Think Leadership Ideas

Transform Your Company Culture

When organizations identify a specific focus that will drive success, leaders start talking about building that focus into the company culture. For example, I have been asked to help organizations shape a culture of feedback, a culture of customer service, a culture of safety, a culture of teamwork, or a culture of thinking LEAN (as in Lean Six Sigma).

Leaders are correct to emphasize culture change. A company’s culture is the underlying behavior, attitude, and atmosphere that pervade by default – when people are operating on automatic pilot. It’s what people do when the boss isn’t looking, what people do without having to think. A company’s culture exerts a strong influence that shapes individual and collective action.

The more you can shape a culture to encourage people to naturally and automatically do what is optimal, the more conscious energies can be directed toward important matters such as building customer relationships, solving problems, and pushing innovation.

How do you shape culture?

The principle for cultivating the culture you want is deceptively simple.

First, clarify how you want people to act. This requires identification of key behaviors that most exemplify the desired culture. Identifying values and attitudes is important, but these need to be linked to behavioral indicators – because it is behavior that can be observed or measured. Next, encourage the practice of desired behaviors until they become automatic. (This is the same way you learned to read, to play a musical instrument, or to drive.)

While simple in principle, execution can be complex and requires savvy in leadership and human dynamics. When attempts to change company culture go nowhere it’s often due to lack of clarity in expectations, abandoning the effort before it has time to develop, incongruence between desired behavior and rewarded behavior, or underdeveloped motivation.

Motivation for behavior culture change in organizations presents a paradox. As with any change or learning, people are most likely to sustain their best effort when they are self-motivated. Self-motivation comes from making a personal choice for an action. Choice comes from having the ability to say no. Giving people the choice to say no can be terribly uncomfortable for leadership.

To give your organization the best opportunity for success in transforming your company culture, keep in mind these three points:

Be Clear. Make sure the culture you want is clearly articulated, and that expectations are communicated. Redundantly.

Be Real. This means be authentic, walk the talk. Expectations must be reality based. What works best is to build on the strengths of the culture already in place.

Be Persistent. Transforming a culture is not an overnight process. Change comes from gentle pressure relentlessly applied.

Cultivate is the operative word. A gardener doesn’t plant seeds one day and expect a fully grown garden the next. Rather, a gardener continues to influence the conditions that best allow the seeds to grow. Think of transforming a culture as planting seeds of behavior, then cultivating them to ensure that what grows is indeed the culture you want. Culture is a dynamic living system, like a garden, which grows on its own but can be shaped and influenced with proper knowledge, skill, and patience.

13 Actions to Transform Your Company Culture

The items below assume you already articulate clearly the value of the desired culture and expected behaviors, and have identified key behaviors to be encouraged.

1. Invite people to get on board: Do more than simply provide information about expectations – articulate a compelling call to action.
2. Link the right emotional tone with the desired behaviors – people have to care to be engaged.
3. Create a symbol or metaphor for the culture that helps keep the desired effort top-of-mind.
4. Reward examples of the desired culture – build on what is already happening!
5. Engage trendsetters and encourage them to be vocal advocates for the culture.
6. Provide examples and stories that exemplify desired culture.
7. Encourage positive organizational self-talk (informal, ‘around the water cooler’ discussions) about the company culture.
8. Build ‘contributing to a positive culture’ into your performance system.
9. Hire right: Recruit people whose talents, strengths, and desires are congruent with the desired culture.
10. Remove disincentives: Be on the lookout for incongruence between expectations and leadership examples, as well as policies that reinforce or indirectly encourage undesired behaviors.
11. Establish rituals and celebrations that support the desired culture.
12. Honor dissention, disagreement, and diversity within the culture; however, immediately address toxic behavior and unethical conduct.
13. Ask transformative questions: What would our culture be (what would we do by default) if we were best in the world?

by Tom Stevens (c)2006
Tom Stevens helps individuals and organizations create brilliant futures and make a difference. To contact him, visit

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