Can organisational culture be changed?

Insight shared by:

Kiddy & Partners

An organisation’s culture plays a crucial role in its effectiveness, shaping how it operates and how people in it think, behave and respond. “Culture” is one of the fundamental drivers of business performance; a strong, positive culture will affect the business's ability to attract talented people, who will want to pull together to achieve its objectives.

What is organisational culture?

Put simply, it is “the way things are done around here”. It is a combination of values, norms, behaviours, style and the spoken and unspoken beliefs about what will help one “get on” and “fit in”.

It is a combination of values, norms, behaviours, style and the spoken and unspoken beliefs about what will help one “get on” and “fit in”.

Why does it matter?

A strong, positive culture based on shared values and sense of purpose will drive strong company performance. Any analysis of effective companies over the last few decades, from Tom Peters’ famous “In Search of Excellence” to Jim Collins’ work on companies that were “Built to Last” and transition "From Good to Great" identifies the part that culture plays in shaping an organisation's performance and the way that it reacts and adapts to change. Similarly, consider some of the biggest corporate scandals of the last decade, such as the Volkswagen emissions scandal and the multiple allegations of sexual misconduct against businessmen and politicians in the US and the UK. What kind of culture fostered, supported and (in some cases) covered up such unethical and illegal activities?

What should you consider?

Critical to any consideration of culture is whether or not it is congruent with your business's strategic aims. If the organisation’s mission (for want of a better word for it) is to, say, return shareholder value or increase profitable growth, the culture should support achievement of financial success. The types of people who will fit in and the values of the organisation will be very different from an organisation that has its aims rooted firmly in public service or healthcare. Compare and contrast the culture one would expect in an investment bank from the culture one would experience in the not-for-profit sector. But what do you do if your culture is not helping your business's strategy?

Can culture be changed?

Yes, it can although it takes time and focus. Some elements to consider are:


Change will not happen if people do not see the people at the top of the organisation leading the way. It is not a case of "do what I say, not what I do". Developing leaders in your organisation to understand, demonstrate and consistently reinforce desired behaviours is vital.


Tell people what you want, what is different, why you are doing it, what your goals are and, importantly, what is in it for them. Then tell them again. And again. Keep talking and, most importantly, listening. Change is difficult and people may resist it for a variety of reasons, including fear, apathy or cynicism. Giving a clear and consistent message of what you are trying to do and why will help you bring people along with you.


This is not (necessarily) about monetary reward but about intrinsic rewards. Give praise where it is due and show people that the way to fit in and get on in the organisation is by demonstrating the right behaviours. This also means addressing poor or bad behaviours and being prepared to make tough (but fair) decisions about people who either cannot or will not adapt their behaviour.


This cannot be stressed enough. People will notice if you say one thing and do another. This comes down to some of the smallest and seemingly inconsequential things. For example, if you say that you value your people then don't allow anyone except for directors to use the front door, what message does that give? Actions, after all, speak louder than words.