New Zealand Law Society - Organisational Culture - how to change or improve you culture

Organisational Culture - how to change or improve you culture

Learning & organizational development consultant Rachel Masters delivers part two in her series looking at organisational culture.

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In part 1 of this series we examined what is organizational culture, how is it defined and why is it important. The question which naturally flows on from this is ‘how do you change or improve your culture?’

Let’s start with the bad news - unfortunately there is no magic bullet or quick fix that will guarantee results when it comes to culture change. I think it’s really important to be clear from the outset that Cultural Transformation Takes Time and doesn’t happen overnight.

Moving on to the good news – culture change can be done and done well. There are some key principles which will substantially boost the likelihood of success:

Top tip number one
Change starts with you! We are all accountable for change, from those working in the mailroom to those sitting at the boardroom.

Culture change is not something that can be delegated to your HR team and then walked away from.

If your entire leadership team is not on board with the cultural change programme then you are not setting yourself up for success. Your people will be watching and if they see old leadership behaviors which are out of alignment with the new, then that will carry more sway than any new value set hanging on your wall. Those at the top have to model the behaviors they want to see – no excuses and no exceptions.

Top tip number two
Behaviors are the most powerful determinant of real change. What people actually do matters far more than what they say or believe. You should start working on changing the most critical behaviors — everything else will follow.

The NeuroLeadership Institute recently undertook some research on why culture change initiatives fail. By far, the biggest factor involved a failure to change human habits. In case after case, everything was right — the strategy, the plans, the budget — but the people were not changing as the focus wasn’t in the right place.

Top tip number three
Work with what you’ve got. I’m a firm believer that you shouldn’t throw the baby out with the bath water. There is no such thing as a completely good culture or a completely bad one. In any culture there are things which work well so highlight them and use them to your advantage. The key is understanding what should stay and what should go.

Top tip number four
Start small – pick a few behaviors to focus on and consider what will bring about the best results. The research suggests that changing behaviors and habits is hard. How many times have you failed to deliver on a New Year’s resolution……if you are like me then virtually every year! One study published in the European Journal of Social Psychology suggests it can take 66 days to form a new habit. So, start small, do it daily and try to weave it into existing systems or processes where possible.

Top tip number five
Make sure you involve your informal leaders. Every organization has leaders who may not have a formal title but who have immense sway. Ensure you get them on board and utilize them as your champions.

Top tip number six
Make sure your cultural change imperatives are linked to business imperatives. It’s important to be coherent when you are designing cultural change initiatives. At a practical level that means you need to make sure the foundations for the programme are right, that every part of the programme fits, that there is no overlap or duplication and that it is aligned to your overarching business strategy. People are far more likely to get on board with something and see the benefit of it when it links to your core business purpose.

Top tip number seven
Accountability – hold yourselves to account to ensure the work continues to happen. There are a number of ways this can be done so find the one which works best for your business.

Top tip number eight
Communicate, communicate and then communicate some more.  Virtually every change initiative I’ve been involved in struggles with this. I suggest you consider how much communication you think your people want and then double it.  People always want to know more than you expect.

Top tip number nine
Try a multidisciplinary approach – this links back to number five to some extent. It’s key to ensure your people have a chance to have their say in any cultural change programme too. People often resent change when they have no involvement in how it should be implemented – as the saying goes, ‘nothing about us, without us’. I think there is an argument to be made that people do not resist change, they resist being controlled.

Top tip number ten
Don’t stop – culture change isn’t a project to be implemented and then never thought about again. It doesn’t have an end point but rather is something that needs to be monitored and corrected over time. The speed of change is increasingly rapid so culture change needs to follow suit.


In the immortal words of JFK - change is the law of life. And those who look only to the past or present are certain to miss the future.