Culture change is a popular past-time among contemporary managers. The promise that many management books make is that changing your organisation’s culture will lead to organisational success.
Managers eager to impress their directors will invariably implement a cultural change program with the anticipation that it will increase productivity, profitability or any other noun ending in -ty. This promise first to change themselves on the premise that successful organisations all have a ‘good’ culture.
The idea that a good or healthy culture will improve business results is also logically nonsensical. The claim that a strong organisational culture will improve performance is tautological. Any qualifier of the word culture will inevitably be self-referential.
Interestingly enough, most culture change programs fail!
The reason most cultural change programs fail is that culture is an epiphenomenon of human interaction, which means that culture as such does not exist. Culture is a mental construct. Culture is the effect of something and can not be the cause of anything. The only place where culture changes are always successful is in microbiological laboratories, where nerdy scientists in lab coats poke around in Petri-dishes and conical flasks to develop medicine, biological warfare or just because they need a job. Back to human cultures.
Culture is the result of a whole range of phenomena, such as people’s values and beliefs. Managers more often than not focus on these aspects of culture. They try to change the values and beliefs of their staff by spouting ‘inspiring’ rhetoric and professional development programs. See our post on consultants for a view on this.
Culture is an epiphenomenon
Corporations are not democratic organisations and rely on hierarchical structures. Culture is thus driven from top to bottom and can therefore only change to the limit of the values and beliefs of the managers in charge. It is because of this that most text books on cultural change fail. To change a culture, managers need to first change themselves!
Because culture is the effect of phenomena, it can not be the cause of anything – including corporate success.1
How to implement culture change
There are aspects of culture that can be modified quite easily. Other phenomena that cause culture are rituals and ceremonies, stories and legends and material objects. This might sound like things that you only find in tribal societies, but all corporations have them. Rituals and ceremonies are expressed in the way meetings are conducted, and birthdays are celebrated and everything in between. Stories and legends relate to the history of the corporation and material objects are the tools we use and the office we work in.
If a manager wants to change a ‘culture’, then these phenomena are the starting point. Change these and the culture will follow. Best example to illustrate this are the often discussed Google offices. By placing people in the right environment, they will display the right behaviour. Supermarket designers use these principles very successfully. Telling appropriate stories will create a sense of collective and conduct the corporate rituals in the right way will act as an example of the desired behaviour.
The simple message is: don’t try to change a culture, try to modify the phenomenona that cause the culture.
Pettigrew, Andrew M. On Studying Organizational Cultures. Administrative Science Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1979): 570–581. ↩