10 Guiding Principles of Organizational Culture

excellence in culture

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to feature this post highlighting Jon Katzenbach, a leading practitioner in organizational strategies and an acclaimed advisor to executives for PwC’s strategy consulting group, Strategy&. Stay tuned for the upcoming CultureU interview with Jon coming soon.

How often have you heard somebody talk about the urgent need to change the culture? They want to make it world-class. To dispense with all the nonsense and negativity that annoys employees and stops good intentions from growing into progress. To bring about an entirely different approach, starting immediately. These culture critiques are as common as complaints about the weather — and about as effective. How frequently have you seen high-minded aspirations to “change the culture” actually manage to modify the way that people behave and the way in which they work? And how often have you seen noticeable long-term improvements?

Research shows that companies that use informal emotional approaches to influencing behavior are significantly more likely to experience change that lasts. Of the companies that reported consciously using elements of their culture in Strategy&’s 2013 Global Culture & Change Management Survey, 70 percent said their firms achieved sustainable improvement in organizational pride and emotional commitment. That compares with 35 percent for firms that didn’t use culture as a lever.

Although there is no magic formula that will guarantee results, we have gleaned some valuable insights through decades of research and observation at dozens of enterprises. By adopting the following principles, your organization can learn to deploy and improve its culture in a manner that will increase the odds of financial and operational success.

10 Culture Principles

1. Work with and within your current cultural situations.
Deeply embedded cultures cannot be replaced with simple upgrades, or even with major overhaul efforts. Nor can your culture be swapped out for a new one as though it were an operating system or a CPU. Your current cultural situation contains components that provide natural advantages to companies as well as components that may act as brakes. We’ve never seen a culture that is all bad, or one that is all good. To work with your culture effectively, therefore, you must understand it, recognize which traits are preeminent and consistent, and discern under what types of conditions these traits are likely to be a help or a hindrance.

2. Change behaviors, and mind-sets will follow.
It is a commonly held view that behavioral change follows mental shifts, as surely as night follows day. This is why organizations often try to change mind-sets (and ultimately behavior) by communicating values and putting them in glossy brochures. In reality, culture is much more a matter of doing than of saying. Trying to change a culture purely through top-down messaging, training and development programs, and identifiable cues seldom changes people’s beliefs or behaviors. In fact, neuroscience research suggests that people act their way into believing rather than thinking their way into acting. Changes to key behaviors — changes that are tangible, actionable, repeatable, observable, and measurable — are thus a good place to start.

3. Focus on a critical few behaviors.
Companies must be rigorously selective when it comes to picking behaviors. The key is to focus on “the critical few,” a small number of important behaviors that would have great impact if put into practice by a significant number of people. Discern a few things people do throughout the company that positively affect business performance — for example, ways of starting meetings or talking with customers. Make sure those are aligned with the company’s overall strategy. Also check that people feel good about doing these things, so that you tap into emotional commitment. Then codify them: Translate those critical behaviors into simple, practical steps that people can take every day. Next, select groups of employees who are primed for these few behaviors, those who will respond strongly to the new behaviors and who are likely to implement and spread them.

4. Deploy your authentic informal leaders.
Authority, which is conferred by a formal position, should not be confused with leadership. Leadership is a natural attribute, exercised and displayed informally without regard to title or position in the organizational chart. Because authentic informal leaders, who are found in every organization, are often not recognized as such, they are frequently overlooked and underused when it comes to driving culture. It is possible to identify such leaders through interviews, surveys, and tools such as organizational network analysis, which allow companies to construct maps of complex internal social relations by analyzing email statistics and meeting records. Once identified, these leaders can become powerful allies who can influence behavior through “showing by doing.” In fact, when companies map out their organizations, they can identify leaders who exhibit different core leadership strengths.

5. Don’t let your formal leaders off the hook.
Most organizations tend to shunt culture into the silo of human resources professionals. But leaders in all parts of the company are critical in safeguarding and championing desired behaviors, energizing personal feelings, and reinforcing cultural alignment. The signalling of emotional commitment sets the tone for others to follow. If staff members see a disconnect between the culture an organization promulgates and the one its formal leadership follows, they’ll disengage quickly from the advertised culture and simply mimic their seniors’ behavior. The people at the top have to demonstrate the change they want to see. Here, too, the critical few come into play. A handful of the right kind of leaders have to be on board to start the process.

