Changing Organisational Culture

A colleague asked me recently what can be done to change an organisation’s culture where parts of it have been long established and were now barriers to how things needed to be. She described the frustration in dealing with people who cling to ‘how things are’ and refuse to do things differently, despite the requirement to do so. She spoke too, of the desperately long time frame involved in cultural change. She acknowledged that progress, however small, sometimes never felt like progress at all.

In thinking further about our discussion, I wondered how aware people were about organisational culture and whether they knew the steps required to make changes. So what is it and how can it be changed?

Organisational culture is typically defined as how an organisation sees itself and how the people within it, feel about the organisation. It includes staffs’ commitment to the organisation, how staff respond to management and what the organisation stands for. Organisational climate, on the other hand, describes the atmosphere within the organisation and the extent to which people work together. It also includes the frequency and quality of internal communications.

The first step in cultural change requires determining the future. The leaders need clear vision and a picture of how in the future, the organisation is to look like, be like, feel like and sound like. The next step requires taking a current snapshot view of the organisational culture and climate. This is done by involving staff and asking their views about aspects of the organisation, through culture and climate surveys. These may include one-on-one meetings, individual questionnaires or focus group meetings. The questions typically cover internal communications, customer service orientation, organisational values and spoken and unspoken ‘norms’.

The snapshot is then followed by a comprehensive plan of the specific cultural changes needed in particular areas, over a period of time. The plan embodies the decision makers’ vision and the changes needed to achieve this. The plan needs to be communicated to all staff and stakeholders, as a lack of information encourages misinformation, guesswork and potential stress to affected individuals. Staff need to be fully informed as to what is changing, the reasons why and what is expected of them.

The new cultural values and expectations must then be modelled by the top, middle and lower management levels. At this stage, the expectations need to be repeated constantly and reinforced by immediate feedback. To ensure the new attitudes and values continue to be implemented and maintained throughout the organisation, managers themselves must continue to model the changes.

In essence, changing organisational cultures depends upon a few key factors:

A Plan – plans provide direction as to where you are now, where you want to be and what you have to do to get there.

Good Communications – know the audience; plan and prepare the messages; use the appropriate communications channels and consistently communicate with all the stakeholders. Keep people informed of all progress – the successes, the glitches, the work still to be done.

Involve Managers – managers are the key players in cultural change, so all must be involved at the beginning and throughout the process. Managers at every organisational level are the role models, so they must be committed and their messages and actions must be congruent and consistent.

Establish collegial relationships – organisations can sometimes splinter internally with factions – those for and against the changes. Work to establish professional relationships and if things get difficult, focus on the issue, not the personality.

Personal Responsibility – at the end of the day, change will only occur if people accept their responsibilities. Ensure that people know what is expected of them and monitor their actions. Provide immediate feedback.

Know that with any change process, there will always be the innovators (about 3%, right away) and early adopters, 9%. The early majority accounts for nearly 38% and the late majority also 38%. These are followed by the laggards, about 12%, who may or may not get there in the end.

“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all who profit by the old order, and only luke warm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order. This luke warmness arises partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the law in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.” Machiavelli, 1513.

‘nough said.


First Published in NZBusiness June 2004�

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