What Is Culture Change Anyway?

CHANGE MATTERSI HAD A REALLY INTERESTING CONVERSATION with a sometime client the other day. They were in the process of reviewing their year and were quite proud of the progress they had made in regards to their Diversity program. This client had done everything right, from gaining the active backing of senior management to measuring it on a balanced scorecard to which everyone was accountable. It was picture perfect and I was very proud of his work. As we talked about the coming year he was a little concerned because the next thing the senior leaders wanted to work on was a ‘culture change’ that would change the culture to support ‘inclusion’. My client was concerned because he felt the culture already supported inclusion and because he knows a true ‘culture change’ can take years and years – an attention span few organizations have. I’ll share what I told him because I think it might help others who are thinking about or being told to get involved in a ‘culture change’.

culture-change-250x250Contrary to popular belief, organizational cultures are easy to change.

Wait! What? How is that possible? Because company cultures are created and re-created every day by the actions that employees take. Because culture in its truest sense is also a verb (see my Doctoral Dissertation for more info about that) and so every action we take within our companies can be considered culturing.

That means that if you want to change a culture take a different action. All it takes is one person to do something different and the culture is changed. Then another person takes a different action and it is further changed. Yes, it may take you a little while to get everyone to take different actions, but from the very first one the culture is changed forever.

Cultures are living and breathing things, just like us humans.

So to go back to my client, I pointed out to him that all of those data points on the balanced scorecard represented changes in the culture. And all of them were leading to more and mindful inclusion. He just needed to show senior management the progression and introduce his plans for the coming year and he was on his way.

And his further plans around ‘inclusion’ were to have conversations and training for anyone making decisions about employees. That would be managers and supervisors, human resources and even finance employees. And the training would help them further change their behaviors and actions to further move the culture along the continuum.

Because cultures change all the time. Sometimes not for the better, but they do change. And that is both a danger and an opportunity. We change our cultures every day and we need to keep the focus on always moving towards productive behaviors that change our cultures for the better.


Beth Banks Cohn
Beth Banks Cohn
BETH is dedicated to helping individuals and companies implement business changes that actually work. Beth believes in the ripple effect – that change handled well benefits everyone in an organization, over and over again. As a recognized expert in change as well as corporate culture, Beth consults domestically and internationally with a wide range of disciplines and businesses. Beth is the author of two books: ChangeSmart™: Implementing Change Without Lowering your Bottom Line and Taking the Leap: Managing Your Career in Turbulent Times…and Beyond (with Roz Usheroff).

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  1. I’ve very interested in what definition was used for “diversity” for the diversity program.
    I’m in total agreement that culture changes every day. There are leaders everywhere in the organization at all levels. These leaders change culture. the problem with culture change is not changing the culture. The problem is not finding these leaders. The problem is knowing what a leader actually is.

    The reality is that a lot of leadership development programs are whack because they are based on sketchy and wacky theories.

    • Chris, first thanks for engaging with me during my month on the ‘hot seat’. I’ve appreciated having the opportunity to get to know you a little through your responses to my articles.

      The ‘diversity’ definition used was the standard one regarding race and gender. What he wanted to now add into the mix was diversity of thought and unconscious bias.

      I believe that all individuals in a culture have the ability to, and in fact do, change the culture. Leaders certainly are more visible in that process, but everyone has an impact. In a hierarchy, leaders certainly set the tone of the culture and give the culture credibility. Each company I have worked in both as an employee and as a consultant has a little different take on how the culture is perpetuated and reinforced. Sometimes it is the leadership, sometimes the lack of leadership allows others to drive the culture (and often not in a good way).

      I would go one step further than your statement that “the problem is knowing what a leader actually is”. I think the problem is that a leader is ‘in the eyes of the beholder’ and what looks like leadership to you might not look like leadership to someone else. I faced this in my career, and others have too, where I am acting like my definition of a leader – motivating my team to meet goals, developing my people, giving voice to ideas that I think will move the company forward – but others just see me as power hungry or opinionated.

      That is why including diversity of thought and unconscious bias in a diversity program are so critical. I think we need to get back to some basics on leadership personally and stop chasing the latest fads. I’m actually working on a leadership development course that does just that Chris. Thanks for giving me more to think about as I finalize it.

    • Well said Chris and excellent information Beth! Human behavior is such an interesting study because we’re all individual, unique, and come from a lifetime of experiences that make us who we are. That is naturally brought into our workplace and that is why consistent attention is needed to ensure the culture is one the organization strives for.

      …and it all points back to leadership. I could not agree more with the last point in your post Chris – unfortunately many leadership development programs are very ill-executed. The good news is that more organizations are realizing the need for continuous professional development. However, where attention should be focused is on ensuring the program they’ve chosen is a solid one.

      I’ve assessed far too many leadership development programs who fall into this category. It’s so unfortunate for those company’s who have used such ‘programs’ and consultants. … and it’s embarrassing to the industry (for those of us in the leadership development industry).

      Changing an organization’s culture isn’t as challenging or scary as it can seem. But it all does… point back to leadership~

    • I agree Jennifer with your point about the programs and consultants that lower our standards. It is frustrating to say the least. Not only because it does the company a disservice, but because they become reluctant to implement something will actually help them afterwards. I do find that companies more and more go after the ‘best sold’ program, not the program with the best content. Probably lots of reasons for that, but mostly I think it is a ‘check the box’ mentality that exists. We just need to offer something so we can say we offered it, rather than putting in place metrics that will really move them towards their goals – and then finding the program that best suits their metrics. But don’t get me started on this, it has the potential to get me really ranting.

      I agree that changing a culture doesn’t have to be scary or challenging, but the organization still has to do the work. It does start at the top and it takes time and attention. The latter two things are often missing in our age of ‘company attention deficit disorder’.

      Jennifer, thanks for being so engaged as well during my ‘hot seat’ month. I really appreciate it.