The people at the top have to demonstrate the change they want to see.


6. Link behaviors to business objectives.
When people talk about feelings, motivations, and values — all of which are vital elements of strong cultures — the conversation can often veer into abstractions. It may then range far afield of what it takes to succeed in the market. Too many employees walk away from culture-focused town halls or values discussions wondering how the advice on how to be a better person actually translates into the work they do. To avoid this disconnect, offer tangible, well-defined examples of how cultural interventions lead to improved performance and financial outcomes. Select behaviors that are aimed specifically at improving business performance and can be measured over time.

7. Demonstrate impact quickly.
When people hear about new high-profile initiatives and efforts, and then don’t see any activity related to them for several months, they’ll disengage and grow cynical. That’s why it is extremely important to showcase the impact of cultural efforts on business results as quickly as possible. One effective method of doing so is to stage performance pilots — that is, high-profile demonstration projects. Pilots are relatively low-risk efforts that introduce specific behaviors that can then be evaluated and assessed. They often rely on a dashboard that defines desired impacts, the tactics used, and the specific metrics to be employed.

8. Use cross-organizational methods to go viral.
Ideas can spread virally across organizational departments and functions, as well as from the top down and from the bottom up. One powerful way to spread ideas is through social media — not from senior management, but from some of the authentic informal leaders mentioned in Principle 4. The same holds with critical behaviors. People are often more receptive to changes in “the way we do things around here” when those changes are recommended or shared by friends, colleagues, and other associates. This kind of credible social proof is more compelling than similar testimonials from someone whose job it is to sell something.

9. Align programmatic efforts with behaviors.
It’s important to match the new cultural direction with existing ways of doing business. Informal mechanisms and cultural interventions must complement and integrate with the more common formal organization components, not work at cross-purposes. By providing the structure in which people work — through disciplines such as organization design, analytics, human resources, and lean process improvement — the formal organization provides a rational motivation for employee actions, while the informal organization enables the emotional commitment that characterizes peak performance.

10. Actively manage your cultural situation over time.
Companies that have had great success working with culture — we call them “culture superstars” — actively monitor, manage, care for, and update their cultural forces. Why? As we noted at the outset, when aligned with strategic and operating priorities, culture can provide hidden sources of energy and motivation that can accelerate changes faster than formal processes and programs. Even if you have a highly effective culture today, it may not be good enough for tomorrow.

One of the challenges of working with culture is that it changes gradually — often too slowly for leaders facing fast-moving competitors. That’s the bad news. The good news? If you approach culture with respect and intelligence, as a milieu in which you and your enterprise live, you can use it to accelerate your competitive momentum. There’s no better time than the present to start.

I look forward to your comments and discussion.

Note: This post was adapted from a broader article on the Strategy& website.

This post was co-authored by Jon Katzenbach, Carolin Oelschlegel, and James Thomas

Carolin Oelschlegel is a director of the Katzenbach Center for Strategy&. She leads the global operations of the center and advises clients around the world on culture and leadership topics. Based in San Francisco, she is a director with PwC US.

James Thomas is a thought leader in organizational culture with Strategy&. He is the Middle East lead of the Katzenbach Center and an expert in culture and organizational topics. Based in Dubai, he is a partner with PwC Middle East.

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Jon Katzenbach is an acclaimed advisor to executives for Strategy&, PwC’s strategy consulting group. He is a managing director with PwC US, based in New York, and founder of the Katzenbach Center, Strategy&’s global institute on organizational culture and leadership. He is a best-selling author on organizational culture, leadership, and teaming; his books include The Wisdom of Teams (with Douglas K. Smith; Harvard Business School Press, 1993) and Leading Outside the Lines (with Zia Khan; Jossey-Bass, 2010).

Please note: I reserve the right to delete comments that are offensive or off-topic.

  • Graham Bruce Williams

    Wise counsel Jon. (I still regularly refer to your Wisdom of Teams which has stood the test of time and many other theories). I find that anecdote circles, metaphor elicitation and other qualitative change triggers based on story can be a very helpful technique/ methodology. Also may I suggest that mindset change and behaviour change can sometimes be a sort of chicken and egg thing – and in a sense it doesn’t always matter which comes first. They form a self-reinforcing loop. Great article.