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How cultural change equals behavioral change

October 21, 2021 - 15 min read

young-woman-looks-at-sparkler-cultural change

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What is cultural change? 

Common reasons for a cultural change

Is a movement necessary for cultural change?

What is the best way to make a cultural change?

Changing culture equals changing habits and behaviors 

Moving forward

Culture is what happens day-to-day. People in a company experience the organizational culture through their interactions with their manager and team members. They experience the company culture through the systems and tools they use. Through how decision-making happens. 

Employees and leaders experience culture through which of their behaviors are rewarded and which are discouraged. 

Technology and systems shape culture, as well, because they can make certain behaviors easier or harder. For example, if your company states that it values collaboration but doesn't have good collaboration tools for remote work, the culture won't be collaborative.  

Let's take a look at what cultural change means, what is required to achieve that type of change for team members, and the best recommendations from people who have changed cultures.

What is cultural change? 

The term "cultural change" is used by sociologists and in public policy to denote the way society is changed. The society takes on new cultural traits, behavior patterns, and social norms, and creates new social structures as a result. This level of societal change occurs from contact with another society (for example, through war or mass migration), invention and diffusion of innovations (automobiles or a smart phone in every pocket?), and discovery. 

That definition of cultural change is useful for organizations as well. Less dramatic than invasion by Goths or Mongolians, an acquisition or merger between "equals" can nonetheless precipitate cultural change among those on the receiving end. 

Organizations are more likely to talk about "needing to change the culture" as a top-down process. Often when a company or organization faces a crisis, whether sudden or slow, leaders will talk about culture change. 

A cultural change is an organization’s commitment to change. They want to change their beliefs, behaviors, practices, and processes. The goal is to transform the work environment for the better. There are many reasons that an organization can face cultural change. Most cultural changes are a collective reaction to a movement. A movement is something that has set the change in motion. The people driving the change are motion makers. 


Common reasons for a cultural change

There are many reasons an organization might want to change its culture. The paradox is that culture change is hard, yet your culture is always evolving. In fact, cultural evolution is one of the reasons you might find you need a cultural change. One day, you realize that over time, bit by bit, your organizational culture, values, and behaviors are not what they once were.  

Below are some common scenarios but the causes are limitless. 

    • Merger or acquisition. A merger is a collision of two organizations that have two distinct corporate cultures. If both companies remain separate a cultural change may not be necessary. Yet when the two combine goals, resources, and staff a cultural change is going to happen. The organizations either adopt the dominant culture or create a new one. 
    • New leadership. There is a new leader such as a CEO who brings new ideas and expectations that affect culture. New leadership is often brought in with the expectation of change. Sometimes, leaders bring in their own team to give the cultural change plan support. 
    • Social shift. There is a social shift that shines a light on old mindsets. Some examples are processes rooted in sexism, ageism, racism, or intolerance. Diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging have only become practices in many companies recently. This is only because employees and society demanded it. This is a change that is still evolving and long overdue for many organizations across the globe. 
    • Technological change. There are technological advances that force leaders to rethink or reinvent their workflow. Consider the enormous task that many companies faced when going paperless. Imagine how hard it was to change the way they filed and stored information. There were file rooms and storage centers with years of paper documents and files.

      This conversion required "old school" mindsets to be undone. Companies had to retrain their people to how to do their jobs using computers and scanners. Suddenly companies were dealing with cybersecurity, compliance and storage issues. 
    • Loss of competitiveness. When a company isn't performing well, losing market share to others, or becoming less profitable, it can be a signal that the culture is no longer working in the market or for talent. When a company sees metrics around retention and well-being go down, culture is often at least one culprit. In the same vein, your culture can also be your biggest asset.
    • New operating/workforce model.  Remote work is another example of a cultural change brought on by technology. Some companies had already mastered remote work, but, many organizations had not. This quick shift to remote work occurred almost overnight during the pandemic.

      It changed how we communicate, collaborate, and produce work. Employees had to adapt quickly to their new office space at home and employers had to be flexible. Dogs barking and children wandering around the was the new normal for video meetings. The lines of defined working hours became blurred.

      Once people became used to working at home many did not want to return to the traditional office setting. Many companies and employees like the flexibility that remote work offers. Hybrid work schedules and full remote work are now the norm. Technology set organizational change of traditional office life into motion.
    • Other reasons for culture change include new business models, generational shifts, or, as we see with financial shocks, wars, and the pandemic, global events that trigger new behaviors and a reassessment of values and preferences.

group of coworkers light sparklers at night cultural change

Is a movement necessary for cultural change?

In broad terms, cultural change can occur without a movement. As can be seen in the list of causes above, sometimes a culture changes whether or not anyone involved wants it to. 

But more practically, if an organization recognizes the need to change its culture and wants to build a new culture, it requires a deliberate change initiative. 

A movement is necessary to deliberately change a culture. But what is a “movement” within an organization and who makes it happen?

Movements are a change or call to action that are started by a catalyst and propelled by a group of people taking action toward a shared vision. The catalyst can be large or small — a feeling of discontent or a need that grows and sparks a group to call for action. 

Or, movement can be caused by an external event that demands a reaction. Those creating the motion are not necessarily leadership. Leaders set the tone for culture, but often cultures change starting from the bottom, the "grassroots."

These change efforts gain momentum and power through the size of the movement, the spread to others, not through the size of the individual. Very often these movements begin evolving deep within an organization. A movement can start with one person, but for that idea to catch fire it must have support from others. 

