How to Successfully Manage Cultural Change in the Workplace

At my first job, I was tasked with changing the culture of a nonprofit organization specifically with regards to the volunteers we had. When I started, staff volunteer relations were horrible. We had 10 volunteers who thought their job was to spy on staff and report them for bad behavior. Within 3 years, we have 100s of volunteers and a waiting list to join our volunteer corps and every department was using volunteers successfully.   What I created was not just a volunteer program – but a cultural shift within the organization so that all contributions were valued and the work that was being done, regardless of who did it – was professionalized.

1.    What are some challenges you've faced when attempting to change company culture and how did you overcome them?

Because cultural change requires changing people’s beliefs about how things work, it is probably the hardest type of change to create within a work group. You have to nurture people and encourage a shift in how they think about themselves and their co-workers.  It is not simply a matter of implementing new policies or creating a new system for people to use. You have to change hearts and minds.  Behaviors are fairly easy to change, changing minds is much much harder.


2.    What are some universal principles that every company should abide by when it comes to culture change?

People want to do good and be good, so you can harness people’s innate sense of self and morality to help create the culture you want.  Human morality – is pretty universal regardless of location and or religion or lack of religion. Most people value compassion, responsibility, justice and fairness. You can use those moral constants to help encourage people to not only rise to the challenge of being a good person, but how to implement that within their interpersonal work relationships. 

A great way to do this is – appreciative inquiry – where you focus on what is working and build upon that.  It helps people see the good in each other and get past some of – the problems they were focused on before. And it helps bring everyone together into a single tribe so that they can work on improving the culture together.


3.    What motivated or caused a shift in company culture at your business?

At my first real job out of college, I was hired to create a cultural shift with the volunteer staff.  There was a desire at the top levels of the organization to fix things and things were really quite toxic when I arrived.  I create that change by professionalizing the work and making explicit what the responsibilities were at all levels and between people, so they would know what to expect and what their roles were in relationship to one another. Again, most cultural problems are a result of bad interpersonal dynamics and these tend to self-reinforce. By creating clarity of responsibilities and chains of command, I was able to help bring some reliability to people’s expectations so that they could work together productively and deal with any disagreements professionally instead of floundering. Over a very short period of time, as people learned they could in fact trust each other, the culture shifted dramatically.


4.    How do you motivate employees to actively accept a company's culture?

A friend of mine, Manuel Guillen, Founder and Director of the Institute for Ethics in Communication and in Organizations, says – you can’t force people to accept a company’s ethical culture. All you can do is create the environment so that ethical culture can flourish and that people who want to be ethical, have the space and support to be ethical. Morality is very motivating and people who are motivated by it – will be motivated by it. But not everyone will be and really, it’s not worth worrying about. At a certain point, cultural change within an organization is self-reinforcing. People join the new culture when it is right for them and they see the benefit it in. Some people never do and so will leave the organization. That is fine.  The key is to protect the first wave of culture change ambassadors so that they have space to be the ethical people you want them to be and any pushback by people who are used to controlling dynamics through aggression or whatever other behaviors and mindsets they have – are not able to dominate any more.

I want to emphasize a couple of things. First, cultural change is almost always motivated by ethics. There is something unethical or amiss about the existing ethical culture of an organization and we want to fix it to make it more ethical. Cultural change is entirely about ethics and to not talk about ethics or make it central to the change process is a mistake. If there wasn’t a need to be more ethical, change would not be required. So make the ethics of what you are trying to do and why you are trying to do it – explicit.

Second, because you are looking to create an ethical cultural shift, you need to recognize, identify and eliminate individuals whose ethical basis is NOT consistent with the new norms you want to create.   My friend Adam Cox, at the London School of Economics, said that corporate culture is determined by the last person promoted.  If you promote unethical people, your culture will become unethical. If you want to create a more ethical culture, you need to get rid of the unethical people in your organization and promote and celebrate ethical people.

If you want to learn more about how to approach cultural change within an organization from both a scientific and ethical perspective - contact me or take one of my courses.

I am the founder of Humanist Learning Systems and teach behavior-based approaches to change management, cultural change and humanistic business management

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