Monday, 09 February 2015 10:08

Are you serious about cultural change? A simple test

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There is one type of change that results in more eye rolling, cynical comments and coffee machine jokes than any other. I am talking about changes that go under names like “cultural change”, “new values” or “behavioural change”. Announce an initiative of this type and many of your team will be sceptical. They will be sceptical because they have seen it all before. They have observed many cultural change programs previously and noted that nothing really changed as a result of any of them.


Oh, that is, except for the posters on the walls. There were some really great posters.

Changing an organization’s culture is hard. Some commentators deny it is even possible. I believe it is, as long as we focus on behavioural aspects of culture and accept that changing it takes time. Well it normally takes time. If you fired everyone and hired new people you would get a new culture – but doing this is almost always a very bad idea. The real challenge is changing culture with the teams you already have.

There are many reasons why cultural change is hard. I love the comment I read somewhere, (and sorry I can’t remember the source), that “culture is not something you have, it is something you are”. In trying to change culture you are not changing some attribute like your logo or price list. You are fundamentally trying to change who you are as an organization. That’s not something to jump into lightly, and it won’t happen overnight.


The Test

Whilst such change is hard, it’s not difficult to work out if an organization is serious about it or not. I have one simple test that can be applied to any organization, which I use to find out how sincere they are about cultural change. My simple test is to ask the question:

How many star performers have been reprimanded because of a lack of cultural alignment - where that reprimand resulted in explicit consequences?

Such a reprimand may result in asking an individual to leave the organization. A blunter way of phrasing my question is “how many star performers have you fired for bad behaviour?” More constructively, the reprimand may be that the individual in question is put on a performance improvement plan. This generally means things like not giving an annual bonus and giving targets that must be met to remain in the organization. On the other hand, the reprimand may simply result in coaching for the offending star performer – although unless the coaching results in some real change with a threat of more serious consequences, I don’t count this.

The answer to this question? Usually zero.


Why this question?

Why do I focus on this question? I work mainly in large organizations. In large organizations there are always star performers. Maybe they are the best sales person you have. Individuals who continually sell in the top few percentiles across all the sales people you employ. Or perhaps they are high performing senior managers on their route to executive roles.

Now let’s imagine – I’m sure this won’t be hard – that the sales person never shares or helps others in an organization that claims to value teamwork, or the high flying senior manager has an explosive bad temper shouting down individuals in their team in an organization that claims to value respect for the individual.

Have you ever experienced this or something like it? Does it remind you of those times as children when someone thought they did not have to keep a promise because they had their fingers crossed behind their back?

It’s easy to get in a workshop and create a list of cultural values you would like your organization to have. It’s simple to create posters and communicate on the cultural values you want to see. It’s not too difficult to criticise your poor or average performers for a lack of cultural alignment. When it gets tough is when you have a star performer who outperforms on every measure save one – and that one is not behaving in the way the organization desires.

Everyone knows who the star performers are. Everyone observes the way they are treated.  Many people think – if they behave like that it must be ok in this organization. (Please don’t pretend all of your star performers behave ideally).

If you keep treating you star performers like stars irrespective of their behaviour, you might as well forget your cultural change program. It would be better if you did not waste everyone’s time and your organization’s resources. The era when “do as I say, not as I do” was a sustainable way to lead an organization is over.

If you want to undertake cultural change and for it really to work, there cannot be exceptions or special cases.


Richard Newton is an author, consultant and program director. He has written 12 books, which have won awards and been translated many times. His latest book “Managing Your Team Through Change” explores the challenge of delivering change for team leaders and middle managers. It was published in December 2014.



Read 7458 times Last modified on Monday, 09 February 2015 10:12
Richard Newton

Richard Newton wears many hats. Included amongst these are his work as a consultant, author, blogger, change leader, company director, and program manager. His most well known project management book is The Project Manager: Mastering the Art of Delivery. He is also the author of the best-selling Dream It, Do It, Live It which applies project management principles to achieving personal dreams.

His articles and blogs can be followed at Information about his company can be found at His books are available at bookshops and online sellers worldwide.

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