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Why a new organisational culture doesn't translate into behaviour change.

By Ruth Tearle

Why is it so difficult to get people to change the way they behave so that their behaviour supports a new organisational culture?

Why do most cultural change programmes fail so miserably once the hype of the roadshows are over?

Here are 5 reasons why your culture change intervention is likely to fail.

1. Naming doesn't create behavioural change in an organisation.

Often leaders try to develop a new organisational culture by creating a new set of organisational values. These values are written in the form of nouns or naming words. For example:

  • Innovation.
  • Customer service.
  • Collaboration.
  • Accountability.
  • Respect.
  • Excellence.
  • Honesty.
  • Stewardship.
  • Quality.

Sometimes organisations add in adjectives to better define their values such as:

  • Passionate.
  • Enthusiastic.
  • Ethical.
  • Responsive.
  • Innovative.
Culture change fails when it's about naming rather than doing.

Occasionaly they try to get closer to a doing word (a verb) by adding the word 'be' next to the adjective. For example:

  • Be creative.
  • Be united.
  • Be genuine.
  • Be respectful.
  • Be a team player.
Naming and describing don't change behaviour.

Then they have many workshops where they 'unpack their values'. At these workshops employees brainstorm all the different ways they can be creative, or be a collaborative team player.

With all that thinking, naming and describing, why are leaders surprised that no-one actually does anything differently. And when no-one's behaviour changes, how can they expect the organisational culture to change?

Behaviour is about acting and doing.

Therefore to describe behaviour, use doing words or VERBS.

Companies that successfully change the behaviour of people in their organisations to support a new culture, are those that focus on doing. They choose a few specific behaviours that they want to see their employees and leaders practicing. They write these behaviours as sentences and ensure that each sentence contains a doing word or verb. e.g.

  • Help each other to succeed.
  • Do what you say you are going to do.
  • Believe you can.
  • Do things so well that customers want to do business with us.
  • Try new ideas despite fear.

When changing behaviours in an organisational culture, the principle of LESS IS MORE applies. A few specific behaviours, practiced and recognised over time, is far more effective than creating and unpacking long lists of nouns and adjectives.

2. Leaders who focus on knowing rather than doing, cannot achieve behavioural change in an organisation.

Often leaders think that all they need to do to change an organisational culture is to choose and communicate new organisational values. They naively believe that:resist-change

  • If people know the organisational values, and can even recite them - then their behaviour will change.
  • Employees will 'live the new values' if the CEO tells them to do so.
  • A values workshop, or words in an annual report has more power to influence behaviour than how an employee gets noticed, recognised and rewarded.

What they don't underand is that changing behaviour is not about knowing, its about doing.

3. Leaders believe they can change behaviour and culture with a single event.

Leaders have an attitude of "They must change. I can carry on as normal." And "I can only give culture change a few weeks of my time and then it must just happen."

  • The CEO and executive believe that it is employees rather than leaders who need to change.
  • The CEO, Marketing director or HR director use a road show (or a series of single presentations) to communicate the new values to employees.
  • Employees once 'exposed to the values', are miraculously expected to 'adopt them; or 'live them.'resist-change

So what happens is:

  • The employees' immediate bosses tells them that the new values are just something that HR dreamed up and are not important to the business of the company.
  • The boss criticises people for trying to live by the new values rather than following policies and procedures.
  • Employees notice that neither the executive nor their own bosses are changing their own behaviours to support the new values.
  • Some employees try out the new behaviours, and wait for feedback and applause from their managers. All they get is a deafening silence.
  • Employees start to wonder if anyone but them is trying to live the new values - and whether these values and behaviours are worth the effort.
  • Employees notice that those who get rewarded and promoted are not people who live the new values. In fact many of those being promoted behave in a way that goes against the so called 'desired culture.'
  • Employees stop trying to live the new values and wait to see if anyone notices. No one does.
  • Employees go back to the old way of behaving. It is safer and simpler fpr them.

Leaders fail to accept that that behaviour occurs within a system. One cannot change the behaviour of employees without changing a number of related elements within the system.

