In the world of work, we’ve never talked more about organizational culture change than we are right now.
Sparked by the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic, fanned by The Great Resignation, and fueled by the new expectations of the WFH (work from home) workforce and the demands of Gen-Z workers, culture change has become a high priority for many business leaders.
And yet, it seems culture change efforts (real change, not those initiatives meant to manipulate anything from employees to stock prices) are slow to start and even slower to drive to a successful conclusion.
The reason is simple: leaders lack the experience to successfully navigate change and avoid the pitfalls that sabotage change efforts. Our inability to avoid these traps can make it impossible to make a smooth transition.
Organizational culture is so difficult to change for these reasons: lack of commitment, fear of change, results are valued over respect, values are not defined, observable, or measurable, it’s a long process, lack of planning, lack of accountability, high turnover, and lack of culture alignment in recruitment.
Managing culture change is new to most leaders. Even the most savvy of us have yet to lead a successful culture change effort. Chances are, neither have our predecessors or mentors.
Navigating change requires commitment, adaptability, and, more than anything else, a willingness to learn from experience. Professors don’t teach culture change in business schools—and we can’t learn everything we need to know in a webinar or online course.
As a result, many leaders feel alone as they take on deeply ingrained beliefs, resistance to change, the complexity of the change process, and external influences such as needing to keep promises to shareholders, board members, customers, and employees.
However, a leader committed to driving real, sustainable change can take great pride in being known as a “culture change champion.” Along the way to that goal, they must avoid the ten major reasons why cultural change efforts fail.
1. No Top-Down Leadership Commitment
Business leaders cannot delegate culture change. They must own it by championing and leading the change directly. In every case, members of the C-Suite must serve as Chief Role Models for the behaviors that indicate positive change is not just possible, but inevitable.
Not every leader is up to this task (especially when leaders’ dismissive behaviors are one of the primary reasons change is necessary in the first place).
However, an organization can effectively change only if the leaders are out in front of the change effort. Otherwise, people will undoubtedly see any attempt to change as nothing more than leadership lip service or another “program of the month.”
2. Precedent Can Be Poison
As organizations take on culture change, they often encounter a culture-killing poison called precedent. Simply put, legacy employees (and, for that matter, legacy leaders) tend to get stuck in “that’s the way we’ve always done it” purgatory.
For those players, anything new contradicts their foundational beliefs—or at least falls well outside their comfort zones.
When these people lean into precedent (what was) versus potential (what could be), toxicity gains traction. Instinctively, they know the rigid precedent (often disguised as “tradition”) they’re hanging onto is counterproductive to achieving results, wowing customers, respecting employees, and implementing culture change.
For some, that is the point; they feel they might lose power if they don’t at least passively challenge the introduction of new cultural elements.
3. More Focus on Results Than Respect
When leaders come to us to talk about culture change, it is usually a performance (results) problem that drives them to seek help.
Lower-than-expected productivity levels, a failure to innovate promptly, and poor customer service ratings or reputation scores are all too familiar pain points. When those pain points become chronic, decreasing profit margins and low employee retention often make it quite evident that help is needed.
Sadly, too few leaders realize that the key to creating a purposeful, positive, productive, and profitable company culture—one that attracts and helps retain top talent—is to focus equally on respect and results.
After all, we can’t expect people to do their very best work when they feel they are treated disrespectfully within the workplace.
4. Failure to Define Values
We hear this constantly: “If we all lived our core values, we’d have a great work culture.” And yet, the people who say that rarely make the effort required to define their values.
For example, many of our clients want to include “integrity” as a core value. The problem is that if we ask 20 people in any one company what “integrity” means to them, we’ll get 17 different answers.
No value can become “core” if everyone doesn’t precisely understand what that core value means within an organization. Additionally, any lack of clarity around the definition of a word or phrase makes it nearly impossible to measure alignment with that value.
Can values be measured? Yes!
5. Failure To Define Values in Observable, Measurable Behavioral Terms
Every company has myriad ways to measure performance (results); every leader has a dashboard that tracks profit margins, market share, productivity rates, etc. However, only a few companies measure people-centric or culture-centric metrics (like the demonstration of respect).
Instead, those business leaders tend to believe the words on their ‘About Us’ page and the first paragraph of every job description that describes a “fast-paced, dynamic” company. In today’s workplace, that isn’t good enough.
The most effective culture change leaders quickly learn that they must define values in observable and measurable behavioral terms.
For example, a company might define the “integrity” value as “I do what I say I will do.” By using that definition as a common language, the value becomes observable. Anything observable is measurable by default, perhaps through a confidential survey that asks respondents to rate their direct leaders’ ability to model that defined value.
6. Runway Too Short
While it is never too late to begin a culture change initiative, many leaders fail to ensure their runways are long enough for the change to take flight. That is why, before we begin an organizational change process with any client, we tell them they must allow a 12 to 18-month window for real change to take off.
That is not to say that tangible change doesn’t become obvious much sooner.
In fact, many of even the most rigidly entrenched organizations can see noticeable, sustainable change in just a matter of weeks, especially when leaders demonstrate that they will no longer tolerate dysfunctional, disruptive behaviors from anyone—key leaders and key players.
