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Three Critical Mistakes When Trying to Change Culture

Three Critical Mistakes When Trying to Change Culture


Culture change is hard. Modifying an entrenched organizational climate will be the toughest challenge you ever face as a leader. This is why many do not attempt it and why many cultural change initiatives fail.

As a manager of an organization, you have the authority to change policies and procedures. You have the ability to bring on people, let people go, and give employees promotions. You simply make these decisions and fill out some paperwork.

But changing the culture does not happen with simply sending a memo. Culture change has to do with strategy, structure, and people. As part of that three-piece recipe, you and your team must win the hearts and minds of those people, and that takes thought, planning, and skill.

The elements I described above must be constructed as a mutually reinforcing system that has staying power. Managers may introduce concepts — such as Agile and Scrum, in software development — which may appear to make progress for a while, but eventually the prevailing organizational climate will overtake it, and these concepts will be sucked down into the current culture like a stick in a whirlpool. Organizational climate changes are large-scale projects that require both the skills and the tools necessary to make a critical impact and achieve a strong chance for success. Here are three critical mistakes managers make when they attempt a culture change.


  1. Fanfare as the first move

Leaders of the organization put emphasis on announcing change with a lot of fanfare. There’s an employee party with T-shirts and wristbands with the next big slogan. Leaders launch the new initiative with much enthusiasm and energy. Meanwhile, employees are drinking the punch, listening to the band, and eating the finger food. They are also thinking about how long this latest thing will last before they are asked to gather for yet another launch, with new fanfare. What may be obvious to some at the top may not be obvious to the pivotal employees on the front line. Too much celebration and not enough sense of urgency (for the right reasons) cause a culture shift to lose all its momentum before it even has a chance of taking hold and succeeding.


  1. The boondoggle retreat

It doesn’t help to whisk employees away for a retreat only to disappoint them with a lecture. Creating an effective case for change takes deep strategic thinking. The reasons for change do not appear quickly; neither does the plan for change or the long-term way to implement it effectively. It also must take place in this order — identify, plan, and implement. The best change plan in the universe won’t have a chance if you don’t have good strategic reasons for taking it to a new destination. Buy-in must take place in all the people at the retreat. It cannot be happening “because the boss says this is what we are doing.” A retreat that has an agenda of the boss merely rolling out their plan with the expectation of everyone else falling into line has very little chance of succeeding. There’s nothing wrong with the executive team going away for a fun time — it helps with camaraderie and team building. But if that’s the goal, that should be the focus of the activity. If the goal is to figure out the future cultural direction of the organization, that should be the focus. Properly conducting a strategic retreat requires a focused agenda and participation from all.


  1. Employees asked to go first

This typically occurs when executives are acting more like managers rather than leaders. They use management tools from their skill set rather than the leadership ones. They try to manage the culture change initiative as they would a financial resource or a technical resource. Resources of the human kind must be led, not managed. Some leadership tools you might try are communication and storytelling. These types of tools require the leaders of the organization to go first and provide the models for front line employees to follow. When culture change initiatives are handed down as announcements instead of real-life models, not only are you ignoring the current organizational climate, but you’re also expecting a “do as I say, not as I do” result.


Tony Richards is an organizational and executive development expert and CEO of Clear Vision Development Group, a leadership and strategy firm in Columbia, Missouri. He is one of Inc. magazine’s top 100 leadership speakers and thinkers. His firm’s website is Follow Tony on Twitter @tonyrichards4.

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