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  • Dr. Jeff Doolittle

6 Organizational Culture Change Strategies

The world needs leaders that aspire to create a better tomorrow. Just as no one is perfect, no organization is perfect, and no organizational culture is perfect. Organizations, like all other natural systems, over time head toward a state of randomness. Stated another way, if leaders are not continually investing in making organizations better, the organization will constantly decline. It is not about changing but about survival. There are many different definitions for leadership, but many would agree it is about influence. Organizational culture is everyone's responsibility, and leaders play a central role in influencing and reinforcing the culture. Leaders need to be able to operate within and upon an organization. Today, many leaders are asking can organizational culture be changed? Although changing organizational culture is challenging, making changes doesn't require considerable investments or employees to be back in the office.

What is Organizational Culture?

If you are looking for a good discussion topic at an upcoming meeting, take some time to ask those attending how they would describe the organization's culture. You will likely hear many different perspectives on what culture is and is not. The word culture gets used in different ways by different people at different times. Edgar Schein's is considered to be one of the most influential contemporary thought leaders on organizational culture, and below is his organizational culture definition:

"a pattern of shared basic assumptions that the group learned as it solved its problems of external adaptation and internal integration, that has worked well enough to be considered valid and, therefore, to be taught to new members as the correct way to perceive, think, and feel in relation to those problems."

It is easy to focus on the things that are visible to describe an organization's culture. However, an organizational culture framework consists of artifacts, values, and underlying assumptions:

  1. Artifacts: These are the things you can see, feel, or hear in the workplace. Examples include what is displayed, office layouts, uniforms, identification badges, and what is discussed and not discussed.

  2. Espoused Values: What you are told and beliefs that you can use to make decisions. Examples include a companies vision and values or mission statement. They are explicitly stated official philosophies about the company.

  3. Basic Assumptions: These are the things that go without saying or are taken for granted. Examples could include speaking up in meetings, holding a door for someone, smiling, or greeting someone by name when walking down the hall.

Why Organizational Culture is Important

Organizational culture is the one thing that influences every aspect of your business. It directly impacts the overall success of your organization, your people, your customers, and your communities. Underlying values of an organization influence the behaviors of employees and their decisions. Much has been written on the impact of culture on business effectiveness. Scholarly research has directly linked the effects on customer satisfaction, employee teamwork, cohesion, and employee involvement. Organizational culture creates an internal and external brand identity that influences what and how people think about your organization.

Organizational culture is also key to innovation. Just as some organizational culture characteristics can support innovation, others can also inhibit innovation. For example, a hierarchical organizational culture type has been proven to decrease an organization's ability to innovate. The organizational culture assessment instrument (OCAI) based on the Competing Values Framework is one helpful tool for leaders looking to learn more about their organizational culture type.

3 Organizational Culture Company Examples

Organizations with strong organizational cultures are defined by having their culture deeply rooted in the ways they operate. The following three companies are frequently recognized for their organizational culture.

Southwest Airlines operates within an industry that is routinely made fun of for its poor customer service; however, it is known for the opposite. Employees at Southwest can do what is needed to make customers happy, and as a result, their customers are loyal.

Zappos is an organization that has tightly connected its culture with its hiring practices. Zappos offers new hires $2000 to quit if they feel the job is not the right fit for them within the first week of employment. Check out this Zappos organizational culture video:

Keeping culture strong becomes more challenging as the organization grows. Google has faced many challenges on its path to becoming the 5th most valuable company by market capitalization in the world. Cultures have to reinvent themselves to accommodate more employees and diversity. The organizational culture of Google is known for being unique and leveraging data everywhere. Google uses people analytics not just for feedback but also for organizational culture analysis. Check out Google Project Aristotle to learn how data is used to improve teamwork.

How can Organizational Culture be Changed?

The following six proven leadership strategies can change how employees behave, what they think, feel, and perceive:

  1. What leaders pay attention to regularly: This is one of the most potent mechanisms leaders have available. What leaders choose to systematically measure, reward, and control matters, and the opposite is true as well. For example, suppose an organization wants to build an analytical orientation within the culture. In that case, a great starting point is to ask leaders what data they are using to make decisions or start rewarding leaders for making data-driven decisions.

  2. How leaders react to critical incidents: Much can be revealed when a business or a leader faces a significant challenge. These crucible moments are like a refining fire. It is the heightened emotional intensity that increases individual and organizational learning. For example, the recent global pandemic revealed much more about an organization's values than any about page on a website or company orientation ever would. Sodexo is one positive example of an organization that demonstrated its commitment to employees by leadership's pandemic response.

  3. How leaders allocate resources and control costs: Budgets reveal a lot about the organization's assumptions and beliefs. Additionally, resources include physical assets such as equipment and tools, as well as human resources. What gets resourced gets reinforced. Going back to the example of creating an analytical orientation, leaders should consider what tools and resources employees have available for data analytics.

  4. Deliberate role modeling and training: How leaders act and behave outside of training is more significant than what is said or demonstrated within training events. Leaders looking to build an analytical cultural orientation would benefit by explaining to and showing the organization how they use data to make decisions on a routine basis.

  5. How leaders allocate rewards: Rewards and recognition come in many different forms. Also, what is considered a reward varies from person to person. Both what gets rewarded and how it gets rewarded and what does not get rewarded reinforces organizational culture. There are tangible rewards and social rewards. Simply saying thank you for presenting a decision using data analytics is a form of a social reward.

  6. How leaders recruit, promote, and excommunicate: Who gets hired, promoted, and fired and for what both creates and reinforces organizational culture. Talent management decisions can be viewed as a more subtle nuance to culture change because decisions are influenced by both explicitly stated criteria and unstated value priorities. A leader looking to influence an analytical cultural orientation would benefit from assessing the skill sets needed within the organization and then hiring based on those skills.

Organizations are likely to deny the need for change and become defensive at the suggestion of change. Organizational change creates learning anxiety for valid reasons. To overcome the barriers to change, the change leader needs to create a desire to survive and reduce learning anxiety by creating a sense of psychological safety. Leaders build psychological safety by consistently helping followers comprehend and accept the challenge. A key takeaway observation from the above list is that they are about the leader and organization's daily behaviors rather than some special event. Also, these strategies tap into key drivers of organizational change:

  1. The inspiration of employees.

  2. The involvement is of everyone as much as possible.

  3. The internalization of the change.

As the world changes, people and organizations must change too. We partner with clients to cultivate desired organizational cultures so that they can thrive. Contact us to discuss how we can partner with you to create a pathway toward your desired future.


Büschgens, T., Bausch, A., & Balkin, D. B. (2013). Organizational culture and innovation: A meta‐analytic review. The Journal of Product Innovation Management, 30(4), 763-781.

Cameron, K. S., & Quinn, R. E. (2011). Diagnosing and changing organizational culture: Based on the competing values framework (Third ed.). San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.

Gregory, B. T., Harris, S. G., Armenakis, A. A., & Shook, C. L. (2009). Organizational culture and effectiveness: A study of values, attitudes, and organizational outcomes. Journal of Business Research, 62(7), 673-679.

Nieminen, L., Biermeier-Hanson, B., & Denison, D. (2013). Aligning leadership and organizational culture: The leader-culture fit framework for coaching organizational leaders. Consulting Psychology Journal: Practice and Research, 65(3), 177-198.

Pater, R. (2015). Advanced culture change leadership. Professional Safety, 60(9), 24.

Schein, E. H., & Schein, P. (2016). Organizational culture and leadership, 5th edition (5th ed.) John Wiley & Sons.

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