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Only Leaders Can Change A Culture

Well-funded and well-planned culture change efforts have a history of failure. Why? Perhaps they are focusing on the wrong objective.


by Jerry Pounds

If you Google “Organizational Culture,” you get over four million search results. Wikipedia has one of the first results, and as you scan the description you immediately began to blanch with confusion. If you work in a corporation that will soon undertake a “culture change” initiative, you may begin to tear up. Here is the first paragraph of Wikipedia’s description:

“Organizational culture, or corporate culture, comprises the attitudes, experiences, beliefs and values of an organization. It has been defined as the specific collection of values and norms that are shared by people and groups in an organization and that control the way they interact with each other and with stakeholders outside the organization. Organizational values are beliefs and ideas about what kinds of goals members of an organization should pursue and ideas about the appropriate kinds or standards of behavior organizational members should use to achieve these goals. From organizational values develop organizational norms, guidelines or expectations that prescribe appropriate kinds of behavior by employees in particular situations and control the behavior of organizational members towards one another.”

For all I know, this definition is as good as any—and there are many. Only the most optimistic individual can look at this conundrum of sociology and anthropology and not become overwhelmed. Secretly, many organizational-change consultants believe that corporate cultures cannot be changed. Anyone who has worked for a large company acknowledges that change of any kind is ponderously slow—if the company changes at all. The analogy most often heard describing a corporation’s resistance to change is that it is like “turning the Titanic.”

Many leaders have tried various types of culture change. Well-funded and well-planned culture change efforts have a history of failure. A lot of time and money spent with negligible results—except the noticeable number of frustrated employees whose productivity has suffered from the time spent away from their jobs. Many employees feel they are trying to do things differently when the old ways are comfortable and seem to work perfectly.

An organization’s culture is like a personality; personality and culture have similar characteristics. Both are complex—the relationship between various facets of their structure and function—cause and effect, are difficult to isolate. You change one thing here, and it changes something else over there. The corporate personality has deeply rooted tendencies . . . traits . . . identifiable and predictable ways of responding that are akin to the things humans do that many consider to be genetically driven—hardwired. And, most of us have an intuitive feeling that most of these core “traits” are not changeable.

Many people would say, “It comes with the business.” Some businesses, by the nature of the work and the types of people needed to do that work, have a unique identity much like a human personality. Trying to change the culture in a mining operation, an automobile plant, a chemical plant, a university, a dress manufacturer, or a software company to elicit “new ways of doing things . . . a new culture,” is like trying to change a professional football player into a dress designer. There are “traits” that accompany these businesses that are not easy to change, and perhaps the idea of trying to do so is “fooling around” with something we should be attempting to understand, but not change.

It appears to me that most culture-change efforts fail because they do not discriminate between those facets of corporate personality that are hardwired (virtually unchangeable artifacts of specific businesses), and the more easily influenced behaviors associated with doing one’s work. For instance, if you want an employee in a steel mill to work more safely, it may be easier to prompt him to remind a coworker to “stand out of the line of fire,” than it is to try a safety culture-change effort. In a typical culture-change initiative, the objective for the employee may be to “develop a commitment to safety,”—an objective which is laudable but abstract.

The ultimate objective of most organizational-change initiatives, culture change, or performance- improvement initiatives is to change employee behavior—what employees do (in very specific, micro-defined ways), how frequently they do it, when they do it, and the extra effort they exert (value-added behavior). Interestingly, a unique quality of each culture is that much of the behavior that is approved or disapproved is unwritten. Policies and procedures may demand one way of doing things, but practices—the “way we do things around here,” may require another.

Leaders have the ultimate influence on employee behavior through the values they express in decisions, priorities, and promotions—through all the consequences they apply to their direct reports—which are then propagated through all the management hierarchies companywide.

Most books on leadership and management attribute leadership style as the factor that most significantly affects employee behavior. They imply that a leader’s style translates into the values and priorities that control employee behavior toward the customer and the product. Leadership style, values, visions, missions—all form the background for employee performance, but more immediate, situational factors comprise the ultimate influence—the real “behavior controls.”