7. No Flight Plan
Keeping with the flight analogy for a moment, a significant failure factor with culture change efforts is that people don’t understand the flight plan—the “why” and “where” they’re going.
Culture change leaders must be ready to answer two questions:
- Why are we changing, and why now?
- Where will we end up when we’re done?
Leaders who answer these queries in a non-defensive, constructive manner can more easily rally their people around the change requirements, including alignment to newly defined values and behaviors.
Leaders who can’t effectively answer these questions will have a much more challenging job of inspiring real change. At the same time, employees might perceive their change effort as “change for change’s sake” rather than a sincere, organic change effort.
Fortunately, leveraging our experience working with companies ranging from non-profits to Fortune 100 clients, we can help answer the “why” question with data. Specifically, within 18 months of launching and sustaining an effort to create an uncompromising work culture, companies realize fundamental changes to their business metrics:
- Employee engagement and retention rates improve by 30 to 40 percent.
- Customer service ratings go up by 30 to 35 percent.
- Productivity and profits increase by 25 to 40 percent.
8. Lack of Accountability
In Good Comes First: How Today’s Leaders Build an Uncompromising Company Culture That Doesn’t Suck, we state that leaders build a fulfilling, inspiring company culture by rewarding desired behaviors and tear down culture by tolerating disrespectful behaviors.
Too often, though, leaders tolerate behaviors that run counter to building and sustaining a work culture where people feel respected, know their work is valued, and believe their voices matter.
Perhaps they fear alienating a top performer or a leader with a devout follower base. Maybe it wasn’t part of the old culture to constructively confront a player who had proven they weren’t aligned with the company’s values.
No matter the reason, leaders must hold every player, including fellow leaders, personally accountable for modeling, coaching, and celebrating defined valued behaviors.
If those leaders don’t, even players most aligned with company values quickly learn that leaders will make exceptions to the new rules, so they aren’t 100% serious about driving real change.
9. The Wrong Kind of Employee Turnover
Without fail, people will bail as companies take on a culture-change effort. It is inevitable, and all a leader can do is control which type of people choose to leave: Aligned or Unaligned.
No matter how aligned they are to the new culture, talented, values-driven employees will leave if they stop believing in the change effort or see traction stall. They will leave if leaders and coworkers continue to treat them disrespectfully.
They wanted this change to take hold; they were willing to make it work. But after realizing they can’t help drive the change, they will leave for companies with better cultures and, frankly, better leaders.
When these people exit, it hurts. Productivity, continuity, service, and engagement levels suffer. Their loss is the wrong kind of employee turnover.
As cultural change progresses, people will choose whether to adapt to the fresh expectations and new levels of accountability. Some who feel the new culture is not for them will quietly and respectfully opt out. People might be sorry to see them go. Ultimately, those people will be appreciated and respected for making the right choice for them.
Some entrenched employees, however, will only leave after being as disruptive as humanly possible. As they hold onto some level of power and control within their subcultures, they’ll fight change every step of the way.
When these people leave—usually not by choice—leaders soon hear comments like, “Thank God!” and “It’s about time.” The loss of these employees is the best kind of employee turnover; as we say in Good Comes First, “Attrition is a culture leader’s best friend.”
When their replacements demonstrate genuine alignment with the new culture, change takes giant steps forward.
10. Not Hiring for Culture Alignment
Notice we didn’t say, “Hire for culture fit.”
That is because “culture fit,” by definition, is so limiting that it was never an effective hiring practice. After all, if a company culture sucks, it is pretty easy to attract someone with low standards and even lower expectations. They’ll just collect a paycheck without actively engaging—and certainly without contributing to improving the existing culture.
Hiring for culture alignment, however, is a powerful tool for human resources professionals and hiring managers.
Imagine, during the very first job interview, that the interviewer includes an in-depth discussion on the company’s defined values and behaviors and expectations for respect and results.
Now, imagine the interviewee hearing, perhaps for the first time in their career, that they can expect to be treated with the respect they’ve earned. That here, at this company, they’ll feel valued and validated while being rewarded for contributing positively to the culture and the bottom line.
Only a few candidates feel this level of connection in any interview. Those who do know what to expect, what is expected of them, what will not be tolerated, and what will be rewarded. Instinctively, they are predisposed to alignment with the positive, productive culture in place. This becomes a job they covet, and they’ll do everything possible to excel.
The Biggest Challenge a Leader Might Ever Face
Culture change is perhaps the most challenging initiative a business leader will ever take on. The process can be frustrating; at times, it’s grueling. There will be days that you question your decision to change—and perhaps your sanity.
However, when a leader takes ownership of the change effort, pushes precedent aside in favor of an emphasis on respect and results, has a clear vision through defined values and behaviors, holds people accountable, and hires (and fires) based on alignment with the desired company culture, the reward is well worth the effort.
Our best advice? Don’t take on a change effort by yourself. Bring in other change champions—perhaps fellow leaders who are just as inspired to drive change as you or key employees who see both the need for change and the potential for successful change.
With their help, discover exactly where the culture stands now and remain as objective and open-eyed as possible!
Then, lead your change team to define your ideal culture, align people and processes to that culture, and consistently and continually refine your culture until it becomes an amazing place to work—and your company builds a reputation as a top-tier employer.