How to Change an Organizational Culture in a Few Simple Steps

If you’re wondering how to change an organizational culture, you probably feel that your corporate culture isn’t appropriate for your business strategy.

And this is entirely possible.

Organizational cultures are complex and continually evolving.

They begin with the founders’ mission and vision, then evolve organically over time.

In some cases, that culture can interfere with:

  • An organization’s change plans
  • Organizational strategy
  • The organization’s mission, vision, or values

When culture becomes a blockade to success, it’s time to change.

Below, we’ll look at a 4-step process for doing just that.

How to Change an Organizational Culture in a Few Simple Steps

Make no mistake – cultural change isn’t easy.

Cultures are a mixture of:

  • Fundamental beliefs, assumptions, values, and perceptions
  • Philosophies and outlooks
  • Rules and codes of social conduct

All of which contribute to employee productivity, performance, and behavior, among other things.

A strong culture is a common feature among successful companies.

But when it’s time to change that culture, you need a structured, effective approach to change.

Prerequisites for a Cultural Change Program

Before getting started with a cultural change project, a few things are required:

  • A reason to change your culture. First and foremost, you need a reason to change your corporate culture – a solid, strategic reason. Because cultural changes can be psychologically taxing, difficult, and costly, it’s important to have a valid, strategic reason for making such a big change.
  • A change initiative. A change project is one such reason. When a business wants to change, it’s entirely possible that the existing corporate culture will interfere with that plan. However, as we’ll see below, you need to verify this before proceeding further.
  • A change management plan and strategy. Your organizational change plan should already have a strategic goal. Managing cultural change can supplement this plan or be integrated with it. But, as mentioned, you will need to make a solid business case for initiating cultural change.

With a specific strategic aim – a business goal – it is possible to determine whether your existing culture can help or hinder that change.

A 4-Step Plan for Cultural Change

Analysis of your own corporate culture is a key element to this approach.

It will help you determine two things.

Firstly, whether cultural change is necessary. Secondly, what type of culture change you need to make.

1. Assess your own culture.

To understand your own company culture:

  • Conduct interviews and hold dialogues with employees
  • Obtain descriptions of your current culture’s manifestations – workplace behaviors, expectations, dress codes, codes of conducts, social norms, and so on
  • Use these cultural manifestations – or artifacts – to elucidate the underlying beliefs of your business culture

For instance, do these sessions suggest that workers are open to change?

Are they open to learning new things?

Do they prize individualism or collectivism?

Is the culture open to digital technology?

Is the workplace autocratic (top-down) or democratic (bottom-up)?

The beliefs and behaviors of your culture can indicate how they would respond to your change project.

2. Identify how your culture could help or hinder your change project.

Workplace culture can affect a change project in a few ways.

Namely, that culture can either:

  • Help
  • Hinder
  • Or have no impact

For instance, if your corporate culture is open to change, new ideas, and innovative thinking, then it will probably facilitate change.

If the opposite is true, then you may need to identify beliefs that would hinder your business aims.

Then find a way to shift those beliefs.

3. Focus on changing beliefs, ideas, and values, not processes.

Don’t just introduce new processes and expect culture to change as a result.

Forcing new processes on an unwilling workforce can actually have a negative effect.

Instead:

  • Explain your ideas about the new culture clearly, persuasively, and deeply – don’t just mandate new processes without explanation
  • Train employees well – a great deal of fear and anxiety comes with learning new things, and this can generate resentment
  • Ensure that your cultural change project is aligned with the organization’s mission, values, and philosophy
  • Incentivize and sell workers on the benefits of change – help them understand how the different corporate culture is better for them personally

In other words, focus on the underlying beliefs and values – not behavior.

Attempting to force behavioral change without explanation or reason may not transform culture. It may entrench old beliefs and ideas even further.

4. Disconfirm old beliefs with persuasive data, then reconfirm with new data.

When initiating your organizational culture change, follow a change model similar to Kurt Lewin’s:

  • Unfreeze old beliefs, values, and ideas. The best way to do this is with data that disconfirms their old beliefs. And, at the same time, you need to point toward a solution by offering new data and persuasive arguments.
  • The transition phase is next. If you successfully disprove old ideas and cultural assumptions, then your workers will undergo cognitive restructuring. In other words, they will begin to adopt new ideas and beliefs. 
  • Finally, you will need to freeze the new cognitive structures in place. Reinforce new ideas and cognitive structures through reconfirming data, training, and so on.

In essence, you are engaged in strategic persuasion and communication.

This approach should be familiar to most change managers.

As mentioned, it is derived directly from Kurt Lewin’s change model. 

It was then adapted for cultural change by Edgar Schein.

The emphasis here, though, is on affecting beliefs and values, not business processes.

Correctly applied, this approach can help you create a culture that facilitates successful organizational change, strengthens the workforce, and adds value to the business as a whole.

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.