8 Culture Change Secrets Most Leaders Don’t Understand

culture secrets

I spent 15 years learning and applying culture insights as a senior executive and consultant across multiple organizations before I started to proactively reach out to top culture pioneers and experts to learn about their culture facts and fundamentals. We can’t learn much about culture from the popular press and most social media is dominated by over-simplified or incorrect culture content. Critical culture change insights from the top culture experts in history are unfortunately “secrets” to the vast majority of leaders. Other leaders turn away from the fundamentals of culture to more exotic and superficial solutions.

Edgar Schein, arguably the top culture pioneer, said in his closing comments at the Ultimate Culture Conference last year that we need to put the culture principles next to a good theory of change.  So what are some of the most important culture and change principles?

Below are 8 critical culture change secrets I have learned that most leaders and self-anointed culture experts typically don’t understand and leverage to improve results. Individual tips and keys have little use with a subject like culture so I’ll connect the explanation of these insights.

  1. Culture is built through shared learning and mutual experience.

Edgar Schein mentioned this in an interview last year and I immediately connected it with habits that worked for me to consistently engage my leadership team and the broader organization when I was an industry executive. The foundation of effectively shifting or evolving culture does not come from popular approaches like:

  • Defining values and “aligning” everything in the organization to them (even thought this approach is widely advocated)
  • Training masses of people on values and expected behaviors
  • Focusing on clarity and alignment, engagement, or other areas of the work climate
  • Focusing on improving a few systems like hiring, performance management or reward and recognition

Change efforts will likely include work in some or all of these areas but engaging leadership and the broader organization in a journey of shared learning and mutual experience is at the core of effective culture change or shaping efforts. Leaders can intentionally facilitate shared learning and mutual experience so improvements are clearly identified, captured, and spread to deliver results across their team in a phased improvement approach.

ed schein shared learning

  1. Don’t focus on trying to change culture. Focus on a problem, challenge or goal and how culture is impacting the related work positively and negatively.

This fundamental is consistent with insights from Edgar Schein and I, fortunately, stumbled on it early in my career. I was a top leader and on the hook for growth, profit, customer experience, quality, safety and other critical performance priorities. I also cared tremendously about culture and felt it would be a key to our success. Zeroing in on a top mission or performance priority and engaging the broader organization more extensively in this one critical area delivered results. It also accelerated the shared learning and mutual experience since it was also focused on a meaningful priority for our entire team.

Don’t create a general “culture plan” where the connection to the results of the organization is unclear or debatable. Engage the organization to a much greater degree on one of your top priorities so you drive the shared learning, mutual experience and results faster than general culture work.

  1. Results or consequences are necessary for any new cultural attribute to form.

Results will actually precede the cultural change. This important insight runs counter to arguments from some leaders that think they don’t have time for culture since they need results now and culture change takes a long time. Focusing the work on a top mission or performance priority will actually increase the likelihood of seeing results in a meaningful area AND supporting the targeted cultural shift.

Behaviors that lead to positive results will spread. Schein said these behaviors will not be spreading because employees were “told to” but because “they work”. I love his explanation: “if it’s successful, and people like it, and it becomes a norm then you can say it’s become a culture change.”  So, what’s a norm? That question brings us to our next secret.

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

  1. The vast majority of what you hear about culture is actually focused on climate. It’s critical to understand the underlying cultural norms or expectations that are actually driving the majority of behavior we see.

I like calling these expectations the “unwritten rules” that drive our behavior. For many years, I thought I was effectively dealing with the subject of culture when we worked on improvements related to our values, involvement activities, management systems, communication habits, recognition, and many other areas. Some of these changes had an impact on culture but I struggled to gain a clear language around the behavioral problems we encountered and our “culture” survey results had already improved dramatically. I later found that engagement and nearly all “culture” surveys actually only measure aspects of the organizational climate. The climate is incredibly important but gaining an understanding of the underlying culture is critical for accelerating change efforts and delivering sustainable results.

My world changed when I met Rob Cooke and learned about the language, measurement, and power of behavioral norms. People are bombarded by cultural norms at work. Edgar Schein once said that 90% of our behavior in organizations is driven by cultural rules. The basic language of Constructive, Aggressive-Defensive, and Passive-Defensive expectations or norms from Human Synergistics helps me deal with client challenges every day.

  • Aggressive-Defensive expectations such as maintaining unquestioned authority, outperforming peers, never making a mistake, opposing things indirectly, and many others don’t lead to sustainable effectiveness.
  • Passive-Defensive expectations also exist in organizations and these expectations such as not “rocking the boat,” making a good impression, asking everybody what they think before acting, and doing things for the approval of others may also undermine effectiveness.
  • Constructive expectations such as taking on challenging tasks, treating people as more important than things, and resolving conflicts constructively do lead to sustainable effectiveness for individuals, teams and the overall organization.

90% of our behavior in organizations is driven by cultural rules.
~Edgar Schein

It’s critical to move beyond the behavior we see in the organizational climate and understand the underlying culture. Leaders need to specifically understand how the climate and culture are impacting their work on top mission or performance priorities. The “key learnings” leaders gain from this understanding are invaluable.

