If I had a penny for each dollar companies have wasted in massive culture change initiatives, I’d be a rich woman. I just don’t get it. I understand that changing an IT system is complex and expensive. I know that changing a manufacturing line is capital intensive.  I get that changing the brand of an organization costs a fortune (how many half-full boxes of business cards have you thrown out after the font or pantone of your company logo changed?).  But 20 years into my consulting career, I am still flummoxed by the amount of money companies spend thinking they can pay to change their culture.

If you subscribe to the old definition of organizational culture as “the way we do things around here,” then what you’re trying to change is behavior. Given that you can’t change someone else’s behavior directly, let’s think about what you can do that will actually change the culture of your team, your division, or your organization.

  1. Change what you pay attention to. The best tool for changing culture is to change what you pay attention to. If your culture is sagging, ask each person you see about the most exciting thing they’re working on. If you’re moving to a customer-centric culture, ask how each decision will be perceived by the customer. Have one question you ask every single person you bump into. Stick to it relentlessly. They will pay attention to what you pay attention to. If you’re the CEO, this will work quickly. If you’re the receptionist, it will take longer, but it will still be effective.
  2. Change what you recognize and reward. Humans are pretty simple. We do things that get reinforced. If you’re trying to create a collaborative culture, stop rewarding the lone wolf who delivers once again. Only call out the projects that involve cooperation among multiple people. If you’re trying to create a performance culture, stop rewarding people who put in a lot of effort but didn’t get the result.
  3. Be explicit about changing expectations. If there are behaviors that used to be rewarded that are now verboten, be clear that the rules have changed. If your culture used to be all about consensus but now to you want greater autonomy and decisiveness, be clear that you are comfortable with people being left out of many decisions. When the excluded grumble, tell them that you are willing to pay the price to increase agility.
  4. Give direct feedback to hold outs. It will be very difficult for people who succeeded in the old culture to let go of the approaches that made them successful. Take every opportunity to set a new expectation. If you’re trying to empower employees, remind the heroic leader that when he jumped in to fix the problem, he missed an opportunity for his people to learn to solve the issue. Granted, this is harder to do if you’re not a manager, but give it a try anyway.
  5. Change how you communicate. Language is very powerful in creating and reinforcing culture. Vet a few of your emails, presentations, or speeches with a neutral party. Tell them how you’re trying to evolve the culture and see if they can find words or phrases that betray your cause.
  6. Change who you spend time with. The people you associate with have a big influence on your thinking. If you know how you want to culture to change, spend more time with the exemplars of the new culture. If you want your company to make more evidence-based decisions, have coffee with the data analysts once a week. If you’re trying to create a sales culture, visit the field and talk with the salesforce about what gets in the way of selling.

New systems won’t change your culture.  New policies won’t change your culture. And fancy consultants will most definitely not change your culture.

New lenses, new questions, new language, new conversations, new expectations; that’s what will change your culture.  Those are in your hands.  And they are 100% free!

What other 100% free culture change tactics can you add to the list? Share them in the comments.

Further Reading

Killing your Busy Culture

Mistakes Team Leaders Make: Culture of Fear

Exercise: Exposing Reactions to Change

5 Responses to Culture is the cheapest thing to change

  1. Hi Lianne
    Great ideas on culture change tactics – how we tend to overlook the simple and obvious at times. If looking at team culture specifically, leadership teams may want to revisit their team norms/operating guidelines to ensure the desired behaviours are reflected there to promote the desired culture. Also, from an organizational perspective, consider leveraging the “values” in the organization. Ensure alignment with the values and desired culture but more importantly are you giving feedback and rewarding those who espouse and practice the desired values? Too often they are posted on a boardroom meeting wall but not incorporated into regular organizational processes (eg. performance management and development) and can be leverage to support culture change. Thank you for your post – great information as always.

    • Hi Michelle, great point. I’m always frustrated by values statements that do nothing but hang on the wall. Bringing the values to life in defining the change you’re looking for is so important. I appreciate you adding to the post!

  2. Sidd Mukherjee

    Great insights indeed! I very much like points # 1 & 2, which are like pulling people towards change rather than pushing them.

    Since you wanted to hear from readers if there is anything to add, I am wondering if you’d consider “playing role model” as a pulling force towards change? I always use this when driving a change, i.e. use the changed method myself in a visible way to set an example for the team.

    • Hi Sidd, Yes, I think that playing the role model is an excellent addition to the list. Not only does it demonstrate the expectation, but I also find that when a few people are taking the high road, it becomes increasingly difficult for others to stay on the low road. Thanks for adding to the post!

  3. Guy Martin


    This is a very good article – however, one small caveat to point #6.

    If you *only* spend time with people who agree with you or exemplify your new goals for corporate culture, you may fall victim to the “yes ma’am/sir” behavior. While it’s important to reinforce the behaviors of those who are on your side, it’s equally important to spend quality time with your ‘skeptics.’

    I recently did that in my new role and found that these ‘skeptics’ were not opposed to the change we were proposing, they just had some different (and in some cases, better) ideas of how to get there.

    It was an enlightening experience.

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