100 Culture Change Insights from 100 Culture Expert Posts


This is the 100th post on CultureUniversity.com and it’s only fitting I summarize 100 of the top culture insights shared by the outstanding line-up of culture expert and guest authors over the last two years.  The purpose of CultureU is to positively impact society on a global scale through culture awareness, education and action.

We’re making progress bringing visibility to culture facts and fundamentals that go beyond all the superficial and over-simplified culture content. These insights barely touch the surface of the important subject of culture but hopefully it will spark your interest to learn more.

I continue to learn at a fast rate from the CultureU faculty and guests. You may download the complete list of Top 100 Culture Insights at this link.

Here are 15 that stood out to me personally:

  1. Culture is built through shared learning and mutual experience – Edgar Schein

    • Ed explained this in one of our CultureU interviews. I immediately thought it made complete sense and wished I had used that language over the last 20 years!
    • This insight fit perfectly with my experience clearly phasing improvement efforts and focusing engagement efforts in each phase around a top problem, challenge or goal. Groups are engaged through discussion, feedback and prioritization to capture what worked and didn’t work with each phase. These group insights are then applied to improvement efforts for new problems, challenges and goals that emerge.  This intentionally drives shared learning and mutual experience.
  2. Engineer ”aha moments” to shift underlying thinking and behavior. Change comes from an experience that gets people’s attention and causes them to stop and reflect and shift their mindset – Larry Senn

    • Wow…engineering aha moments. I love it! Do you need a CEO involved in understanding and evolving their culture? You need a “CEO aha”. Need a boss to get a clue about the impact of a specific behavior? You need to creatively engineer a “boss aha”.  I now talk about the show Undercover Boss and all the “ahas” these executives gain by being curious, showing a little humility, going to the front lines, and just listening.
  3. There needs to be results in some form for a new cultural attribute to emerge. Edgar Schein
    • A painfully simple point but critical for culture change. I learned through trial and error the power of focusing behavior change, engagement, communication, rewards and, most importantly, time on 1-2 critical business measures. We would focus tremendous energy on a “unifying metric” because I knew that positive feedback on change efforts was not nearly enough if business measures weren’t improving. Results in some form must precede the culture change and it complements the next Schein insight.

Don’t be fooled by the illusion of behavior change & think you are changing the culture.  Ed Schein

  1. If it is successful, and people like it, and it becomes a norm, then you can say it has become a culture change. Edgar Schein on behavior change
    • Ed covered this insight in a CultureU interview and added an extremely important point: “Don’t be fooled by the illusion of behavior change and think you are changing the culture.” How do you understand the underlying norms he referenced? It’s not from a climate survey (engagement, great workplace, many “culture” surveys”). They only take you so far if you have no clear understanding of the underlying behavioral norms and the supporting shared beliefs and assumptions. It’s critical to learn the difference between culture and climate if you are interested in sustainable change.
  2. Values must be translated to expected behaviors since we all interpret values from our own perspective. Richard Barrett
    • I learned about this insight long before CultureU was formed and I asked Richard to share it in a post. I have used the language literally hundreds of times since I first heard it from him.
  1. Diagnose the organization. Define the behaviors you have and the behaviors you need in a From-To model (from hierarchical to empowering, from siloed to collaborative, etc.). Larry Senn
    • I previously learned about the importance of focusing on a few specific behaviors. I was used to identifying clear cultural strengths and weaknesses but, once again, I was missing this basic FROM-TO language. Both parts are important. Ed advocates “stating outcomes in behavioral terms” and it can be just as important to gain agreement on the specific behaviors undermining effectiveness.
  2. Until employees see something more for themselves and have the desire to reach for something higher, they do not know how to articulate their desires or how to take the first step to achieve more. The greatest gift a leader can offer an employee is to see more for that person than he sees for himself.  I call this trait focusing on Super Vision rather than supervision. Marlene Chism
    • The part that made an impact on me was: “They do not know how to articulate their desires or how to take the first step to achieve more.” There are many ways a leader can truly help – listening, coaching, training, and, my favorite approach, intentionally driving shared learning and mutual experience. Many individuals will begin to copy successful approaches they are part of or hear about from broader improvement efforts as they learn the “first steps” to achieve more.
  3. Terrific, talented people reach their capacity to absorb change and they check out. Every person has their own “change sponge” that has a maximum amount of absorption. Both personal and professional changes decrease the change capacity. Employees become disengaged when they run out of capacity. All the leadership commitment, compelling cases for change and brilliant change strategies in the world are irrelevant if you do not assess and manage change capacity. Donna Brighton
    • Donna talked about this subject at our Ultimate Culture Conference last year. She used a glass and just kept adding water until it spilled on the stage as she talked about leaders overwhelming the capacity of others. I always knew about the importance of focus but I would tend to drive a tremendous amount of change that supported an initial improvement phase. Now I think more about improvements steps within an overall improvement phase so there’s greater focus on making sure team members can “absorb” all the major changes that depend on them. Water will still hit the floor from time to time but it’s due to me, the leader, and not because change capacity glass or sponge of others isn’t big enough.
  4. It’s critical to have sufficient energy, momentum and mass for culture change. Larry Senn
    • This language is so powerful for culture change. It’s one of the reasons I like connecting culture-related diagnosis to improvement efforts with the #1 performance priority, problem, challenge or goal of an organization. There’s already tremendous mass connected to a #1 priority in an organization. It’s possible to build greater energy and momentum as the organization makes progress on overcoming cultural challenges that have been undermining results or keeping the organization back from living up to its full potential. It’s great to hear employees talk about “finally” addressing a problem that’s been a struggle for a long time.
  5. Drive a culture of engagement in your organization by following four steps I call the Four Roots of Engagement:
  • People Want to Be a Part of Something Bigger Than Themselves
  • People Want to Feel a Sense of Belonging
  • People Want to Go on a Meaningful Journey
  • People want to Know Their Contributions Make an Impact

