Social Menu

Workplace Wisdom Blog

How to Respond When Your Culture Is Compelled to Change

Last week’s post talked about how to maintain an organizational culture that you prize. But what if some of your cultural norms aren’t good, healthy, or productive? What if your organization has a history of black-and-white thinking that’s so far inside the box it’s no longer relevant? Or perhaps you have a culture of fear or agitation? Or a culture of “it’s fine the way it is”? Or even a culture of “go it alone”?

Stuck In the Middle

How can you change people’s attitudes internally? How do you shift from survival-and-subsistence mode into development mode, and move beyond that into building-and-growth mode? No matter how well-aligned your C-suite may be, true cultural change always depends on middle managers.

Once these managers change, the people under them change. But if the managers don’t change, you can hold “all-hands-on-deck” or “town hall” meetings forever, and the new approaches and beliefs are unlikely to take. That’s why looking for influencers and emerging leaders — not necessarily just those who are formally in the hierarchy — is crucial to your effort.

You Say You Want an Evolution

The evolutionary approach to culture change focuses on keeping certain aspects of your current culture — the ones that are worth preserving — but moving toward better norms. That’s probably the healthiest thing to do, but for a long time, it can feel like nothing’s actually changing. Although you may be expending a lot of effort, the negative behaviors keep pulling you back.

So you may want to take a more revolutionary approach by forming two teams: a SWOT team and a SWAT team. The SWOT team identifies your strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats to emphasize the business impacts of your current cultural norms and the potential results if you were to modify or replace them. These business impacts include the cost of employee recruitment, training, attrition, etc., balanced by the returns of employee development, retention, and engagement.

The SWOT team’s conclusions should be circulate throughout the organization, and the results should be tracked, just as with any business plan.

Next, activate your SWAT (special weapons and tactics) team. You may need to deploy anything from focus groups and communication training to outside consultants and embedded change agents in each work group. The SWAT team’s content areas could include topics from job design and organizational structure as well as individual training, goal-setting, and measurement. The team should also address the internal environment, levels of engagement, and how individuals are feeling about their work, roles, and work groups.

The SWAT team’s findings and activities should also be shared, so that both the expectations and outcomes are visible to everyone. Showcasing positive changes will help encourage more of them.

Who Wants to Play Our Game?

Your SWAT team helps the rest of the organization absorb and adopt the new perspectives and behaviors. Here are some questions SWAT team members can ask as they work with managers and their teams:

  • What would help you be more productive?
  • Where do you need additional support, and where do we just need to get out of your way?
  • Is your manager helpful to you?
  • Can you tell where your management is coming from or do you feel blindsided by decisions?
  • What stupid little things are annoying or get in your way as you’re trying to do your best job?
  • What recognition have you received recently that has increased your personal sense of dedication?
  • How do you see your opportunity to grow and advance here?

Once managers and the employees who report to them recognize the larger purpose of the change and the new behavioral norms, they’ll see where their specific goals and assignments fit into the organization’s overall needs. Then they’ll have the context to conduct their own analysis and decision-making, and to set aligned priorities. Employees will be able to refer back to the change initiative’s larger purpose and values to smooth out differences whenever their individual goals and the organization’s needs appear to be in conflict.

Onward and upward,


Related Posts:

Want help coping with conflict?

Download your free Field Guide to help you identify and resolve interpersonal conflicts. You’ll also get Liz’s monthly Workplace Wisdom emails from which you can unsubscribe at any time.

  • Liz Kislik Associates LLC will use the information you provide to send you content, updates, and marketing via email. You can find full details about our privacy practices here. By clicking below, you agree that we may process your information in accordance with these terms.

  • This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.