Leaders influence culture, but one would not fault any leader for throwing up his or her hands and allowing whatever consulting company gets hired to lead the organization down whatever special path they advise to evaluate, change or create the culture that is supposed to get the job done. Perhaps a leader’s behavior will change the organization’s culture slowly, incrementally over time—perhaps. More often, however, a leader’s values and priorities quickly and directly influence employee behavior—the behavior of managers and supervisors toward their employees and hence the behavior of the employees toward the work, the product, or the customer.

When reduced to its lowest common dominator, leader values and priorities translate into what an employee gets punished and rewarded for—the behavior that his or her peers, their supervisor or their senior leaders sanction, applaud, allow, and approve. It is apparent that a change in leadership creates changes in an organization’s climate—new priorities, performance expectations, and strategic direction—and sometimes quickly. Parallel to these leadership-induced requirements, existing systems and processes—the “old way of doing things,” continues to exert influence on employee behavior.

There is already too much literature and complex reasoning circulating about leaders, and their role in cultural transformation and managing change. I have a few simple suggestions that might simplify understanding. I have heard them repeated by many subordinates of leaders—repeated to me, but not to the leader himself or herself.

  • Leaderships’ effectiveness in general, and in particular leaderships’ ability to manage change would be enhanced if they were educated in the way employee behavior is influenced by the culture, systems, processes, the physical environment, and supervisory verbal behavior. Most leaders do not understand how immediate, real-time consequences influence what an employee does, how frequently they do it, or whether they stop doing it. Many leaders regard positive reinforcement, rewards, and recognition as necessary but not critical to business success. They often have a vague and incomplete understanding of what drives daily employee behavior; this is a liability to the overall mission of the business and at best, a risk to profitability.
  • Changing a culture takes a long time. The straightest route to performance improvement and enhanced profitability is to change behavior. Specifically identify the employee behavior that will help the employee, work unit, or department excel and use behavioral strategies to increase the frequency—the strength of those behaviors. Use your knowledge of behavioral principles to control the factors that govern what an employee does on the job—today, moment by moment. The management technology to influence behavioral probability is available. A supervisor can change an employee’s job performance—today! Immediately! But they can change it consistently for the better only if they understand behavior.
  • The key to employee performance and job satisfaction is the frequency and quality of his or her interactions with their supervisor. Work dialogs—what is said and how it is said to an employee—establishes the context for supervisors to say things that encourage or discourage the quality of an employee’s work, the quality of the product, and their relationship with the customer. In a work dialog, the supervisor reinforces and punishes employee behavior—whether they know it or not. Leaders and all levels of management need to know how they impact employee behavior and use that knowledge for positive influence.
  • Reward, recognition and incentive systems are often barriers to effective leadership. All levels of management can become dependent on programmed rewards as replacements for hands-on coaching and supervision. Existing reward systems directly encourage the behavior that leads to the prize—the money, the payoff, or the award. A leader may be trying to create a customer-focused culture, while the existing reward systems may encourage cost control or productivity supported by behaviors that may make the customer a secondary factor. Reward and recognition systems should be evaluated for the impact they have on teamwork, quality, ethics—and many other factors that can be usurped by compelling tangible rewards. Rewards and recognition practices represent an organizational system that influences other systems—particularly the social system, human behavior—in profound ways. They often lull the organization into a sense of well-being—a quiet before the storm of unpredicted issues gathering on the horizon.

If you want to change the way an organization functions, you better know what elements of the current culture to preserve and those t to change. "The way companies do things" is a function of their business, their leadership and economic history, and the values and principles executed by current leadership.

Few leaders understand how their behavior becomes a model for every level of management in the company, nor do they recognize that the things they reward and punish are incorporated into the things managers and supervisors also reward and punish. If a senior leader is defensive about or ignores new ideas, then every level of the organization does likewise.

If you understand behavioral principles, then you understand that each manager can choose the behaviors they will recognize or ignore. Most people who think about the benefits of culture change really want to change critical employee performance behaviors. Culture change is the wrong objective.