Jim Haudan

    • I really enjoyed this post from Jim. They are basic but extremely important concepts. “Being part of something bigger than themselves” was the part I wasn’t previously using.
  1. An organization’s strategy is determined by culture. “What’s there in the present strategy is culturally determined historically. That’s why a consultant coming in and saying you ought to do this and this and this often is met with blank stares because the culture that’s there strategically is only going to hear certain possibilities.” Edgar Schein
    • This is an important point for all top leaders and change agents. I didn’t think about this enough until I heard a number of stories about it from Ed. There will be alternatives and potential solutions that make complete sense to an outsider but they will be completely rejected by members of the organization. It further supports the need to focus on creatively engineering the “aha moments” that Larry Senn referenced (point #2) and to bring in diverse information and experiences to the strategy discussion.I experienced this countless times as a leader. Drama and uncertainty can slow improvement efforts to a crawl.
  2. Leaders must be curious. It supports a growth mindset which creates more innovation and agility. Larry Senn
    • I had the good fortune of completing some thorough interviews of both Edgar Schein and Larry Senn last year. It was extremely interesting to me that the one quality of leadership both talked extensively about was the importance of curiosity. Yes, there was discussion about what culture is, how it evolves, and many other insights I expected to hear. The importance of curiosity stood out from my personal experience as a leader but it was lost in the middle of all the other qualities I also knew were important. It now has a special place in my mind as I try to understand if a leader or consultant I am trying to help is showing any signs of being curious.
  1. Be Here Now. Be present. Stay in the moment. Focus. Pay attention! Stop multitasking. Stop what you are doing and listen. Quiet your busy mind. Yes, Be Here Now is all of these things on the surface. But it’s much more than a catch phrase and is really the tip of the emotional intelligence iceberg. What lies beneath is a bigger concept that, when well understood and put into use in daily thought habits, can create a positive ripple effect from home life to work life. Larry Senn
    • Three simple but powerful words. It goes beyond just listening and team members clearly know when their leader is not being here now. It requires awareness, practice, feedback and maybe even the implementation of habits or triggers for a leader to shift to Be Here Now mode. It complements Larry’s other insights about being curious and the need for “aha moments.” I asked Larry for one of their Be Here Now signs and I now have them prominently displayed at work and home.  I still struggle with this but it’s getting better.

