Four Ways to Strengthen Your Culture in the Next 12 Months

I have heard people say it takes a minimum of eight years to change an organizational culture.


It certainly can take that long, but it doesn’t have to. Culture is complex, and depending on what parts you’re changing, a complete overhaul won’t happen overnight. But I have seen some pretty big turnarounds happen in less than one year. So stop making excuses and get to work! Here are four tips for making quick progress.

Be Honest about What Is

Culture change will take a long time if you start by ignoring the truth, but that’s what a lot of companies do. They work VERY hard to define their list of ideal core values or to craft the story of what the new culture will be, but they never get down to brass tacks about what they’re starting with. If you don’t know where you are, it’s really hard to figure out how to get where you want to go.

Take the time to get crystal clear on what your culture truly values today. Can people take risks? Does that vary by department or location? Do people willingly share information? Is there a bias towards action or inaction? Is that true for both senior and middle management? These are the core building blocks of your culture. Get clear on them before you start the change work, and the change will happen faster.

Coach Some People Out

If you’re changing culture, you inevitably will realize some of the people you have actually did better under the old culture. They need to go. Sorry to sound “harsh,” but assuming you’re clear that the new culture drives your success, it is against your interests to keep people who are not aligned with what’s valued in the new culture. Period. So let them go.

I think one of the biggest issues holding organizations back is we are not comfortable with separations. More people need to get fired and more people need to quit if we’re going to create amazing cultures. When Zappos rolled out Holacracy company-wide, after a year they offered to pay severance to people who didn’t thrive in the new system of self-management. 14% of the employees took them up on that offer. And that was good, because it freed up space to recruit 14% who would do well in the new system. That speeds up the change.

Change the Behavior of the Senior Management Team

This one sounds deceptively simple, but there are two parts to this recommendation. First, whether we like it or not, the senior managers’ behavior is under a microscope. People always look to what they do and say to define the culture, so take advantage of that.

I had one client who made a big impact by moving the location of the weekly management team meetings into the conference room near where most of the staff worked, rather than keeping it upstairs where the managers’ office was. Part of their culture shift was a new focus on the needs of employees, so they wanted to show they were aware of what the employees were doing (and even invited them in to take part in their meetings from time to time).

The second part of this recommendation is based on my experience that most management teams are horrible at designing their own meetings. Sorry, management teams, but please read Patrick Lencioni’s Death by Meeting and start designing a schedule of different meetings that actually work—and that reinforce the new culture. People will follow your lead.

Oh, and back to point #2, if your senior people don’t like the new way of meeting, maybe you should fire them.

Remember to Learn

As you’re doing the culture change, it is critical that the people in your organization take some time to reflect on the change and what is working (or not working) about it. You’ve got a complex system here, so not all of your change is going to work the way you thought it would.

But when you give employees a chance to reflect on what’s being done differently, and how that new behavior drives success, then you are most of the way there to people “owning” the new culture. When THEY see how things are better, they’ll keep doing it that way.

In one organization we worked with a cross-functional team, and it was only when we stopped them to talk about what was working did they realize that one of the benefits of this team was they did NOT have to ask for permission before taking action. They hadn’t even realized that pattern was baked into their departmental work. Once the team saw that, they changed what was going on within the departments. When you have learning, your change moves faster.

So get out there and change your culture. Not all the changes will happen quickly. But if you CAN’T make any significant change within a year, you’re not doing it right.


Jamie Notter

Jamie is a founding partner at WorkXO where he helps leaders create stronger cultures and upgrade their workplaces, based on a deeper understanding of their organizational genetic code. He brings 25 years of experience in conflict resolution, generational differences, leadership, and culture change to the consulting firm he started with Maddie Grant and Charlie Judy in 2016. Author of two books (When Millennials Take Over, and Humanize), Jamie has a Master’s in conflict resolution from George Mason and a certificate in OD from Georgetown, where he serves as adjunct faculty.

  • Guidingstarcc | Todd

    Culture framing is often believed to rest in the hands of senior leadership / the “C” suite, when in fact, what folks close to the ground believe, their attitudes, their dispositions, all significantly shape culture (or create counter-culture). So your first point is so critical – it is essential that work teams, groups, even the whole organization understand their cultures, and that culture is created by the way each individual perceives and contributes to the organization’s values, vibes, norms, etc. In our consulting work, we want real, raw but safe discussions about values and culture to take place, and support that work through a digital toolset found at We’ve found the revelation that comes from real, paced, safe discussion – almost meta-cognitive! – the key to driving the other next steps, since when people search their hearts and guts, they often find the wisdom of your other key points. Culture should be shaped, but by all.

  • Mark Miller

    Thanks Jamie, love this. Especially your focus on changing how senior management approaches things. Culture is in everyone’s hands, but it begins at the top. Another thing I would add is that in order to change and improve your culture, you have to be able to give it an honest assessment of its current state; something I’ve written about before here: Cheers!

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