Intertwined Influences on Shaping and Sustaining Culture

Through our work with organisations on culture, we have come to experience these three channels – Behaviours, Symbols, and Systems – as intertwined like platted strands. Sometimes, one channel can be significantly neglected or causes a disproportional impact on the culture. In that case, leaders must give corrective attention to that channel.

To discover your culture strengths and opportunities for corrective action, the Culture Focus Scorecard could potentially help you.


Switch Points: Culture Change on the Fast Track to Business Success Judy Johnson, Les Dakens, Peter Edwards, Ned Morse (2008).

Ian Macdonald et al., (2006) Systems Leadership: Creating the Positive Organization, by the authors of this chapter. Gower Publishing

Carolyn Taylor (2015) ‘Walking the Talk’ Random House Business Books

Written by:
Dr Martin Egan

Culture Consultancy, Executive Coaching, Leadership Development

August 25, 2022