How Does Culture Affect Organizational Change?

How does culture affect organizational change?

Most people innately feel that culture affects employee behaviors and performance.

These, in turn, can also affect the outcomes of organizational change projects.

But understanding exactly how culture affects organizational change isn’t always easy.

So let’s take a look at this question in depth, by learning:

  • What organizational culture is
  • How it affects employee behaviors 
  • How those behaviors can impact organizational change 
  • Whether culture can be influenced

Among other questions.

Let’s start at the very beginning…

What Is Organizational Culture?

What is organizational culture?

And why should we care?

According to Edgar Schein, author of Organizational Culture and Leadership:

“Cultures basically spring from three sources: (1) the beliefs, values, and assumptions of founders of organizations; (2) the learning experiences of group members as their organization evolves; and (3) new beliefs, values, and assumptions brought in by new members and leaders.”

He claims that there are 3 levels of culture:

  • Artifacts – Visible organizational structures and processes
  • Espoused Beliefs and Values – Strategies, goals, and philosophies
  • Underlying Assumptions – Unconscious, taken-for-granted beliefs, perceptions, thoughts, and feelings

Finally, Schein also claims that culture and behavior are closely linked.

He says that in the same way that an individual’s personality affects their behavior, “so does culture guide and constrain behavior of members of a group.”

We can see from these ideas that culture:

  • Stems from beliefs and assumptions
  • Is intertwined with an organization’s strategies, philosophies, and mission
  • Evolves over time, based on leaders’ values and shared experiences
  • Affect behavior

When it comes to management, change management, and organizational change, behavior and performance is what concerns us most.

How Does Organizational Culture Affect Employee Behavior?

From the above concepts, we can see that culture clearly affects employee behavior.

It is certainly not the only factor at play.

But it does play a role.

Culture affects:

  • Attitudes
  • Beliefs
  • Values
  • Perceptions
  • Shared norms
  • Rules of conduct

Because all of these are based on a set of underlying assumptions, beliefs, and values.

Those, in turn, impact employee actions. They help define how employees:

  • Interact with one another
  • See the organization and its mission
  • Feel about their work and the workplace
  • Perform and act

From here, we can see a clear link between culture, conduct, and organizational change.

How Does Culture Affect Organizational Change?

Another, perhaps better question would be, “What cultures are more conducive to organizational change?”

As we have seen, a culture is intimately bound up with the organization’s philosophy, beliefs, and values.

It is only reasonable, therefore, that some cultural values are more suited to change.

In the digital age, certain cultural characteristics are prized over others.

These include:

In an era driven by change, characteristics such as these would certainly prove valuable.

However, what do you do if your organizational culture isn’t up to par?

Can Culture Be Changed or Influenced?

Yes, but changing organizational culture is difficult.

And it becomes more difficult the more established that culture is.

According to Edgar Schein, culture operates differently during different stages of an organization’s life.

The seed of culture begins with the founders, is embedded and transmitted by leaders, and evolve as an organization grows.

Building upon the works of Kurt Lewin and others, Schein suggests a model of managed culture change.

Steps in his model include:

  • Unfreezing/Disconfirmation – Creating a motivation to change by unlearning previous ideas and presenting the possibility of a solution.
  • Cognitive Restructuring – Going beyond behavioral change by presenting new cognitive definitions, learning new concepts, and learning new meanings for old concepts, among other things.
  • Refreezing – Finally, new behaviors and ideas must be reinforced in order for them to become internalized.

A cultural change program based on this model is certainly not easy, however.

The change manager will certainly face a number of obstacles along the way.

What Are the Challenges to Cultural Change?

Employee resistance has been one of the most-referenced obstacles to organizational change.

This makes sense – fear and anxiety are common responses during times of disruption, disharmony, and upheaval.

And unfortunately, these are necessary steps during any cultural or organizational change process.

People fear:

  • Being incompetent
  • Being punished
  • Losing their personal identity
  • Being ejected from group membership

Which can result in different forms of resistance, such as denial or bargaining.

To overcome these challenges, change managers and leaders must tackle employees’ fears before they begin.

A few techniques for this include:

  • Creating a positive, compelling vision of the future
  • Employee training, which gives workers the skills, knowledge, and abilities they need to become competent
  • Two-way communication that offer feedback to employees
  • Reward systems

Among others.

When Should You Change Your Organizational Culture?

A cultural change is certainly possible, but when are such changes appropriate?

According to Edgar Schein, culture change should not be the initial goal of an organizational change project.

Instead, it should only become a part of the project if culture obstructs a change project.

As he says in the book mentioned above:

“One of the biggest mistakes that leaders make when they undertake change initiatives is to be vague about their change goals and to assume that culture change will be needed.”

He goes on to say that change goals should focus on concrete problems first.

Only then is it appropriate to perform culture assessments.

Chris is the Lead Author & Editor of Change Blog. Chris established the Change blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to Change Management.