Five Steps to Change Your Company Culture

Recognize This! – Behaviors drive values drive culture. You cannot change the culture unless you address the underlying behaviors.


As the employee engagement discussion has grown, so has the discussion about the importance of company culture. After all, what is it you’re hoping employees engage with? As the importance of culture has surged, so has the resurgence of Edgar H. Shein (recently profiled in a Q&A in Strategy+Business).

For example, Schein explains the why well-intentioned efforts at culture change fail:
“They think that to change culture, you simply introduce a new culture and tell people to follow it. That will never work. Instead, you have to conduct a business analysis around whatever is triggering your perceived need to change the culture. You solve that business problem by introducing new behaviors. Once you’ve solved your business problems this way, people will say to themselves, “Hey, this new way of doing things, which originally we were coerced to do, seems to be working better, so it must be right.”

Using that as a starting point, here are five steps to changing your culture.

1) Do the business analysis to identify the culture you need to succeed
– Is that culture innovative (Apple) or iterative? Low-cost (Wal*mart) or high-end (Lord & Taylor’s)? This is a critical definition as it will guide all future decisions.

2) List the values you believe are inherent in such a culture
– If you want an innovative culture, you would likely include values such as “questioning."

3) Define the behaviors underlying each of those values – Under the value of “questioning,” you might include behaviors like “looks for a better way to do things,” “offers critical feedback in a desire to improve,” and “accepts feedback willingly.”

4) Communicate those behaviors to employees so they are understood in their daily work – Unless you communicate the behaviors underlying the values to the employees, they won’t understand what it is you need them to do.

5) Positively reinforce demonstration of those behaviors with frequent recognition – Such reinforcement, given to anyone at any level who demonstrates the needed behaviors in line with the values, ensures employees will repeat them, creating a continuous circle.

Or, as Schein explains it:

"One electric utility company I studied, Alpha Power — I can’t reveal its real name — was under pressure from regulators to improve its environmental record. Management told employees, 'Every oil spill on every sidewalk must be reported immediately and cleaned up.' A lot of electrical workers said, 'That's not me. I’m not a janitor. I splice big, heavy cables.' Alpha responded that this was an order, not an option, and that workers would be trained in cleaning up spills safely.

"Some electrical workers quit, but most were retrained. After about five years, the workers were asked, 'How do you feel about Alpha’s environmental policies?' They answered, 'It's the right thing to do. We should be cleaning up the environment.' That wasn’t what they’d said five years earlier. But once they embraced the behavior, the values caught up."


Change the behaviors, change the values, change the culture. Do you agree?

2 comment(s):

At April 15, 2011 2:44 AM, Simbeck-Hampson said...

I really like your post, you make some 'valuable' suggestions. Thanks for sharing. Subscribed.

At April 15, 2011 10:40 AM, Derek Irvine said...

Thanks, Simbeck-Hampson. I'm glad you find the blog useful. I'm always open to suggestions for topics to cover, too.