  1. Define a “FROM-TO shift” from defensive to constructive expectations.

I first learned about the FROM-TO shift language from Larry Senn. The “TO” side of this concept is advocated all over the place. Organizations are defining values and expected behaviors but most have no language for the “FROM” side. I believe the defensive expectations I previously mentioned, both passive and aggressive, are the most critical part of understanding the “FROM” side of this concept. We need to understand these norms as a foundation for understanding beliefs, assumptions, mind-sets, and other factors that help to explain why they exist.

Some leaders consistently misdiagnose their culture problems and jump to conclusions without gaining any deeper cultural insight. My favorite example is a top leader that thinks there is a major accountability or ownership problem in their organization. The actual cultural issue could be driven by perfectionistic, approval, avoidant, oppositional, or other norms in the current culture that current leadership, including the top leader, is perpetuating in many ways. Focusing on the “TO” behaviors we want does not address the root cause of the problems we see on the surface.

Very General FROM-TO Example

  1. Repeatedly engage groups to define and continuously refine plans to improve results with a meaningful mission priority AND support the targeted FROM-TO shift.

Leader’s that engage their organization in defining focused improvement plans for a top mission priority and supporting the associated FROM-TO shift will dramatically increase the likelihood of success. The key is to move beyond general feedback approaches on mission priorities OR culture-related areas (behaviors, values, etc.).

Instead, engage groups in prioritized improvement feedback for a key mission or performance priority (growth, customer experience, etc.) that will also support the targeted FROM-TO shift. For example: How should we improve our new customer growth plans AND shift FROM perfectionistic aspects of our culture TO an achievement-oriented focus as a team? Far more explanation and sharing of specific stories, behaviors, and examples are obviously needed but you get the idea. Focus improvements on a mission priority (what) AND the targeted cultural shift (how). It’s also important to identify any positive aspects of the culture that may be further leveraged as part of improvement efforts.

Plan ahead to re-engage groups periodically to provide prioritized feedback on what’s working and what’s not after you make progress on implementation (typically every 3-6 months). Identify the top improvements to leverage what’s working and to address what’s not.

  1. It’s critical to adjust management, communication and motivation systems/habits to translate plans to effective action and shift the operating model.

The problem in most organizations is not identifying improvements that will have a positive impact on culture but implementing them. I am sure we all can relate to Edgar Schein’s point that you only begin to fully understand a culture when you try to change it. It’s far easier to engage leadership and the broader organization in defining improvement plans than implementing them.

Jim Collins said “a culture of discipline is not a principle of business, it is a principle of greatness.” There are three areas of discipline nearly all organizations involved in culture-related change efforts must refine and connect:

  • Management systems – especially the basic habits for senior leadership to define, monitor and manage strategic priorities, measures, and improvement plans.
  • Communication systems – especially implementing or improving the formal and informal habits for communicating the status of priorities and plans along with regularly obtaining feedback for improvement.
  • Motivation systems – especially intentional efforts to dramatically increase the recognition of team members that display the targeted constructive “TO” behavior in the FROM-TO shift and achieve results.

The lack of rigor in these three areas dramatically amplifies culture-related problems and substantial adjustments are nearly always a part of major transformation efforts. The culture roadmap below is a useful tool to understand and communicate the importance of connecting improvements to a top mission priority with clarity.

A culture of discipline is not a principle of business, it is a principle of greatness.
~Jim Collins

The Culture Roadmap – Systemically connecting improvements to a top mission or performance priority

[Download the Culture Roadmap and associated whitepaper at this Link]

  1. Culture transformation starts with personal transformation.

I love this point from Larry Senn. You can effectively cover the first seven “secrets” but your change efforts will bog down as individual behavior and mind-set issues continue to persist, especially with top leaders. Top leaders must gain an understanding of how their behavior is impacting the behavior of others. Is that “impact” constructive, passive, or aggressive? How are they reinforcing the current culture? What individual and team development efforts need managed in parallel with the overall organization transformation?

culture is an enabler

My favorite questions in initial executive interviews are: 1) Why is this change effort important to you personally?  2) How are you reinforcing the current culture and contributing to the culture frustrations that persist?

The answers to these questions may lead to important leadership “ahas”, as Larry Senn calls them, or reveal how difficult the journey will be to uncover those ahas.

It’s incredibly rare for change efforts to effectively leverage these basics. I interact with consultants and leaders across hundreds of culture-related transformations and literally 1 in 100 directly address these areas. I am currently in the middle of six complex projects where these areas are being proactively addressed and it’s exciting to see the results. Each organization is from a different industry and their initial work is focused on a different mission priority but many similar challenges are being encountered and resolved. These “secrets” seem common sense but they are not commonly advocated.

