Unveiling the Cultural Cheat Code: A Conversation with Michigan Ross Professor Marcus Collins

by | Jul 26, 2023 | Communication, Sanger News

In today’s fast-paced landscape, understanding the intricate relationship between culture and human behavior is nothing short of unlocking a secret cheat code. Imagine having the key to influencing what people buy, what they do, and even who they aspire to be. That is precisely what Michigan Ross Professor, Marcus Collins, explores in his debut book, For The Culture: The Power Behind What We Buy, What We Do, And Who We Want To Be. His new release focuses on “providing perspective around what culture is and providing the language for how we talk about it.” Collins explained this book is for everyone, whether they are “a marketer, a leader, a manager, activist, a politician, or anyone with a vested interest in getting people to move. The book is meant to help unlock the biggest cheat code to behavioral adoption, and that’s culture.”

Sanger’s marketing & communications coordinator, Mary Katharine Acho Tartoni, engaged in a thought-provoking conversation with Professor Collins about the fascinating intersection of culture and leadership.

Culture is one of the most powerful ways to impact behavior. What aspects impact the way we define culture? 

Emile Durkheim, one of the Founding Fathers of sociology, talks about culture as a system, the conventions and expectations that govern what people like me do. These conventions, these are the beliefs that we hold, the way that we see the world at work. These conventions dictate what’s acceptable behavior for people like me. Therefore, we adopt the behavior, we wear the garb, we speak the speak. We do the things that people like us do to maintain our good standing citizenship within these groups of people.

Therefore, culture is far more than popularity. It is the underlying physics for why things that are popular, become popular.

If those underlying physics (of culture) have some type of negative connotation, what can someone do to rewrite that and to make that culture more positive?

It’s a great question. Ultimately, it boils down to the discourse. We make meaning through the way that we speak. What we wear, where we decide to eat, where we decide to go, where we go to school, if we go to school. All these things are signals for what is considered acceptable behavior for people like us.

So when there are things that we feel are outside the beliefs and ideologies that we hold, we enter the discourse through rhetoric that says, “Hey, people like us don’t do that.” It’s so important for us to use our voice in those matters because, by dissenting against what is taking place around us, it’s a way by which we get people to stop and say, “Let’s negotiate” rather than “this is acceptable.”

Do you think that the idea that culture only comes from the top, can be changed in modern day society?

Sure! Culture is the way by which we can make meaning, and meaning is not fixed in one person’s head. It’s us. It’s the people who decide what is acceptable behavior.

That doesn’t require anybody from up top telling us down below what we do. We collectively, in our groups and in our communities, decide what is acceptable without authority. Authority ends up giving the rules, but we decide whether we adhere to them. It’s a social process called legitimation, where we decide what’s acceptable behavior for people like us, and we do that informally through the stories we tell, the conversations that we have.

What are some of the small things that we could do as people to create a more positive culture around us?

I think we have to start with the perspective that the world around us is not objective, it’s subjective. There are many, many, many, many truths. And acknowledging that allows us to become much more open.

The second is that if we have better language on what culture is, we can start to define what’s happening around us. Those people who are acting differently from us are not doing that because they’re crazy or they’re wrong. It’s because they translate the world differently than we do. And we can say, I may not agree with them, but I understand. And getting to understanding helps us get to the third thing that we can practice, which is empathy. Seeing the world through someone else’s lenses. And so long as your truth doesn’t meet my oppression, then we could rock. I think that that idea of getting along is really how we build society. It’s how we build community. It’s how we build really strong organizations.

What advice would you give to someone who is struggling to get to that understanding, to set aside their own thoughts, ideas and narratives, to truly get to a place of equal understanding?

I would say that stand up comedians are perfect at this. They look at the road, they go, well, that was odd. That’s not what I’m used to seeing. Why is this happening? And that idea of asking ourselves what we think causes us to question our biases. And that’s a place where we remove our lenses and pick up someone else’s lenses. And to the earlier point, the more we get to the understanding that the world is subjective, I think life starts to become richer. For some, a cow is leather. For others, a deity. For some, it’s dinner. Which one is it? It’s all of them. The better we understand that, the world becomes much more. And this is ultimately why I wrote the book, to help practitioners be better at their craft, but also help us as citizens be better with each other.

Because if we can work together better, not only do we build a more civilized society, but we create more productive organizations. And for a school like Ross, that’s what we’re here to do, to do better business, and make a better world.