Practical Tools to Change Your Organization’s Culture

Most executives with whom I interact get it—they know that the culture of their organization must be aligned with what it needs to accomplish in order to compete and win. They understand that without the underlying values, norms and routines that encourage productive behavior, their organizations will fail to execute their strategy. 

But then comes the simple-yet-tough question, how do you change your organization’s culture? For example, if you need to become more innovative yet your culture is overly risk averse, what do you do? 

It may sound counterintuitive, but some of the best ways to change your organization’s culture don’t involve an overt attempt to change norms and values. Preaching about new core values and new ways of doing things typically doesn’t work in changing the culture. 

Instead of focusing on norms and values directly, here are a few practical tools to change your organization’s culture. You do need to start by analyzing and deciding what needs to change; that is, what is the gap between your current culture and how the organization needs to start operating to execute its strategy. But then, take those attributes and infuse them into the following processes, systems and behaviors:

  1. Performance evaluations. In both your formal and informal performance feedback, explicitly include an assessment of behavior as it pertains to the culture you’re trying to instill. 
  2. Promotions. If you want to send a clear signal about what’s important in your organization, there are few better ways than to promote the people who exemplify the behaviors you value. The same goes for those people whom you choose for leadership development programs or other initiatives for “high-potentials.”
  3. Hiring. Similar to your promotion criteria, evaluating the fit of job candidates with the culture you want to develop can begin the process of infusing the organization with new values and behavior. 
  4. Orientation and onboarding. Design early experiences for newcomers that help them know exactly what behaviors you expect, support and reward. And then, of course, actually expect, support and reward those behaviors. 
  5. Policies, procedures, and rewards. This may seem like a boring part of changing the culture of an organization, but you can use these formal parts of your organization’s structure to articulate clearly what is acceptable and what is not. And when you manage your people’s behavior via systems and processes, you have much more ability to be consistent and fair than if you try to change values and norms in an ad-hoc manner. 

Additionally, of course, any attempt at culture change requires two critical elements. First, the organization’s leaders must role model the behavior they’re trying to encourage, and they must hold each other accountable to do so. For example, if you’re trying to have a more innovative culture, top leaders must treat new ideas with an open mind and accept reasonable failure. Second, as with any organizational change effort, people are more likely to accept the change if they’ve been involved in the process and if they fully understand the big picture of why the changes are occurring. 

So if you’re thinking that your organization needs to shift its culture in some way to better align with strategic priorities, focus on behaviors and systems first. That, along with good role modeling and communication, will go a lot further in promoting the change you want than exhortation, pleading or silly banners à la Office Space reminding people to ask themselves, “Is This Good for the COMPANY?”

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: www.benbaran.com.