In any given day you can hear leaders in organisations around the country saying things like “that won’t work in our culture” or making excuses such as “Don’t worry about it, that’s just the culture in this place”. Culture is thought to be too big to ignore, too tough to conquer, and too soft to understand. Thinking this way, especially when you have had previous culture change disappointments, is enough to sap your energy and enthusiasm for change. But does it have to be that way? Can we all make a difference when it comes to changing our culture?


One of the things I love about my work is that I get the opportunity to meet new people and new teams in workplaces around the country. I also love the opportunity to test out the culture in a workplace when I first visit. Bounding up to the reception with my cheesy grin and saying a big “Hello” to the Director of first impressions – the receptionist. On the odd occasion I get the early morning grunt, the lack of eye contact and treatment of indifference. I’m always amused especially when I read the big poster on the wall behind the receptionist that says “We care about you”. You soon know there is something wrong within the culture when the behaviour does not match with the rhetoric.


Have you ever walked into a workplace and felt the heavy burden of a toxic culture come descending down on you? People with their heads buried – not caring about the people around them, too busy making their way through their day-to-day tasks to really want to make a difference with others?


Culture is powerful because we all take our cues from people around us. We are courteous or sharp-tongued, innovative or bureaucratic, argumentative or accommodating, at least in part because we unconsciously tend to imitate the behaviour of those nearby.


This immutable aspect of human nature can be irritating to many leaders – especially when the culture is orientated away for high performance.


Teaching an old culture new tricks

But how do you change culture? How do you move from blaming “the way we do things around here” and move to new behaviours and attitudes. Two options are that you can fight it head-on (How many times have you wished that you could just tell everyone what the new culture is going to be?) or ignore it altogether.  We’ve all heard of many failed attempts of both. A third way is to make small incremental changes to how people behave and how a business operates.


To understand your culture, you need to pay close attention to its quite, sometimes hidden, manifestations, such as side conversations in hallways, the informal consultations behind closed doors – and the incisive guidance that people get when they ask one another for advice.


Cultures can be diagnosed best by the work behaviours they promote. Do people collaborate easily? Do they make decisions individually or in groups? Are they open with their information? Do they reflect on successes and failures and learn from them?


As you move from diagnosing to improving behaviours, focus first on the few critical changes that mater most.


Figure out which of the old constructive behaviours embedded in your culture can be applied to accelerate the changes you want. Find ways to counterbalance and diminish other elements of the culture that hinder you. The overall aim is to teach your old culture new tricks.


Edgar H. Schein author of The Corporate Culture Survival Guide and a leading authority on organisation culture, tells a story about making small changes to make a big difference. Three senior executives of a large manufacturing company visited him, seeking advice on building a more dynamic culture. “Just yesterday,” said the CEO, “I had my regular meeting with subordinates. We have a big circular room, and everybody sits in the same place each time. But get this – only four people were present this time, and they still sat at the far ends of this great big table. Do you see what I’m up against?


“What did you do about it?” asked Schein.


The executives responded at first with blank stares. Then they realised they were part of the system they were blaming. The CEO could have made a small but significant change simply by asking the four of them to move chairs. Better yet, he could ask the full team to vary their seating at the next meeting. The executives spent the next several hours figuring out other minor actions of that sort, which they put in place the following week, with great success.

Culture Myths 

Why don’t leaders naturally respond to culture in this way is something I ask myself. It is usually because of several misconceptions about culture change that block us from taking these small steps.


  • We don’t really know how to change our culture, so let’s escape it – the answer must be to “recreate” an entirely new culture.
  • Leave culture to the people professionals (Ensuring behaviour change is the role of line leaders at all levels)
  • Our culture is the root of all our problems (An all-purpose, convenient excuse)
  • Culture is the job of the top leaders (top leaders need to play an important role but ideally it is the support to the many leaders down the line – particularly those who have daily contact with the people whose behaviour change is most critical) A key to changing culture is to change behaviour, changing behaviour rather than engaging with the culture directly. In emphasising behaviour, you are looking for those few actions, conducted again and again that will lead to better values (and thus better results) Make clear the distinctions among the values you want to develop and one-time actions you are changing, and the recurring behaviours you hope to install. A commitment to service, for example, is a value. When a receptionist expresses that value by a warm and happy greeting, that’s an action.

Tips for Changing Culture

  • Next time you are looking to blame your culture, stop and think about actions you need to take to change behaviour! Remember, it is much easier to act your way into new thinking than to think your way into new actions. This week try a new way of greeting visitors as they walk through your office. Ask the people around you to try it out as well.
  • This could involve changing the behaviour of your management team, or your supervisors and team leaders, developing small behavioural changes that lead them, bit by bit, to think about things differently, to act differently, to behave differently.
  • Repeated behaviours have cultural impact because they are contagious. Even small changes in behaviour, if they are picked up by more than one individual, can ripple though an organisation as others see their value and begin to act accordingly.
  • When the receptionist does this routinely, knowing it will help with visitor satisfaction, it’s a behaviour.
  • Don’t try to change everything at once. Focus on a few critical behaviours that resonate with you current culture
  • Create self-awareness about the behaviour you want to change
  • Repeated behaviours have cultural impact because they are contagious. People unconsciously imitate what they see others do
  • Practice new behaviours again and again so that people experience their value
  • Seek out role models for new behaviours. Enlist “cultural carriers”, people who are well positioned to transmit behaviours to others
  • Don’t blame your culture if you can’t get things done; use it purposefully. View it as an asset: a source of energy, pride, and motivation. Learn to work with it and within it
  • Look for subcultures (within teams or departments) and define specific action to target work on change within that subculture
  • Help people recognise how new behaviours will support culture change
  • Culture is like the tide – when the tide rises so do all the boats. Look for actions and behaviours that will help you create a high tideLike to share your culture change strategies and tips? Comment on our LinkedIn Discussion page