A Chalk board with "New Way" on it followed by an arrow point to the right. Under it are the words "Old Way" with an arrow in front of them pointing to the left.

Changing an Organization’s Culture

by Nov 23, 2020Leadership, Organization Development

Changing an organization’s culture or the norms of a team is not something to take lightly. An organization’s culture is the pattern of how it routinely behaves much like the personality of a human being. The analogy is apt since an organization is a human system. Likewise, they can be functional or dysfunctional. Dysfunctional cultures that are overly competitive, passive aggressive, or compliant, for example, inhibit productivity and employee engagement to the detriment of the org’s success and need changing.

However, an organization’s culture not only resist change, but seduce those who would change the culture into behaving in accord with the status quo sustaining that culture for better or for worse. Fortunately, with patience and persistent, here are seven areas of organization and group life that when used in concert will make a difference.

They are…

1. Goals and Values of the Desired Culture

Culture change efforts are most effective when rooted in a set of values that define the organization’s important behavioral priorities. Is generating profit more important than producing quality products and services? Are long-term gains more important than short-term successes? Is respect for authority more important than collaboration? Is effective communication more important than the chain-of-command? Clarity about such value questions provide an organization with decision-making standards when competing alternatives are at hand. In the short-term, the genius who is pissing of their colleagues may be important to the success of a current project, but what about their longer term impact on employee engagement? Which is more important: pleasing customers or pleasing staff? The easy answer for these questions is “it depends.” The problem with that response is that it leaves too many daily decisions up in the air to be pushed up the organizational ladder. Clarity around cultural values inform effective and efficient decision-making and dictate which behaviors are to be rewarded and which censured.

Here are four key areas in which desired cultural values need to defined.

  • Being-right vs collaboration
  • Short-term gains vs long-term gains
  • Quantity vs quality
  • People vs procedure
  • Accountability vs conflict avoidance

They are not the only areas, but they are important ones.

Such values and priorities are best developed and clarified through small and large group dialogues that clarify and refine them. Discussions should also include how to maintain those values in situations where being expedient would be tempting. Decision-making discussions must include such value-oriented points.

2. Leadership Behavior to Change an Organization’s Culture

Leaders must consistently talk the talk and walk the talk. People follow their leaders, for better or for worse. To clarify, people do what their leaders do much more than what they say. Leaders that attempt to change a culture via announcement, speeches, and memorandum will be disappointed by their lack of impact regardless of their intentions. That lack is not just because proclamations do not create buy-in. Much greater impact comes from leaders visibly modelling the values and associated behavior about which they speak. They leader that wants a culture of openness and honesty but is not willing to own their own errors will not see much change. Likewise, the leader who says they value employee engagement but rarely acknowledges employee in-put will not see much change.

Effective leaders have some place to go and people willing to follow. If they are not willing to go where they want their people to go, those people are not at all likely to follow. Changing an organization’s culture change requires that leaders behave the way they wish their people to behave

3. Feedback Frequency Changes an Organization’s Culture

Organizations, their units, and their individual people will attend to the priorities that are getting the most attention. Metrics about production rates and sales generate lots of conversation while metrics about desired culture behaviors are limited to annual culture surveys. Establishing feedback regarding the desired values and behaviors must be more frequent than other priorities at least until the new behaviors are firmly established if not for the duration.

4. Accountability: Rewards, Support, & Censure

Accountability is often thought of as “owning responsibility.” A team member may say, “You can count on me to get that done,” then own the responsibility for missing an agreed upon deadline. That is fine but doesn’t go far enough. Supposed that same team member repeatedly misses several important deadlines? Then simply owning responsibility is not enough to fix the problem of the missed deadlines. At this point accountability must include some consequence. Keep in mind that “consequence” can either a reward for successful behavior and censure for unsuccessful behavior. That censure should whatever form will be effective for the individual or team in question and include the organization’s steps of progressive discipline.

Fortunately, the need for censure can be minimized with the consistent use of rewards for consistently successful behavior. In too many organization, most formal rewards (positive performance appraisal, salary increases, bonuses, and promotions) are too infrequent for culture change processes. In such cases, establish some version of a weekly “culture review” meeting to officially recognize and reward those who have embodied the new values and behaviors. Such meeting can decrease in frequency as the desired behaviors become more and more consistent. Of course, the usual formal rewards must also reinforce the values and behaviors of the new culture.

Most important, use informal, but frequent private and public acknowledgement of behaviors consistent with the new values to emphasize their importance. Doing so meets the require of Accountability and Feedback Frequency needed to change an organization’s culture.

5. Performance Management Policies & Procedures

Performance management policies and procedures must support and reinforce the values and behaviors desired in the new culture. They must align performance standards of the organization, its units, and each position with the new values. In addition, they must also support the day-in and day-out use of feedback needed for units and employees to excel.  

6. Training and Development to Change an Organization’s Culture

The new values may require new skills. Train members of organizational units together so they can support and reinforce each other. Change happens best through small groups of people who work together. Such training must move from the top down as people tend to do what their leaders are doing as mentioned.

7. Support Mechanisms to Change an Organization’s Culture

Some organizational units may struggle to let go of behaviors undesirable in new culture. Without letting go, taking up the new behaviors is often problematic. A wake-type of activity or other facilitated support is useful to uncover and resolve such issues. The new leader of a middle-sized government organization wanted to change its culture from one of resigned apathy to one of excitement about the new vision that she offered. She had put in place the bulk of the items listed, but progress was really dragging. After a bid of consultation she decide to hold a wake for the old, but still current culture. She took her two upper levels of management away for half a day on a Friday afternoon. She had each person share would it had been like working for the organization, She wanted the good, the bad, and the ugly. She each to share as much they needed to share to be able to let it go. The process started off slowly but as it progressed she heard story after story of squelched initiative, squashed creativity, and acceptance of having been dealt a bad hand. That took two hours and everyone was sick to death of the ain’t-it-awful stories. For the second two hours she had them invite the characteristics and behaviors of a culture that would energize them toward her new vision. The following week the pace change picked up rapidly. To change an organization’s culture, we often need to let go of the old before we can move toward and into the new!

Culture change (like changing personal habits) may not take much to initiate. Many wannabe non-smokers successfully stop many times . . . before reverting to their former behavior. Sustaining the new behavior is the challenge. The sustainability of a new organizational culture depends on the new values and behaviors being consistently reinforced over several months. Success in the areas of Leadership Behavior, Feedback Frequency, Rewards, Support, Discipline, and Performance Management are the keys to such reinforcement.

The Harvard Business Review offers a good story about culture change at https://hbr.org/2012/07/cultural-change-that-sticks.

Of course, support for the changes represented by our seven areas must be built to critical mass. How to do that is a topic for a later article.


Dr. Michael F. Broom is an organization development psychologist who transforms organizations with his 45+ years of wisdom and expertise . Michael Broom smilingSpecializing in developing leaders, building teams, strategic planning, conflict resolution, and performance management, he emphasizes empowerment and excellence.

He is the author of The Infinite Organization and Power, The Infinite Game.

He is a recipient of the OD Network’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

Contact Dr. Broom for a free hour of consultation at chumans.com or email him at michael@chumans.com. You’ll be surprised the difference a single hour can make!

Check out his immediately useful services and programs at CHumanS.com.