What is the best way to make a cultural change?

A change management plan or elaborate communications planning can't change the culture. Culture change is felt and experienced, not spoken. 

An agreement to make a cultural change is a symbol of accountability from leaders. This statement acknowledges that the status quo isn't working and that things could be better, in some way. This admission alone can be enough to get “buy in” from those who made the call for action. The motion makers.

However a symbol or public commitment won't change the corporate culture absent a clear vision of a new culture, teamwork, and a plan get from point A to point B.

Consider working with your alliance off-site to allow real focus on the upcoming change. A change of scenery can remove the daily influences that may distract from the mission. The best way to get out of the weeds is to leave the garden. 

When rolling out the change initiatives to rest of the organization, use the same approach. You might not be able to bring everyone off-site, but try to plan events, even virtual, that shake people out of the routine and get them out of their comfort zone. If travel isn’t workable, pull the group at least to a different space within your office or create a unique and interesting virtual space.

Removing people from the distraction of their jobs helps everyone to focus.

When creating a cultural change strategic plan, branding is important! Give the change a name or slogan and plaster it on everything from t-shirts to posters to mugs. It builds solidarity. Daily reminders send the message that change is good and that the organization wants to do it right. 

That being said, messaging and slogans do not equal culture change. Branding doesn't create behavioral change. In fact, slogans, especially from the top, without actions and behaviors that align with new cultural values can cause cynicism among both the group of people who want change and those who don't.

Branding and slogans can create a moment, reinforce a perspective, and inject some camaraderie and fun into the change process. But know your audience. And don't try to make messaging and slogans make up for a lack of vision, commitment, or modeling of values.  

Leaders need to practice a light touch. Heavy-handed management styles poison the well of employee support. Edicts, mandates, laws, and rules are a turn-off and cause dissent. This is the time for head honchos to not be the loudest voice in the room. This change must be driven by the motion makers in the trenches. 

Expect friction. Change is uncomfortable for many. People bring their unique selves to work with diverse experiences and fear. Friction is fear of not feeling in control of how their job will be different. Some will fear that they will not be able to perform their jobs to their preferred capacity. 

Have a long-term strategy. For change to stick, it must be gradual or almost organic and that takes time. Rushing change can overwhelm people. Suddenly they don’t feel like they have a voice or control over their jobs and this takes away agency. 

What are the best practices to lead a cultural movement?

    • What is your why? Why do you do what you do? Connect the staff with a deeper meaning of the organization’s mission. For example, “We create software that improves our customers’ lives.” Show how this planned change initiative can enhance the mission.

      “Our change to improve internal communication will help us stay true to our mission.” Then connect the change to the employee. “Improved communication helps me succeed in my job and improve our customers’ lives.” It’s a win-win.
    • Create an alliance. Gather a group of supporters, cheerleaders, strategic thinkers, and influencers within your organization. They will support the roll-out of the cultural change. These are your motion makers.
    • Is the Human Resources department prepared for the change? The best way to prepare Human Resources for the upcoming shifts is to involve them in the early planning. Bring stakeholders to the table. Especially those who will be doing the training and managing of the change. This creates alignment and reduces the risk of errors and waning interest. Many movements start off with excitement but soon fade. When this happens doubt and nay-sayers can undermine the plan. This is where your motion makers keep the change going.
    • Leaders must be accountable for the upcoming changes. They expected friction that will follow the putting the plan into motion. Communication is key. Setting realistic expectations will ease the concerns that may bubble up. 

young-man-on-flat-roof-nighttime-cultural change

Changing culture equals changing habits and behaviors 

There is little difference between changing habits for a person or a group. The best practices apply: envision the results, take it slow, and expect problems. 

Envision the results

    • Let them see it, taste it and touch it. Meaning gives people a peek at what life could be like once the change is made. Less talking more showing.
    • Then connect each employee to the change. How can their role support the change? How will they benefit? Give them something to look forward to, an improved work experience. 

Take it slow

    • Explain the steps involved and set expectations and timeframes. You risk dissent when you overwhelm people with too much change at once.
    • Chunk the learning. With most change comes the need to educate. There are mindsets and skillsets that need refreshing.
    • Your change is only as strong as your messengers. Your motion makers are your messengers. Ensure your motion makers are on board and fully have a grasp of the changes and can explain them well.
    • Slow and steady wins the race. This will take time. 

Expect problems

    • Prepare for friction. Make a plan for challenging times. What could be an objection or a hurdle? How can it be overcome? Be ready for the tough times.
    • Pulse check. Take time to check how things are going by getting feedback from managers and their people. If the change is losing steam, go back and connect them to it. Give people a peek at what “will be” to reignite the initial enthusiasm. 

Moving forward

Changing habits is never easy. Achieving a cultural change requires a movement, motion makers, and time to be successful.

There is going to be friction change can spark fear in people so they resist.

A cultural change must be well planned and done right from the beginning. This means a strategic plan with a vision that allows time for the change to take hold. The important steps to remember are to connect your team to the mission of your organization. Then show how this change will deepen their connection to the mission and their own jobs.

Changing the habits and behavior that add up to culture requires time and patience for individuals and organizations.

At BetterUp we have seen how sustained coaching and personalized support can lead to rapid behavior change that lasts over time. When managers and leaders successfully change their own behaviors, it has a ripple effect. Their modeling enables the cultural change of a movement to be more than a moment.


Published October 21, 2021

Marie Stevenson, PCC, MSODL

BetterUp Fellow Coach, MSOD

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