If you’re ready to apply these insights as part of your improvement plans and unlock the power of culture to support your purpose/mission:

  1. Define the purpose of your improvement effort and complete qualitative (focus groups, interviews, etc.), and likely, quantitative culture analysis (survey). Obtain external support if you are not experienced with this work or want to increase the likelihood of success.
  2. Engage top leadership to review the results of the culture analysis and capture key learnings. Define a top mission or performance priority (growth, customer experience, etc.). Develop initial plans to engage the organization in new ways to improve related strategies/plans and support a FROM-TO shift in the culture.
  3. Engage the broader organization and obtain prioritized feedback as part of the effort to finalize improvement plans. Define when these groups will be re-engaged to provide prioritized feedback on what’s working and what’s not.
  4. Manage the change as part of refined management, communication, and motivation systems. Connect any organization development plans to individual development efforts, starting with top leaders.

These insights are only a small part of what’s necessary for meaningful culture change and sustainable results. They help to build initial momentum and results necessary for any new cultural attribute to emerge.

I couldn’t be happier that most culture pioneers and experts are open to the idea of sharing their insights and collaborating to make a meaningful difference. It will take time but these and other “secrets” will eventually be discovered by the average leader. It will be exciting when far more leaders gain the confidence to proactively deal with this topic in a serious, diligent, energizing, and impactful way.

We need more culturally intelligent leaders. What culture insights or “secrets” can you add to help leaders make a meaningful difference?

The descriptions of the cultural styles and norms are from the Organizational Culture Inventory® by R. A. Cooke and J. C. Lafferty. 

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Tim Kuppler is the 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 thoroughly researched culture assessment in the world, the 90 Day Ultimate Culture and Performance Quick Start Program, and the Annual Ultimate Culture Conference, the premier organizational culture event.

He authored Build the Culture Advantage, Deliver Sustainable Performance with Clarity and Speed which was endorsed as the "go-to" resource for building a performance culture. 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 performance priorities, challenges, and/or goals. He networks extensively in the workplace culture field in order to learn and apply the latest insights from many experts. Email him to learn more about options to help you understand and evolve your culture with a direct and sustainable impact on performance.

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

  • Katherine Train

    A truly great article, Tim. You speak about shared learning and mutual experience as a foundation for culture change. I am fascinated by (researching and writing) what it takes to bring validity to the deeper layers of lived human experience in organisations.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Thank you for your feedback. It’s definitely a fascinating subject and can be an important leverage point for meaningful and sustainable change (if those “deeper layers” start being addressed).

  • Jacqueline Le Fèvre

    What a fabulous distillation of wisdom thank you Tim. Even though I am one of those consultants who has hung their hat on starting with the ‘values’ element of the culture mix I do agree that simply articulating a set of values and aligning everything is not the be all and end all of changing culture. That said I have found that where the values surfaced are resonant for people at different levels and in different aspects of an organisation, they can then be consciously harnessed to provide new neutral conversation (ie one devoid of blame) about how we want to be as we go forward and how we could/will support one another to do it – so values as stimulus for shared meaning making and framework for noticing what actually matters. Values + purpose + the mission priority you describe can then act as the axle around which the wheel of change can turn.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Thank you Jacqueline. I definitely didn’t want to come across as negative about the values alignment. I totally agree with the values + purpose + mission priority…I would add “= sustainable results / performance” (and, potentially, the start of a meaningful culture shift).

  • susanmrushworth

    As someone who hopes to put everything I’ve learned and observed about culture into practice as a fledgeling (in experience, not age!) consultant next year, this article was a perfect guide for me. It resonates with the most enduring insights I have picked up so far, while at the same time challenging some of my instincts and providing a way to engage results-oriented managers.

    I particularly like the emphasis on the FROM and couldn’t agree more that this aspect is routinely overlooked in attempts to change culture – witness my own institution who recently defined a set of desired ‘behaviours’ that were contradictory to those actually modelled by senior management. I didn’t find the mismatch particularly surprising, but I was still somewhat shocked by the apparently complete lack of awareness that the contradiction existed.

    • Tim Kuppler

      Susan – thank you for the feedback. Culture is definitely a learning experience for leaders and change-agents / consultants. I am glad the information resonated.

  • Patrick Trottier

    Hi Tim – another excellent article by yourself. Thank you…

    In my experience, until the top people (leaders? – very few out there in the real world) have a shift in their own ‘mental and emotional frameworks’ regarding what culture is and how it fits into their business model / business strategies nothing really changes no matter how many cultural analysis is done since they interpret the information through the same ‘lens’ that created the current culture that they ‘may’ want to change in the first place. I say ‘may’ here for a reason…

    This is ‘deeper’ than understanding, knowledge or education… ‘How we ‘see’ things is what we create’… change your ‘lens’ and one’s world shifts as we see ourselves and an organization in different ways…

    Anyway, what I am seeing these days is that the word ‘culture’ is the ‘in thing’ to talk about and maybe do ‘something?’… and many organizations are going through the motions the ‘expert’ tells them to. Few want to do the hard work and the time it takes… the hard work, IMHO, lives within themselves – not out ‘there’ …thus, the dance may change but the song stays the same…

    I am not sure that ‘culture change’ is do-able within traditional, hierarchical, ‘boxed’ structures of the scientific / industrial management age…

    Just my thoughts… Patrick of EODC