The Pitfalls of Culture Change: Why most programs fail

Culture change is a favorite 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 healthy 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; it 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 textbooks on cultural change fail. To change a culture, managers need first to 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 description 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. The best example to illustrate this is the often discussed Google offices. By placing people in the right environment, they will display the proper 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 phenomena that cause the culture. Also, when implementing culture change, make sure you don’t erase the creativejuices of the organisation by promoting normality and fighting against positive deviance.


  1. Pettigrew, Andrew M. On Studying Organizational Cultures. Administrative Science Quarterly 24, no. 4 (1979): 570–581.

6 Replies to “The Pitfalls of Culture Change: Why most programs fail”

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  2. Peter has made a universal statement that simply cannot be applied to every unique culture change situation without any initial investigation: “…in order to change culture, managers must first change themselves.” What if the manager is already just right as is for the particular cultural change proposed for his or her organization? Then there would be no basis for requiring any change from that manager before implementing change in the organization.

    Instead, I’d argue for more focus on, and consideration of organizational culture during the hiring process so that organizations do not regularly recruit members whose values and beliefs are inconsistant with the thinking of organizational leaders and the mission and vision for the organization.

    1. Bob, Thanks for your comment. You are correct that I made an assumption and managers do not always need to change themselves. The point I was trying to make is that many culture change programs are based on becoming an ideal business. To become a business just like the Harvard Business Review case studies.

      Recruitment is a complicated issue that I have written about earlier. Determining whether a recruit’s values and beliefs are consistent with the organisation’s set of values and beliefs is impossible, given the inherent a deceptive nature of the process.

  3. Great article! Thank you!

    It’s funny when I think sometime ago I participated in a workshop where the managers asked their subordinates to demonstrate some qualities and attitudes towards them, like trust, accountability etc. It seemed completely bullshit that time and now even more. How can you ask trust from your employees?

    YOU, like a manager should act and be that way that people believe and follow you. And this is true not only for the management but for everyone. In the end smart people are taking their decisions on facts and not on just simple words.

    I think that the culture and the way things work in a company is 99% dependent of the management quality.

  4. Thought provoking as always Pete. Senior management often sprout the need for “culture change” but forget that they too must participate and lead by example i.e. “walk the talk” (hang on, that sounds familiar). Through history there has been some great examples of successful culture change and in every case it has been driven by the “top dogs” commitment and actions because they initiated it, not latched onto a suggestion.
    Basically, if the CEO (or MD) doesn’t embody the values being implemented, it’s doomed to fail.
    Anca hit the nail on the head, it comes down to the quality of the management.

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