How to Bring Sustainable Change to Your Organizational Culture

It’s like being lost in the wilderness if you initiate any major change effort in your organization without specifically knowing how cultures effectively evolve or change. It’s one of the greatest leadership challenges, but few truly understand how cultures evolve.

Why don’t most people know how cultures evolve or change?

Culture is a hot topic and it’s all over the popular press whether it’s guidance on “creating” a great culture or coverage of the latest culture crisis. Unfortunately there’s a massive gap between the 86% of executives that think culture is critical to business success and the 51% of employees that think their “culture needs a major overhaul“ (Strategy& global assessment). This gap is further supported by the 13% of employees that are engaged (Gallup) and the 30% of employees that identify with their organization’s purpose (Deloitte).

Why does this “culture chasm” exist between awareness and effective action? I believe there are three reasons:

  1. The popular press is flooded with “culture experts” of every form sharing their tips, keys, and levers for creating the culture of your dreams.  Sorry, culture doesn’t work that way. I was frustrated with the prevalence of that content so was created with initial support from some of the top culture thought leaders in history. 
  2. Leadership development content does not adequately address the subject of culture. Leadership and culture are two sides of the same coin. Some providers of leadership development understand this and their content is packed with culture-related insights. Most miss the mark and the word culture doesn’t even make it in their marketing materials and detailed course descriptions.
  3. Our educational system has failed us in producing leaders that understand the subject of culture. Once again, some institutions do a great job, but it’s extremely rare to run across any individual that has been taught the points we’ll cover in this article. #1 and #2 above aren’t helping anything. The common sense points in this article should resonate with most since we have all experienced the power of culture in many forms (as employees, consumers, etc.).

We Need a Compass to Navigate the Culture Wilderness

You don’t need to be a survivalist like Bear Grylls to navigate the culture wilderness with confidence. He’ll even use a compass to make sure he is moving in the right direction. You need a general guide and it starts with understanding four specific insights about workplace culture:

  1. Focus on business challenges, problems, or goals and how culture is helping and holding back results versus “general culture improvement work.” Edgar Schein, arguably the #1 culture thought leader in the world, said working directly on culture isn’t the best path because “culture can be a bottomless pit and a big waste of time.” 
  2. Results are necessary in some form for any new cultural attribute to form. If the people in the organization don’t see results then they will eventually stop any new behavior associated with a change effort. There needs to be some learning, especially at the start, as part of any major change effort so people connect any new or revised behavior with results. It’s of course ideal if the results support the purpose of the organization and each individual feels a connection to that impact. You need to think about undisputed business / organizational results (growth, profitability, customer satisfaction, etc.) so that’s why the #1 point was focusing on a specific problem, challenge, or goal.
  3. Be very specific about any values or behaviors you want to shift, change, or see more consistently. Ideally focus in on 1-3 very specific behaviors. Clarify the specific expected behaviors that will positively impact the problem, challenge, or goal (these could be in some area of collaboration, accountability, organization, or countless other areas depending on your unique problem and current behavior). You must be very specific.
  4. A support structure is needed to sustain any new behavior so it eventually becomes imbedded in the cultural DNA. The ultimate test is whether the new behavior will stay in place as people come and go from the organization and new challenges and priorities emerge.  Culture change is like turning a ship on autopilot. Behavior is reinforced in countless ways across an organization and it helps if there is a “framework in which to operate” that reinforces the new and very specific behaviors (think strategy, structure, people, processes & rewards).  

The Culture Lens

The culture lens may help with understanding how these four important insights connect as you refine your current strategies and plans to deliver improved results based on your unique culture.

  • It starts with focus on a specific performance priority, challenge, or goal. This focus is far more effective than broad-based action and increases the likelihood results will be achieved.
  • Define your specific behavioral strengths (how culture is helping) and no more than 1-3 very specific behavioral weaknesses (how culture is holding back performance) with how people work together on the specific performance priority, challenge, or goal.
  • Revise your work related to the align and manage areas (strategies, goals, measures, management systems, communication habits and motivation) based on using extensive and repeated feedback and prioritization to support the behavior shift. This work is targeted on the performance priority, challenge, or goal and not general improvements.
The Culture Lens Detail

Part two of this post will cover more detail on these align and manage areas because the work is obviously very challenging but the focus on a specific priority, challenge, or goal is critical. Leadership and the entire organization learns from the initial focus on a specific performance priority, challenge, or goal and applies the insights to work on other priorities or, in some cases, to broad-based improvements.

The reality is that true culture change is hard and it requires sustained effort to have any chance of success.

Culture Work is Not Simple

There’s an interest by many to make culture change sound simple. Even those that know better end up adding to the long list of articles on culture tips, keys, and levers.

The reality is that true culture change is hard and it requires sustained effort to have any chance of success. Most efforts will fail and will not include work that covers the four insights about how cultures evolve. It’s typically due to broad-based action versus initial focus on a specific business priority, challenge, or goal in order to deliver results.

