How can we successfully change culture?

Well, I certainly won’t be able to give an exhaustive answer to this question in this newsletter. However, my clients quite frequently request me to address this challenge. They want to know how a very hierarchical culture with a lot of control mechanisms and standardized processes can be successfully transformed into a trust-based culture with self-organized teams. Often, this question is brought forward to me in the context of a transformation to agile and collegial leadership principles.

I normally then say: “Culture is something you cannot change. It simply evolves. What you can do, however, is change behavior. And once you change your behavior, culture will also change step by step.”

An organization that desires a new and more trust-based culture has no other choice but to start changing behavior. What would that be? Here are some of my ideas:

  • Provide information to everyone early and at the same time.
  • Give everyone an equal chance to speak up using appropriate meeting formats such as speaking in rounds.
  • Encourage employees to get involved – A note of caution: please use this method only in relation to topics that are really open to any outcome, because nothing destroys trust more than feigned freedom that is then taken away again a short time later.
  • Let teams decide on topics once you have empowered them to use decision-making tools for teams.

In large organizations, experience shows that starting with just one unit is the most efficient approach, preferably the unit in which the managers are closest to what the target culture should look like in terms of their attitude. In doing so, it is important to protect this unit carefully at its interfaces to third-party stakeholders so that the unit’s new behavior does not have a negative impact on its reputation in the overall company which keeps operating under the old rules.

If employees from this first unit provide a positive feedback about their experience, this might well have knock-on effects on the rest of the organization. It is extremely important that this first “test unit” receives all the help you can think of and is granted a sufficient amount of time. Because, if the employees involved do not associate a positive experience with the experiment, it will take a long time to find volunteers for a new venture.

Overall, transformation time can be reduced if you take enough time for the first experiment. It only makes sense to expand any change in behavior across the company as a whole once a real pull effect has been achieved for other areas or units.

It is important to make yourself aware of the fact that in very hierarchical organizations, there will be managers who will not be able to keep up with the change in behavior and the associated change in attitude. But time might be on the organization’s side – by gradually recruiting new managers who bring an attitude based solely on trust. It is important to acknowledge at this point that managers do not follow bad intentions as for decades they have learned and lived a leadership culture which was designed around control and individual responsibility and therefore, they cannot, and will not, simply turn the switch. You can encourage them and give them time, always with the potential result that it might not be possible to change everyone. These people also deserve to continue to be treated with appreciation and to be employed in the company in a way that fits to their strengths.

Another possibility to influence culture a little bit is to create ‘culture-building moments’. Culture-building moments are situations in which the management behaves differently than what is expected by the employees. This has an element of surprise! This element should naturally be associated with positive feelings and hopes among employees. For example, unexpected feedback in relation to commitment in front of a large plenum or being thankful for the lessons learned from the mistakes instead of expressing the expected criticism for a failed project. Needless to say that such a culture-building moment must not be destroyed immediately afterwards by contrary behavior. As such, culture-building moments can only be generated sustainably if the attitude of the managers has changed beforehand.

Falling back to the old culture by managers and leaders should be corrected quickly and combined with prompt apologies, which should be expressed in the same large plenum in which the breach against the culture also took place.

In a nutshell: Gerhard Wohland says: “Culture is the shadow of an organization.” It follows that culture cannot be changed, but behaviour can! Behaviour and, in turn, experience shape culture! So what is there to wait for?

This text first appeared in my newsletter 'Innovation on Wednesday'. It is published every other Wednesday. For subscription click here

Further reading:

Andrea SchmittInnovationstrainerinAm Mittelpfad 24aD 65520 Bad Camberg+49 64 34-905 997+49 175 5196446
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