4. Status symbols reinforce the old organisational culture.


In every culture, there are a few status symbols that demonstrate who is important. Examples of status symbols include:

  • The titles used on business cards.
  • How an employee addresses or greets a powerful leader. Leaders may be called 'Sir', 'Boss', Mr. or by their first names.
  • The cars leaders drive compared to the cars lower level employees drive.
  • Where they park their cars.
  • Where they sit. (Leaders may sit in separate offices or together with employees.)
  • What rules apply to employees vs what rules apply to more powerful people. E.g. In cultures driven by positional power:
    • Employees are expected to 'drop whatever they are doing' whenever someone high up demands their attention on the phone or via email.
    • Employees are expected to plan meetings well in advance. But a leader can summon anyone to a meeting on a moment's notice.
    • Employees have to book meeting or conference venues ahead of time. But a leader can cancel a lower level person's booking and take a venue for himself, whenever he wants.

These cultural symbols demonstate to all that in that culture, what is truly important is positional power - rather than the new values. While these symbols continue, the old culture will remain in force.

5. Failing to reinforce new behaviours and symbols long enough.

"I want innovation and collaboration. Just don't think you are as important as me."

When you change a symbol that demonstrates status, power and importance - employees are delighted. This is because new values often give more power to employees.

However the leaders who rely on positional power and status symbols are angry. They believe that being treated as an equal reduces their own power and status. They will resist a culture change that reduces their power in every way they can.

  • They will 'correct' employees who disregard the old status symbols and behave according to the new values.
  • If employees keep behaving according to the new culture, their bosses will punish them for 'insubordination.'
  • The bosses of the old culture will recognise and reward people who fear them the most and who help them to retain their status symbols.

Often at the first sign of resistance, the people who are supposed to be driving the culture change, get taken back.

In a culture change, it is the leaders not the employees, who have to change the most.
  • They try to appease the status quo protectors. They compromise the new culture. They water down the new behaviours and related changes to status symbols. They keep backtracking until the desired culture or values becomes the old culture.
  • They fail to recognise and reward courageous employees who are trying to live the new behaviours and values despite their bosses' criticism.
  • Instead of driving the new culture, they give their time and attention to the status quo protectors. They give power back to those leaders who rule their people through positional power.

Culture is the sum total of how different groups within an organisation behave automatically - often without being aware of what they are doing or saying.

To change a culture we need to:

  • Make people at all levels aware of how they behave, under the existing culture.
  • Show why it is in the best interests of employees, their managers, and leaders at the top of an organisation to behave in a different way.
  • Ensure that every person from the top to the bottom of the organisation, is involved in changing the organisation's culture.
  • Provide leaders, managers and employees with a safe place to experiment with the new behaviours required by the desired culture.
  • Then train managers and leaders how to:
    • Encourage their teams to practice the new behaviours back at work.
    • Notice employees when they are behaving in a way that supports new values. Recognise them for this behaviour.
    • Reward employees who behave in ways to support the new culture, and stop giving time and attention to those who don't.
  • Be consistent. Constantly try to catch people 'doing it right.' And right is behaving in ways to support your new organisational culture, values and behaviours.

See the step by step tool on how to roll out organisational values in order to change behaviours and culture in an organisation.

See the slide presentation in our member zone on how to develop a comprehensive change infrastructure to manage a culture change.

Use our change management dashboard to measure the current state of change management in your organization. See where a lack of political support may derail your cultural change. Determine the extent to which the role players in your culture change are supporting or contradicting one another. Get advice on what you need to do, to ensure the success of your culture change.

You may also like:

Tools to use to develop a change strategy.

  • change-puzzle-kitThe change puzzle kit A systems thinking tool. Identify the elements of your existing culture. Identify what needs to be in place to support your desired culture. Identify what you will need to change to ensure people behave in line with your desired culture.
  • change-strategy-toolkitWinning the game of change Develop a change management strategy to plan how to change the culture in your organization. Use the 64 cards to determine the roles each level needs to play, and what interventions you will need.

Tools to use to implement a change strategy.

  • magic-change-toolkitMagic change toolkit An exciting change management toolkit. Filled with recipe cards or activities to manage any change, reduce resistance and build excitement.

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