The Culture Paradox

The good news is that a Culture Paradox exists: initial actions related to culture change are often the fastest route to performance improvement.  Huh, I thought sustainable culture change is hard and takes time? Absolutely, but the initial work to 1) focus on a specific problem, challenge, or goal and 2) repeatedly engage your organization in 3) identifying and changing specific things that have been “holding back performance” can produce rapid results.

It’s extremely motivating to “finally” begin addressing issues that likely have been a problem for a long time (since they were cultural in nature) and to go at it with extensive involvement in order to build ownership. Check out this free and thorough webinar on Culture Clarity, Speed and Results to learn more.

Do you agree with these insights on how cultures evolve and the importance of initial focus on a specific problem, challenge, or goal instead of broad-based action? What else have you learned that’s important to share? Please comment below.


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Copyright: pressmaster / 123RF Stock Photo

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of, co-editor of, and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. Human Synergistics is also the home of the most widely-used and thoroughly-researched organizational culture survey in the world. Tim co-authored the 2014 book Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed. He previously managed substantial workplace culture transformations as an industry executive with best practices featured as part of the 2012 book Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations and was President and Senior Consultant at Denison Consulting.

  • JacobShriar

    This is a great post, Tim!

  • dwbracken

    Creating behavioral definitions is indeed critical but there will be no sustainable change without accountability,i.e., integration into performance management.

  • Tim Kuppler

    No disagreement here on accountability. It starts with being clear about specific responsibilities and expectations that support strategies / goals / priorities and a good management system to track progress, remove barriers, and adjust plans where appropriate. Most organizations are not clear on the front end with establishing priorities and plans as a team so there is clarity and ownership. People then complain at the top and throughout the organization about accountability issues but everyone has there own opinion about accountability expectations / status.

  • Maryann Baumgarten

    Ah…this was refreshing – thanks Tim! I am mostly referring to your mention of leadership and culture being 2 sides of the same coin and the rarity of people, learning and practice that really gets that and what to do. My phd dissertation and practice is focused on exactly this intersection of integration. For 2 years before I started my business ( I debated for a very long time how to market – culture or leadership? It was only necessary to choose because of this rarity. I chose leadership because culture is the soul of the space leaders create to build the future. However, it appears we speak a similar language :). Great article Tim! Thanks for posting!

  • Tim Kuppler

    Thank you for the feedback Maryann. I think you made the right choice with marketing leadership.

    Most leaders aren’t ready to truly understand the subject of culture and how it evolves as a foundation to dramatically improve their effectiveness managing change, driving growth and improving business performance. Leaders at many levels can wrap their head around buying something related to leadership but culture is far more difficult (even if the solution might be nearly the same).

    HR and others will only move forward if the top leader agrees they could use some help but everyone is immersed in their own culture so they often don’t see the tremendous opportunity that exists. It’s harder “sell” culture due to the culture awareness and action gap I referenced but your leadership work probably gets you in the door to have many of the same discussions and solutions. It’s easier to focus on the problems, frustrations, opportunities and improvements without even mentioning the word culture.

  • Maryann Baumgarten

    The only issue is market saturation – leadership learning is everywhere but what you ( I presume ) and I do goes much deeper to create waves of real positive change throughout an organization…not just improving one life but many. We should stay connected!

  • Pingback: The Culture Change Journey Essentials: a compass, a roadmap, and a guide | Switch and Shift()

  • Mark A. Hernandez

    Tim, Homerun! Big Gracias for the post.

  • Ben de Haldevang

    Great post, Tim…interesting that you talk about addressing two or three specific issues as part of a measurable culture shift. I would also add that addressing a specific group of people in that process is also critical…the viral approach to cultural change is, in my experience, most effective.

  • Gladstone

    Good points by Tim.

    I would like to share my thoughts

  • Tim Kuppler

    Thank You Mark!

  • Tim Kuppler

    Excellent point, especially in large organizations. The scope from the start must be narrow enough to deliver results but wide enough for building ownership and a meaningful foundation for bringing others on board as efforts expand.

  • Unlike most of the commentators, I’ve been a consultant to the nonprofit sector for over 33-years. I’m presently writing my Master’s Thesis on Organizational Culture and the Role of Philanthropy, in which I focus on first the identification of the culture… In other words, how do we know what/how/when to change a culture when we don’t know what the culture is in the first place?

  • Tim Kuppler

    I agree with you Melanie. The second part of this post starts with evaluating the current culture and performance. It’s easier to focus in on a specific problem, challenge or goal and the impact of culture (how it is helping and holding back results). People sometimes jump to conclusions about a problem being a culture issue in some form (teamwork, accountability, etc.) when it’s actually a lack of basic leadership / management.

  • Norman Jentner

    Tim, I like your use of the “culture lens” to enable us to achieve and sustain our focus for “aligning and managing” what matters — for initial, palpable success that all can appreciate up-front. Great comments, too. ~Norm (

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