Changing culture starts with changing behaviours

By Heather Campbell

Cultural evolution is essential for the success of any organisation. The ability to flex and redefine culture underpins an organisation’s ability to future-proof for changing markets, different customers and new generations of employees. The right culture provides competitive advantage that can be consistently leveraged over time. That’s why senior leaders are so interested in it – culture is a true differentiator that can’t be copied. What’s more, it has a direct impact on the bottom line. In this week’s insight, we take a closer look at culture, and draw on a case study example which illustrates the intricate relationship between changing culture and changing employee behaviour.

What is organisational culture?

Aristotle said:

“We are what we repeatedly do.”

This is a good way of thinking about culture. While organisational cultures certainly do exist and play a pivotal role in influencing employee behaviours, an exact definition of culture is harder to find. Our favourite definition of culture is:

“The values and behaviours that contribute to the unique social and psychological environment of an organisation.”[1]

In simpler terms, culture is the way people think and act within their organisation, which results in a commonly held view about “how things are done around here.”

Why cultural change programmes fail

An oft-quoted saying in leadership programmes is:

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast.” – Peter Drucker

Organisations invest huge amounts of money and time in cultural change programmes, but despite this, research from McKinsey highlights that over a third will fail.[2] Why? Because people simply cannot or will not change their behaviour. Without long-lasting behavioural change, no cultural change initiative can succeed.

But why is it so difficult to get people to change what they do?

A symbiotic relationship

As behaviours are a significant component of culture, every time we ask people to change behaviours, we are impacting some element of the culture. But the extent to which people will change their behaviour is limited by the prevailing culture. Herein lies a powerful symbiotic relationship that is often misunderstood: culture drives behaviours and behaviours reinforce culture.

Flexing a culture

Ultimately, the prevailing culture is stronger than individual attempts to change their behaviour, so you need a lot of people to consistently change before the pendulum swings towards a new culture.

Because people know that the culture is stronger than their behaviour, they need to feel secure that the culture is already flexing in a way that will allow them to demonstrate new behaviours and so be part of a wider cultural shift. Ultimately, this requires strong leadership and direction from senior leaders about what is to change and the behaviours that are expected. And it needs senior leaders to change thie behaviours appropriately too. This truly is a case of ‘be the change you want to see.’

Cultural change in action

We recently worked with one company where the culture was one of submission, compliance, and not challenging the status quo. This drove a specific set of behaviours in a key role – one where internal teams had to influence external business partners. Historically, when working with these partners, the internal teams did not challenge, provide feedback, or offer their expertise. The external partners had control.

Practically this meant that the partners did not always provide required data on a timely or even accurate basis. To manage this, the internal teams simply did the work that the partners were being paid to do.

This situation was slowing down projects and resulting in internal teams being unfairly overloaded.

Senior leaders wanted them to challenge and be more proactive in making sure partners did what they were supported to do. Senior leaders organised development workshops for their teams on giving feedback, managing conflict, and saying “No”. This was done with the best of intentions, but learning a set of new behaviours didn’t mean they would be applied in practice. Why? Because the prevailing culture was one of submission, compliance and unchallenging cooperation and the new behaviours were at odds with that.

Internal teams believed that, if they pushed back, partner organisations would complain about their behaviour and even choose to end the partnership.

Supporting behavioural change

To have the courage to change their behaviours, teams needed to believe it was okay to be more assertive, to push back and to ask for what they needed in order to work collaboratively. They needed to know the culture could flex to allow them to change behaviours. Once they believed this and started to work in a new and consistent way, they influenced the evolution of their culture as a whole.

To build confidence that the culture would flex, teams needed support and reassurance from their leaders that when they challenged, pushed back and behaved more assertively, they would be backed. This required commitment and action from the senior leaders. They wrote to all the partners engaged in projects to explain what would be happening, what to expect and that operating processes would change to make it easier for teams to work in this new way.

Progress and results followed.


If leaders want their investment in any element of people’s behaviour to bring long-lasting change, it is essential to consider what the prevailing culture is, and how it must flex to give people confidence to implement new behaviours. It is not enough to ask people to change their behaviours, or even to provide development to help them do so. Senior leaders must first take the lead in flexing the culture so that people feel it is safe to behave differently.

If you are interested in how to support culture change in your organisation, then sign up for our  eBook: Establishing a New Culture.

If you are interested in how to support culture change in your organisation, then sign up below for our eBook: Establishing a New Culture.

[1] This definition of organisational culture is taken from:

[2] The King’s Indian, Why ‘Corporate Culture Change’ Fails, and How to Succeed, Medium blog, 6 November 2017. Available here

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