              {Watch Larry Senn explain more about Be Here Now in the following clip.}

  1. Culture matters to the extent an organization is adaptive – “If culture is like personality or character, then it matters in the sense to what extent is the culture adaptive to both the external and internal realities. If it’s not adaptive, it matters a lot. If it’s adaptive, it doesn’t matter much, people don’t notice it, they just go along their merry way. So culture really only matters when there is a problem. In the same sense that personality only matters when things aren’t working right for you. Otherwise it’s just there. It’s part of you.”  Edgar Schein
    • How adaptive is your organization? Innovation, agile, and other approaches to drive rapid change are all the rage. Unfortunately, many attempting to leverage these approaches don’t take into consideration culture fundamentals. There may be some limited success but it often falls short of true culture change.
  1. We have not learned enough about occupational cultures. Tough future problems will involve building teams across occupational and national cultures. Edgar Schein
    • The example Ed shared was a hospital operating room with all the different occupational and national cultures represented. I also think about all the industries and the prevalence of industry problems that will only be solved if many organizations understand and shift the underlying cultural problems through collective effort. Problems related to hiring, diversity and inclusion, engagement, innovation, growth, the brand or image of an industry, and many others will be solved with greater speed and effectiveness if the underlying cultural drivers of the occupation and/or industry are understood. Associations and other industry groups need to understand the cultural drivers for their top industry problems and facilitate collective problem solving efforts.

CultureUniversity.com is an important part of the internet.  Ed Schein

I felt guilty that 11 of my personal top 15 insights were from Edgar Schein and Larry Senn. You’ll see important insights from over 25 CultureU authors in the summary of Top 100 Insights. In the end it made complete sense that two culture pioneers accelerated my culture learning curve more than others. CultureU was founded in part because the insights from the top culture experts in history weren’t clearly visible with all the superficial culture information found in social media and the popular press. All those simple tips, keys, and levers make little impact if they are not clearly connected as part of meaningful change efforts.

I am looking forward to the next 100 posts on CultureU and a more intentional effort to have our authors focus on solutions to specific culture and leadership problems that impact many organizations.

I encourage you to share this post with colleagues and on social media as we continue improve the visibility of meaningful culture facts and fundamentals.

Download the complete Top 100 Culture Insight List and share it with others. Thank You to all the CultureU authors!

Download our guest post guideline if you have important insights to share.

Like the content? Sign up for more…It’s FREE!

Our Privacy Guarantee: Your e-mail address will never be shared with anyone else. Education only, no selling of products or services.

Tim Kuppler is the co-founder of CultureUniversity.com and Director of Culture and Organization Development for Human Synergistics, a 40+ year pioneer in the workplace culture field with the mission of Changing the World—One Organization at a Time®. He leads collaboration and partnering efforts with culture experts, consulting firms, industry organizations and other groups interested in making a meaningful difference in their organization, those they support, and, ultimately, society.

Human Synergistics is home of the Organizational Culture Inventory, the most widely used and heavily researched culture assessment in the world, and the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, the premier organizational culture event.

He authored the 2014 book - Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. Learn from the very thorough culture on-demand webinar. He previously led major culture transformations as a senior executive with case studies featured as part of the 2012 best-selling book – Leading Culture Change in Global Organizations. He was also President of Denison Consulting, a culture assessment and consulting firm. He is an accomplished speaker and recognized as a Top 100 leadership conferences speaker on Inc.com.

His 20 years of culture and performance improvement experience includes the rare mix of executive leadership, coaching, and consulting knowledge necessary to help leaders quickly improve team effectiveness and results as they focus on their top mission / performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and share the latest insights across many experts. Email him to learn more about CultureU or Human Synergistics.

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

  • Kevin

    Thanks for this update. However I really struggle with the content being positioned as insight. Most of this is very basic culture understanding. All good stuff but contrary to your opening statement, very widely understood.

  • Tim Kuppler

    Thanks for your perspective Kevin. I have to respectfully disagree that they are widely understood or we would see far more being translated to action. It’s one thing to have heard of some of these things versus truly understanding them and translating them to action. Far more people are trying to work on culture directly, define strategy without any understanding of culture and other things that may be basic but are not widely understood. Thanks again for your feedback and I’ll watch my use of the insight word in the future. I am not a fan of the tip, key, and lever language that is so common but maybe some other alternatives are out there.

  • Kevin

    I am an organisational culture change specialist so perhaps, for me, this wasn’t very inspirational. I work with many large organisations on culture change eg PwC, Henkel, Oriflame and I can honestly say the rhetoric of culture change does not help with real client interaction. Critical to all client change processes is specific (not generic) insights. This can only come by knowing the client very well and involving them in constructing the framework for solution. I read your 100 culture change insights with a mix of agreement and amusement because they are very ‘typical’ and ‘generic’ in content.

    Here’s an insight for you:

    “Your required culture is probably not what your CEO thinks is required, especially if he is a different nationality to his employees”

    Anyway, cheers and keep up the good work!

  • John DeLucchi

    Thank you for the work that you do!