How-to: Keys to successful cultural change

Cultural change efforts seem to fail as often as they succeed, partly because it’s neither easy nor fast — just brutally effective. Cultural change requires concentrated and focused effort over the long haul, a widespread belief that change is necessary, and the willingness to critically examine current beliefs, values, and practices.

people (illustrating cultural change)

In 1997, Chrysler was an oft-cited example of a company which had used cultural change to suddenly regain a leadership role, changing the way almost everything in the company was done within a few short years.

The impact was not quite so dramatic in the dealerships. Surveys showed that customers stayed dissatisfied with North American Chrysler dealers; because these independently-owned businesses had no urgent need for change, once the company’s reversal of fortune became clear. Increased sales made dealership owners complacent… until Daimler took over and the company declined again.

The same power that makes cultural change so effective also makes it hard for people to abandon their customs and beliefs. Unless there is a clear and pressing need for change, there will be people who do not test their beliefs and customs. Managers can try to push changes through with sheer force of authority, but that may only stiffen resistance. Personnel changes, likewise, should be a last resort.

change signs

The first step, then, is to try to convince people of the need for change. This may involve running focus groups in the presence of key people, going over financial or statistical data, using outside surveys or reports, or benchmarking against competitors. There are many ways to get participation, but each requires respect. It is harder to win people over without respect for their intelligence and their traditions, or without trying to understand their views.

Resistance to change

It can be hard to respect those who are blocking your progress; certainly, it is easier to think of them as “resisting,” “stick-in-the-muds,” or “just not able to get it.” But there are often powerful reasons for their lack of participation. For example, people may be afraid they will work themselves right out of a job; and there have almost always been failed initiatives in the past.

overcoming resistance to change

There are reasons why some people resist change. The keys to acceptance are truly understanding their concerns, working to accommodate their needs and truthfully allay their concerns, defuse the emotions, work with the facts, and work with people instead of around or through them. This may sound like common sense, but in a tight schedule, with our enthusiasm for new ideas and ways of doing things and our own belief that we must be right, it is easy to overlook other people’s concerns.

In many cases, the people who resist change have valid points which may, once you understand them fully, cause you to change or fine-tune your plans. I have often found that people who did not express the reasons for their resistance well (or at all) had quite valid objections which, when considered, greatly improved the outcomes.

The rewards system

Possibly the most significant obstacle is the reward system. W. Warner Burke wrote that he has abandoned consulting jobs when the rewards system was placed off limits, because it would prevent his success.

The pay, promotion, or bonus system may, in reality or in perception, discourage any change. The maxim “you get what you pay for” (or “you get what you reward”) is as true in organizations as it is in the lab. (This is not necessarily because people are greedy and motivated solely by cash; a company’s reward system may be seen as showing its true intentions, while everything else is “just words.” The cliche: “put your money where your mouth is.”)

Social issues

Another important factor that is often overlooked is the social system. Changes in English coal mines once led to a strike, because it broke up the working groups of miners; they resisted to keep their social system alive. If you work with the social system, or convince people that they will not lose the parts of it they value, you will be more likely to get everyone’s support – which is essential for a successful change.

Working around myths

Myths are a way we simplify life and prevent ourselves from being overwhelmed with information and decisions. They may or may not have been born in truth, but, with time, they tend to lose their relevance and become a block to progress.

Myths both explain reality and to support social systems; and they may not be compatible with the new culture. Therefore, one essential step in cultural change is to find and work with (or debunk) myths — or to refit the myths so they support the new world — or to slip in new myths that support where you’re going next (e.g. finding new stories about the founders). Some companies have been quite adept at “making up history” or at least using careful choices, to create inspirational myths.

Debunking myths can be very difficult. One way to do this it have the believers involved in the process of getting information to counter the myths. For example, at one auto company, one of the managers of the central customer service center believed that customers were perfectly happy with the center’s service levels and did not want any other way to contact the company. His proof: “if there were any problems, our dealers would tell us about them.” To obtain this manager’s (and other like-minded individuals’) buy-in, the myth of the perfect service center and the contended customer had to be dispelled.

Some common myths have a grain of truth, but the math is wrong: the customer who is never satisfied, the apathetic or lazy employee, the people who mindlessly resist change, etc. There are people who fit those descriptions, but rarely so many as the myth portrays.

Many of the people put into those pigeon-holes are there because of self-fulfilling prophecies: if the employees act like a customer will never be satisfied, the customer will perceive it at some level, and it will cause dissatisfaction. If staff are treated as though they are lazy, they will resent it, and will act according to expectations. When managers believe employees will mindlessly resist change, they do not take the steps needed to involve people (or do not take them seriously enough), and people will resist.

Each company or organization has its own myths. Some are common across many companies; some are unique. They are usually not very hard to find, especially for outsiders; this is a good opportunity for a student internship!

Wrapping up

Cultural change isn’t easy. It is powerful, but if treated like just another management fad, or if forced through like a steamroller, it won’t work. If you want to change the culture, you have to:

  • Show a pressing, urgent need
  • Reduce perceived threats to the employees
  • Work with the current culture, re-using or ending myths
  • Preserve desirable aspects of the existing social systems
  • Make sure the reward system does not run counter to the new culture
  • Discover and analyze the causes of resistance and work around them


David Zatz, Ph.D

David Zatz focuses on using research and data for targeted change efforts, including employee and customer surveys, linkage, process mapping, and process consulting. He has spoken at conferences and has published articles in journals (such as HRMagazine, Quality Digest, and Effective Executive), trade publications, and books. David has worked with clients such as the American Management Association, Arthrocare, BTI Americas, the Coast Guard, Enhanced Vision, General Fire & Casualty, Mattel (American Girl), Santen, and the City of New York. David holds a B.A. in psychology from Rutgers University, and an M.Phil and Ph.D. in social and organizational psychology from Columbia University.